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9 September 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:14am

No burning issue

Freedoms of speech do not excuse giving the largest soapbox to the most egregious orator.

By Patrick Osgood

The last few weeks have seen more ink spilled over the ill-conceived conflagration of a couple of hundred Qurans than is probably contained within the books themselves, and the media machine shows no signs of letting up.

The chief target of this stupid act of vandalism is Al-Qaeda, a group whose paid-up membership in the coalition’s chief battleground is apparently not much larger than the pathetic congregation of their bibliographic tormentors.

News of the Quran burning – to be held at the at the inaptly-named Dove World Outreach Centre, Gainesville, Florida – has been met with several similarly ill-attended protests, most notably in Kabul, Afghanistan. Counter-protestors have burned the US flag (as usual), and an effigy of ‘Reverend’ Terry Jones, a man of improbable moustache and abhorrent attire and ‘mastermind’ of the burning. Reuters reports that more spectacles of this sort are likely to follow throughout Europe.

This inverse pyramid of events can only built on so paltry a foundation by a global news media that dredges for the most pathetic actions of the most dismal fringe actors and then seeks to shape an entire discourse around them. Thanks to the Ponzi mores of the world’s 24-hour news media, we can mark the end of 9/11 anniversaries’ exemption from America’s rabid religious-cum-political discourse. If coverage continues we may also witness an eruption of violence not seen since the barbarous reaction by several mobs of Muslim men to a Danish cartoon.

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Meanwhile, millions of words – many of them ensconced in the vocabulary of “offence” “insensitivity” “freedom” and so on – have been uttered over a planning application for the erection of a community centre/Mosque/whatever on a bustling commercial street in lower Manhattan, New York that is unlikely to ever come to fruition unless a Fox shareholder foots the bill.

These events share two common factors. The first is their parochialism: before mid-term election season and the tenth anniversary of 9/11, each story would only would prick the ears of a provincial news editor. The second was best put by James Joyce of his young artist, for whom “the preacher’s knife had probed deeply into his disclosed conscience”. Today, our respected news outlets give preachers’ barbs their reach, successfully putting the ‘International’ in ‘International-Burn-A-Koran-Day’.

If – rather than encouraging Jones by reporting on the wacky schemes from his Jesus shed – the media moved on, Jones will simply go away.

Instead, increasing news coverage of Jones and the “Ground-Zero mosque” has had a Wonderbra effect, pushing two otherwise uninspiring bagatelles together, up and out, to form a putative cleavage of civilizations. A report in today’s Telegraph is a typical example of the self-reinforcing nature of this story:

It is feared the event at the Dove World Outreach Centre, an evangelical church in Gainesville, will put the lives of coalition forces serving in Afghanistan at risk and inflame religious tensions worldwide.

Between ‘the’ and ‘event’ above, we should insert ‘mediation of’, and divide culpability for the lives put at risk and ‘religious tension inflamed’ (whatever that means, presumably riots and the like) accordingly. Instead, commentators deride the pastor without questioning their collective role in his rise to to the international stage. The BBC website also conforms to Godwin’s Law to lend the prospect of this squalid little episode some ‘context’.

Fevered coverage of these non-stories has also required a menagerie of luminaries from Barack Obama through Ban Ki-Moon to Angela Merkel debase their high offices by denouncing a congregation too small to put on an American football game.

Sadly, the media circus has now gone far enough in its invention of a crisis in the ‘culture war‘ to endanger service personnel and retard the progress (and thereby conclusion) of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

No doubt that, should someone be killed as a result of this wretched incident, a few dozen camera crews will be there to cover it too. And so on.

Orwell, in reference to the politicization of literature through the 1930s, wrote “What books were about seemed so urgently important that the way they were written seemed almost insignificant.” The news media may do well to take account of their effect on events before conflating freedom of speech with a premise that the largest soapbox be given to the most egregious orator.