Last night (22-July-2011) Frank Gardner, the BBC's security correspondent reporting on the terrorist outrage in Norway, speculated that the horrific attack might be "Islamist" inspired with the "al-Qaida" word mentioned. Further speculation then followed as to the likely reasons. Norway's 400 troops in Afghanistan were advanced as a possible cause why al-Qaida might be responsible. This morning (23-July-2011) the BBC is reporting a diametrically opposite scenario describing the arrest of a blue-eyed Norwegian as belonging to an extreme rightwing militant group who hate Muslims and multi-culturalism in Norway. Meanwhile, the Sun's headline this morning (23-July-2011) screams "NORWAY'S 9/11", and above the headline in red capitals "AL-QAEDA' MASSACRE. It seems Murdoch's Sun has already made up its mind. Terrorism linked to extremism of any hue is deadly, and reporting it responsibly is paramount. Churchill's remark, in another context, of "careless talk costs lives" comes to mind. Extremist groups of any kind are driven by hate. Sensational, inaccurate reporting stokes up this hatred to the point where innocents may suffer, simply because they belong to a certain ethnic or religious group. The humanity of the individual becomes irrelevant, and the hater may only see ethnicity or religion as a justification for violence or even murder.
In today's Guardian (23-July-2011) the extensive coverage is accompanied by their "Analysis" piece entitled "Who did it is unclear; jihadists suspected". It continues with its speculation for the possible causes for jihadists targeting Norway. It mentions, as the BBC did, Norwegian troops in Afghanistan, the printing of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Norwegian newspapers etc., as possible reasons. Credit to the Guardian for including the last paragraph, that mentions the possibility of right-wing extremism, which was "largely discounted by state security spokeswoman Janne Kirstiansen". The reader is thus left to conclude that "al-Qaeda' is more or less the only possibility, particularly since the title of the piece only mentions jihadists. It seems that the maxim "innocent until proven guilty" has been replaced when it comes to Muslims by "guilty until proven innocent".
These first impressions become so ingrained in many peoples' minds that they become difficult to dislodge by the facts as they subsequently emerge. Subsequent facts and changes to the story do not register in the minds of the xenophobic and bigoted. There are still millions in America who believe that Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as a result of distortion and lies by governments, and irresponsible reporting prior to the war. The total falsehood of that, as we now know, seems to concern them not a jot.
The way international terrorism is portrayed in the media leaves a lot to be desired. For example, why do the media refer to a group as Islamic or Islamist even when that group is operating in a Muslim country and targeting fellow Muslims, thus leaving the impression that the victims are non-Muslim? Why not simply use the name they give to themselves? A few months ago I gave a talk to sixth formers in a school in which I mentioned that more Muslims have been victims of al-Qaeda inspired terrorism than non-Muslims; there was astonishment at this fact.
For the sake of fairness and justice, responsible media outlets must endeavour to do better. Innocent lives may depend on it.