Not Saussure

October 10, 2006

News values and fear

Filed under: Blogroll, Panic, press, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 10:20 pm

Rachel writes about a curiously little-reported incident in which two men who apparently have connections with the BNP have been charged with various offences under the Explosive Substances Act 1883; quite a lot of explosive substances if the allegations are proved.

She’s asked around about why it wasn’t more widely covered, and the answer seems to be that the nationals were rather caught on the hop; ‘The local press picked up on it, then the weekend happened, by which time the arrests were less newsworthy,’ though the BBC will cover the preliminary hearing on October 23rd. And, of course, the fact that the two men were charged almost immediately rather than held for several days means that the sub judice rules kick in, so — quite properly — there’s not a lot that can be reported.

Rachel considers, though, why it didn’t create more of a media stir compared with what would doubtless have happened had they been two Muslims. So does Matthew Carr, in The First Post, who picked up the story today; as he says,

It is not difficult to imagine what the response might have been had two Muslims been involved. There would have been banner headlines, police statements celebrating the prevention of another apocalyptic plot, suggestions of a wider conspiracy with nebulous ‘linkages’ to al-Qaeda. There would have been a collective shudder at another averted outrage, experts holding forth on the dangers of dirty bombs and homemade WMD. There would have been warnings of the ongoing threat to our ‘values’. Above all, there would have been fear, all of it magnified by a credulous media, fed by inside information from nameless intelligence sources.

He draws attention to a similar reporting phenomenon in the US

where the media and the US government regularly proclaim alleged Islamic ‘sleeper cells’ as confirmation of a vast terrorist conspiracy, while passing over the arrests of men such as ‘Doc Chaos’, a self-professed ‘anarchist-terrorist’ who was arrested with large quantities of lethal chemicals in March 2003.

That same year, William Joseph Krar, a Texan white supremacist, was arrested in possession of a lethal arsenal, including a homemade cyanide bomb. Between them both men possessed more deadly chemicals than have been discovered in the whole of Iraq, yet both cases passed virtually unmentioned in the US media.

Like Rachel, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy by the press; in part, as I said, it’s just the way the story developed. I think, too, though, that press narratives in some ways generate themselves as they develop; anything that appears connected with Islamic extremism gets reported that way, and things that might seem equally newsworthy get sidelined because they don’t fit the particular narrative. Our world picture is pretty much mediated by what we see and read in the press; I was struck, when I lived in California for a couple of years in the 1980s, how we in the UK managed to miss out on being scared about herpes, for example, or at least we missed out being as scared as were the Americans. This was because, as far as I could make out, shortly after the British press picked up on herpes, a year or so after the Americans started reading about it, the much bigger story of AIDS came along.

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