Were the UK Media Really Slow To Call Finsbury Park a Terror Attack?

Published June 19th, 2017 - 12:49 GMT
Forensic officers work at the scene in Finsbury Park area of north London after a vehichle hit pedestrians, on June 19, 2017. A van ploughed into pedestrians near a London mosque in early Monday, killing one man and injuring eight other people in what Prime Minister Theresa May said was "a potential terrorist attack".(Tolga Akmen/AFP)
Forensic officers work at the scene in Finsbury Park area of north London after a vehichle hit pedestrians, on June 19, 2017. A van ploughed into pedestrians near a London mosque in early Monday, killing one man and injuring eight other people in what Prime Minister Theresa May said was "a potential terrorist attack".(Tolga Akmen/AFP)

The UK just cannot catch a break at the moment. It is only days after scores died in a massive fire in west London, and fewer than two weeks after eight people were murdered on or near London Bridge.

And now, one person has been killed and ten others injured in another vehicle ramming incident, this time targeting worshippers outside a mosque in the capital.

Coming after three terror attacks on British soil in three months, there were bound to be comparisons made between the media coverage of those tragedies and this latest atrocity.

With the spotlight on headlines, many were quick to call out what they felt was an apparent reluctance to call a spade a spade - or, in this case, a terrorist a terrorist.

At 6am UK time, almost six hours after the attack, left-leaning newspaper the Guardian shared the headline “What we know so far about the van attack near London mosque” on its Faceboook page. Commenters criticized the paper for what they saw as its shying away from calling the assault a terror attack.

  

However, by 8am UK time, the Guardian had begun referring to “terror” with the headlines “terror hits north London mosque” then “Finsbury Park terror attack: one dead near north London mosque”.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, right-wing tabloid the Sun referred early on to a “revenge ‘terror’ attack” before apparently having a change of heart opting simply for the “Finsbury Park attack”. 

Much was made among social media commentators of early references to a “van attack” rather than to the assailant himself, or his possible motives given the apparently targeted nature of the attack.

Others suggested that the failure to focus on the attacker’s religious or cultural identity represented a double standard in comparison to the reporting of other recent incidents involving Muslim perpetrators.

It is hard to know to what degree the coverage of this attack was shaped by the nature of its victims. As some pointed out on social media, even when the perpetrator is a self-styled jihadist, it takes some time for details to come out and news outlets are careful not to jump to conclusions.

However, the fact that this conversation is happening means that people are questioning definitions of terrorism. After all, by its very nature terrorism terrorizes its victims, which this incident certainly has done, as this statement by the Muslim Council of Britain highlighted. 

Beginning to ask questions about how media outlets respond to and categorize violence can open the door to interrogating what role those sources have in spurring Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism. This is key, not only as such hatred is a scourge on British society, but also because such attitudes can arguably feed into the narratives promoted by Islamist extremists, allowing them to gain greater support.

When papers like the Sun post articles warning of Islamist reprisals for the attack only hours after the incident, and chose to use the quote "The war is starting now...", they please extremists from both sides who would have us believe that this is a clash of civilizations.

In fact, many individuals have already been calling for this act of terror to receive a similar response to other, Islamist, attacks, highlighting the 'radicalizing' role of the right-wing press and racist groups such as Britain First and the English Defence League.

Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling shared a tweet by controversial columnist Katie Hopkins, who has often been accused of Islamophobia, implying that the attitudes she and others perpetuate bear some responsibility for this attack.

 

 The widower of the late MP Jo Cox, who was stabbed and shot by a man associated with neo-nazi groups, shouting "Britain First" as he shot and stabbed her.

 

On both the Left and the Right in the UK, it may be time for a more open debate around how media narratives can serve to incubate acts of terrorism and attitudes of extremism, recognizing that extremists come in many forms.


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