Terror, Fear and Security: How the Media shapes the Agenda

It has often been said that people look for evidence that supports their narrative, backing themselves up instead of seeking the truth, in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, we can see critics arguing that there was a ‘blackout’ of coverage and others saying the coverage of Paris and Beirut were covered according to their importance. Ignoring facts, promoting fear and failing in their duty to better inform an audience.

As critics claim the media ‘blacked out’ the tragedy in Beirut in favour of events in Paris, and others suggest the media was just reporting on an issue that is ‘closer to home.’ We should analyse how the media has conducted itself in the wake of such tragedies as Paris, Beirut and elsewhere carefully, or risk consigning ourselves to the sin bin of conspiracy theory and tin foil fashion with videos that the BBC “doesn’t want you to see” or anything on infowars.


Paris 2

It is easy to get the impression that Beirut has been blacked out. The reality is that if the attacks in Paris didn’t take place, Beirut still would have received very poor coverage.

In the past manufacturing a news blackout – where an issue simply never reached the radio waves or printing presses – was relatively straightforward and this was mainly because the sourcing, production and distribution of news was more time consuming or resource intensive before the days of digital media, Twitter and 24hr news channels.

This doesn’t mean that blackouts are now relics that are consigned to the crypts of ‘old media,’ for as we have seen in the last two years with the Snowden revelations; both the US & UK governments possess powers that can prevent stories from being reported. The Guardian famously had to destroy equipment that contained Snowden’s evidence after the UK government pushed ahead with threats of legal action, including the use of a D Notice (which stops a publication from releasing content deemed damaging to the state or national security.) Ultimately these measures didn’t work, the story was still reported. As much as the US and UK governments can threaten espionage legislation amongst other measures, it is near impossible to stop the flow of information across social media and online news publications.

Parity of Coverage

As people argue over whether or not the attack on Beirut has been blacked out or not, we lose sight of the more important questions. Whilst Beirut’s tragedy wasn’t blacked out, it was only given on average, a fortieth of the news time that Paris was. That is a pretty stark difference, and it shows that blackouts are not as much of an issue as parity of coverage is.

Parity of coverage is the idea that two events of a similar nature should be reported evenly and fairly, rather than blackout news stories, stories like Beirut will just be given minimal coverage to allow media outlets to say ‘we covered it.’ Whereas in reality, these stories are often consigned to short run times on TV or short articles in the papers.

How terror attacks are reported is largely shaped by who is perceived to be the victim, who carried out the attack etc. Initially, when the Beirut story broke it was reported that the bomb went off in a “Hezbollah stronghold,” and let’s be frank, the media isn’t going to report on terror groups bombing each other. This so called stronghold of Hezbollah was actually a heavily populated civilian area and just like Paris, the victims were ordinary civilians, trying to get on with their daily lives.

In comparison to the 24hr coverage of the aftermath and the pages after pages of articles that saturated every aspect of the Paris attack, the single page in one or two papers and one minute on BBC News can make it seem as if Beirut was blacked out. Why the huge discrepancy in coverage? Surely all attacks are newsworthy? You’d like to think so, but the reality is no.

People who argue against the critics of Beirut coverage claim that Paris received more attention simply because it was ‘closer to home,’ but this itself is a worrying assertion, one which smacks of privilege and racism. The argument being, because the western world is our home, and Beirut isn’t, the west ought to take precedence.

Terror attacks are far more regular in the Middle East than they are in Europe. Yet the amount of coverage they receive is always minimal. Weather reports are longer than the time allotted for reports on terror attacks that occur in the Middle East. Why do western white lives matter more than Arab lives?

A Clash of Civilisations

Hollande was very quick to call the horrible events that transpired last weekend as “an attack on our way of life!” Which feeds into a narrative that has been developing for a long time in Europe but also across the West, that these attacks herald the ‘clash of civilisations.’ In one corner, the advanced, sophisticated and cultured western countries and in the other corner, the Muslim world, dirty, bloodied, the Barbarians at the gates. It’s a narrative that wilfully promotes Islamophobia and racism, which, as the refugee crisis unfolds, shows the Europe of today to be scarily similar to the Europe of 1940, when many countries refused to accept Jewish migrants fleeing Nazi rule.

Now, after the largest terror attack in the western world since 9/11; the media is full of columns, articles and editorials claiming that our time of peace is over, and that we all need to rally behind France and against terror in order to protect our way of life. In the UK, the media has been taking a hatchet to Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to military intervention in Syria and his ongoing opposition to controversial ‘Shoot to Kill’ policing tactics. The UK media has manufactured a consensus where someone who thinks people should be tried by a jury instead of being wiped out by a Predator Drone, is deemed a mad hard left communist. The reasonable ‘moderates’ are labelled as such when they agree to allow police to shoot to kill, and decide that the solution to a terror crisis started by the bombing of an entire region over two decades, can be solved with more bombs.

Because this is a war between civilisations, and not rather the chickens from decades of regime change, bombings & dictatorships that have been carried out and managed by western powers, coming home to roost! This terror that has ‘came home’ is the result of years of war and bloodshed that has become western foreign policy and the daily struggle of many Arabs. We expect terror and bloodshed in the middle east, so it terrifies us when ISIS deliver it closer to home.

Framing the Debate

peace with quiet

Once rivals, western powers and Russia are now united in bombarding Syria. Before Russia committed to sharing intelligence with the US, its very own terror attack was largely ignored by a western media that is only concerned with supporting the ideological viewpoint of western imperialism’s allies.

Terrorist attacks are always a source of great tragedy, but the greater tragedy is when victimhood is abused to advance other interests. In saturating cyberspace and headlines with personal tragedy stories, the media fosters the sympathy that exists for victims and holds them spellbound, as stories of weapons company stock prices rising and Hollande attempting to push authoritarian changes to the French constitution go under-analysed, if reported at all. In this supposed ‘clash of civilisations,’ Islam is a threat to our way of life. But the media ignores that the biggest threat to our way of life at the moment is actually our own governments, as they wilfully use this moment of tragedy to push tougher surveillance legislation, or declare national emergencies like they have in France, which look set to cut across the largest climate change protest in living memory later this month, as well as other protest movements.

As it weaves a tapestry of emotion and raw tragedy, which is great for TV ratings and website views, the media is preparing the ground for a call to arms. The incestuous relationship between a middle class, privately educated, media elite and their political counterparts has left a vacuum where scrutiny once stood and instead has been replaced with the rhetoric of national security. A rhetoric that has allowed governments to carry out endless, bloody interventions into the middle east for over two decades, whilst drowning out the voices of the many people opposed to war.

Media commentators say the peace is over. They have confused peace with quiet.

Tyler McNally is the Editor of The Last Round, you can follow him on Twitter here.