Paul Coombs can totally understand why CNN could have mistaken him for an Islamic State supporter/member as he held aloft a black-and-white flag in last Saturday’s London Pride parade. “For the record,” writes Coombs in response to e-mailed questions from the Erik Wemple Blog, “my ‘very distinctive’ terrorist outfit for the day comprised of long black & white boxing boots, skin-tight black and white leggings, white tennis shorts, a black top with sequined shoulders, fastened with a fake diamond brooch, sunglasses and gold elbow-length gloves. It actually was quite terrifying.”
CNN’s much-discussed report last Saturday on Coombs’s flag didn’t carry such details on his outfit. Rather, it was focused on the “unnerving” development identified by CNN host Suzanne Malveaux: “Just in: ISIS FLAG SPOTTED AT GAY PRIDE PARADE,” read the chyron on the program “CNN Newsroom.” This scary “exclusive” came from CNN international assignment editor Lucy Pawle, who said she “came across” the sight in her routine travels. In her on-air report, Pawle said that Coombs — then just an anonymous parader — appeared “distinctive” in his black-and-white outfit against a sea of Pride colors. Viewers right away spotted the real story — that this creative individual had whipped up a satirical Islamic State flag festooned with images of sex toys. Following the ridicule, CNN scrubbed the video from its site and declined to comment about the incident, and Coombs placed a story in the Guardian about it all.
A day after the hubbub, says Coombs, CNN e-mailed him to ask whether he might have a moment to talk about his “ISIS flag design.” Coombs says he ignored the inquiry, “fearing that whatever I said to them would just be reported back as gobbledegook. They haven’t tried to contact me since and I’m still waiting for an apology.”
CNN’s hysterical treatment of the flag, writes Coombs, “could have had very serious consequences.” Police officers approached Coombs not far from Trafalgar Square, he reports, and concluded swiftly that his display posed “no threat.” Still: “I was told that the police had been receiving reports that a man in the parade was carrying an ISIS flag and were asking what they were doing about it (presumably this was CNN or Lucy Pawle),” writes Coombs. Indeed: Pawle reported during the CNN segment that she had spoken to an event organizer and the police, “who weren’t aware” of any Islamic State flag. “These reports were getting more frequent … and then it broke on the ‘news’ channel. Hearing via CNN that ISIS could be at Pride clearly put all officers on extremely high alert, and security was very much heightened already due to the previous day’s attacks on British tourists in Tunisia,” Coombs writes.
The experience has put Coombs in a very non-exclusive club. Fierce critics of CNN, that is. “It seems the only people who mistook me for a terrorist were the CNN news team,” he writes. Also: “This is supposed to be a major international news gathering organisation and NOBODY on that team knew what Arabic writing looks like? Or could recognise the flag of ISIS? Incredible … and terrifying. Unless of course they just wanted to deliberately talk-up an imaginary threat in order to claim a ‘breaking news’ scoop …” And also: “I don’t mind badly researched TV when it’s a daytime home improvement show, but this was supposed to be the news.”
At the very same time, Coombs recognizes that barring CNN’s editorial lapse, his Islamic State satire would have received a minute fraction of the attention that tumbled from the Internet. “Suddenly everybody joined together, all over the world, to have a damn good laugh, not just at CNN but at our most feared terrorist group,” writes Coombs. “It was awesome. I think everybody should give themselves a huge round of applause.”
Here’s the full electronic interview between the Erik Wemple Blog and Coombs:
Has the network reached out to apologize?
CNN e-mailed me 24 hours after the event. The e-mail read:
I hope you’re well.
It would be great if you could let me know when you might be free for a chat about your ISIS flag design?
I ignored it, fearing that whatever I said to them would just be reported back as gobbledegook. They haven’t tried to contact me since and I’m still waiting for an apology. Not that I expect them to apologize to me, but they should certainly apologize to the American people and to people around the world for broadcasting such irresponsible and misleading journalism, and lack of editorial integrity.
I don’t mind badly researched TV when it’s a daytime home improvement show, but this was supposed to be the news. If I google ‘first rules of journalism’ one of the first things that comes up is from Max Hastings, a former editor of the Evening Standard in London. He said that there were two responsibilities of news organizations: not to cause unnecessary alarm or fear and not to inflame public prejudices.
It raises huge questions I think about the nature of their reporting, their intentions of their tone and the authenticity of any of their reports if they can allow this to happen. Surely the first question should have been ‘Was it DEFINATELY an ISIS flag?’. Surely ‘thinking you saw something’ isn’t news. It was just lazy and irresponsible.
I do not blame Lucy Pawle, she just happened to report something she thought she may have seen and CNN took her word for it because it suited their hysterical approach to these things. ISIS at Gay Pride? That’s CNN gold. That their mode of broadcasting was so hilariously exposed is something to cherish. I doubt CNN will ever mention it again though, because it didn’t happen.
Have you heard from Lucy Pawle?
I haven’t heard anything from Lucy Pawle, and neither has anyone much as far as I can gather. Where is she? Although I do not blame her for what happened here, her recounting of the story does seem to be questionable. It became clear that she didn’t just ‘stumble across’ the parade as she claimed in her report, rather somebody tweeted her a photo of the flag and she asked where they had seen it. Whether she saw my flag first hand, or was actually at the Pride parade at all for that matter, is still something I’m questioning. Firstly, it is impossible to ‘stumble across’ the parade as the roads are closed and the streets are filled with thousands of people, visible and audible from quite a distance. To get to the front of the crowd on Regent’s Street and close enough to be able to see what I was wearing would require some pretty determined stumbling. Secondly if she had actually seen my flag and looked at it for more than a couple of seconds she would have noticed that it depicted something other than writing.
And then she denied ever reporting anything in the first place. So odd. I have no idea what CNN think of anything at the moment but by keeping silent they are not covering themselves in much glory.
What amazed me most about the whole debacle was that not only did Pawle, nor anyone else on the editing/broadcast team, notice that the images were of dildos, but that nobody could spot that it wasn’t an ISIS flag … nor indeed Arabic script. This is supposed to be a major international news gathering organisation and NOBODY on that team knew what Arabic writing looks like? Or could recognise the flag of ISIS? Incredible … and terrifying. Unless of course they just wanted to deliberately talk-up an imaginary threat in order to claim a ‘breaking news’ scoop…
What was the impact of their reporting personally on you?
In the moment, as it happened, their reporting had a huge impact on me and one that could have had very serious consequences. The police ushered me from the parade a few streets away from Trafalgar Square, the end point of the procession and where the main rally takes place. They very quickly established that the flag posed no threat, that it was indeed depicting dildos, and that I was the only person carrying such a flag. They then informed me as to what was going on. I was told that the police had been receiving reports that a man in the parade was carrying an ISIS flag and were asking what they were doing about it (presumably this was CNN or Lucy Pawle). These reports were getting more frequent…and then it broke on the ‘news’ channel. Hearing via CNN that ISIS could be at Pride clearly put all officers on extremely high alert, and security was very much heightened already due to the previous day’s attacks on British tourists in Tunisia. However, by the time I was stopped the police knew they were just looking for someone with dildos on a flag. Whether this was by their own deduction from simply watching the report or from eyes on the ground, I don’t know. I had certainly passed dozens of police officers without incident by this stage of the parade. The officer I spoke to suggested I should put the flag away for my own safety. This was his advice, not an order. He explained that it wasn’t a potentially bad reaction from the public that concerned him, but because the reports were making the security services edgy. One miscommunication and I could have been hurt.
Some might say that parading a flag similar in style to that of ISIS was in itself irresponsible and endangering to others, but, as was proved by the instant responses to CNN’s broadcast and the response to the flag on the parade itself, the flag was so clearly not that of ISIS that without CNN’s reporting it would have been but a footnote amongst the brilliance of the rest of the parade.
This flag was an attempt to highlight the ridiculousness of the ideology of ISIS, (in particular about their barbaric use of sexual oppression: throwing gay people from rooftops; the sexual enslavement of women; the grooming of recruits) and to stimulate some discussion about what we can do about it. Considering the enormity of the threat and the sheer number of people being brutalised and murdered, our response globally seems somewhat lacking.
It was important to me however that I did not try and mimic the wording on the flag as the words are not the target. It is the twisting of these words by ISIS that I am mocking. There are no words on my flag.
Did anyone spot you as a terrorist?
It seems the only people who mistook me for a terrorist were the CNN news team. But then I was ‘very distinctively dressed in black and white’, so that’s understandable. I just hope they don’t have to do a report from a convent anytime soon. For the record, my ‘very distinctive’ terrorist outfit for the day comprised of long black & white boxing boots, skin-tight black and white leggings, white tennis shorts, a black top with sequined shoulders, fastened with a fake diamond brooch, sunglasses and gold elbow-length gloves. It actually was quite terrifying.
Did you get any disconcerting emails?
The vast majority of responses I have received have been positive and supportive, which has been very heartening. I have been overwhelmed by the support actually, by how much people have warmed to the project and really understood it. Not just laughing at a bunch of dildos on a flag, but understanding and discussing the message I was trying to convey. My initial expectation was simply to make a small stand against the brutal treatment of LGBTI+ people and others at the hands of these terrorists, but for it to be expanded by people so organically and on such a scale was completely unexpected. Clearly this wouldn’t have had a fraction of the impact if CNN hadn’t screwed up so badly, but the responses that people made were just brilliant: all the spoofs, the videos, the photo gags, the hashtags #DildoISIS, #buttplugthatflag, I love each one. I’m still going through all the tweets to try and get some sense of what it was like to watch it unfold.
But that so many people became involved and ran with it with such brilliance was perfect. The fun people were getting simply by making ‘DildoISIS’ a trending hashtag, and realising that it really was an actual hashtag, was a wonderful thing to have had some small involvement in. It brings a huge grin to my face.
Suddenly everybody joined together, all over the world, to have a damn good laugh, not just at CNN but at our most feared terrorist group. It was awesome. I think everybody should give themselves a huge round of applause.
Did the coverage worry your parents, family or friends?
My parents were driving around France at the weekend and didn’t get back until Tuesday. When I phoned them it was the usual conversation of “…so how was your weekend?” They hadn’t heard anything about it. I told they should maybe google ‘CNN dildo flag’ and call me back. At first they were concerned, obviously, as all parents would be, but they also understand my work and my motivations. My family are fully supportive of what I do.
A lot of my friends were with me on the march, so it was good to have other people to share the experience with and the strangeness we felt: being so ingrained in something yet so distant when it just took on a life all of its own. Nobody really knew what to do except be supportive and together. It was a very bonding experience, for everyone I think.
I hope that everybody who had some involvement in that day takes something positive from it and maybe even keeps it going. By a strange twist of fate the world became wonderful that day.
As long as ISIS are still an effective force in this world we could do worse than to remember how everyone got together one summer to shout “it’s just dildos!”