Since March, there have been three incidents where a man has driven a van into pedestrians in London. In each incident, civilians died. And in each, British authorities quickly announced that they were treating it as an act of terrorism.
But there is a sense among some Britons that the most recent of these attacks — a van plowed into a group of Muslim worshipers in the diverse Finsbury Park area early Monday evening — wasn't being treated the same by the country's news outlets.
At the Times of London — a venerable newspaper sometimes called Britain's paper of record — only the first two attacks merited a full front-page display. The Finsbury Park attack scored a far smaller headline, with the white, British suspect being referred to as a “jobless 'lone wolf'” and a “father of four.”
Another British newspaper criticized online was the Daily Mail, Britain's popular middle-market tabloid. On its website, headlines had linked the Finsbury Park neighborhood to Islamic extremism and described the alleged attacker as “clean-shaven.”
First headline from the Daily Mail is disgusting and intentionally justifies terrorism. They knew they went too far and tried to change it. pic.twitter.com/Uh67JA9wfx
— Shehab Khan (@ShehabKhan) June 19, 2017
In Finsbury Park not long after the attack Monday morning, young Muslims hit out at what they saw as a double standard that affects not only media coverage but also how the country more broadly deals with extremism. “This is just showing the hypocrisy,” a young man who gave his name as Ibn Oman told reporters. “The way they treat Islamic extremism and the way they treat far-right extremism.”
Britain's newspapers have long been known for their aggressive and uncompromising style, with the tabloids in particular sparking too numerous controversies to list. But in a time of seemingly constant upheaval in Britain, news outlets are facing renewed scrutiny — as well as questions about whether their once-mighty political influence was really so powerful anymore.
Both the Daily Mail and the Sun, Britain's two best-selling newspapers, had vocally supported right-wing Prime Minister Theresa May and ferociously opposed her left-wing rival, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Yet Corbyn was ultimately able to pull off a stunning electoral turnaround, losing May her parliamentary majority and political stability. Some have reasoned that the event showed that the British tabloids had lost their once-notorious political influence, usurped by social media and left-leaning blogs that often take an anti-mainstream media stance.
The media frenzy surrounding a fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington last week only made matters worse, with both the Daily Mail and the Sun called out for their reporting style amid a wider criticism of how media outlets covered the disaster.
Regarding the Finsbury Park attack, there are some understandable reasons that coverage may have been handled differently. The suspect is not known to have pledged allegiance to any terrorism-linked organizations, nor have any claimed his actions, and the death toll is smaller than in March's vehicle-based attack in Westminster and the similar attack in June at London Bridge and Borough Market, not to mention the Manchester bomb attack that took place in between.
More important, British media outlets are legally constrained by the fact that the suspect was caught alive, meaning the case will likely go to trial. Steve Parks, a former journalist, wrote a widely shared note on Twitter that explained this meant that many media outlets would now have to tone down their coverage for fear of influencing the case. “When suspect is alive there are strong restrictions on reporting so as not to impact trial,” Parks wrote. “When suspect is dead can say anything.”
But even with such considerations, the issue of media coverage of different acts of terrorism is fraught in Britain. For years, Britain's newspapers have been accused of writing unfairly about the country's Islamic communities, portraying them only for alleged links to terrorism plots and little else. Research conducted at Cambridge University has suggested that mainstream media portrayals like this contribute to an “atmosphere of rising hostility” toward Muslims in Britain. Another study from last year found only 0.4 percent of journalists categorized themselves as Muslims, compared to about 5 percent of the total population.
The fear for some is that constant coverage of radicalization in the Islamic community may result in radicalization against Muslims. At Finsbury Park, some locals worried that the way their community had been stereotyped now made it a target. “The point isn’t being tackled that extremism in any form is exactly the same,” Ibn Oman told reporters.
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