Islamic Human Rights Commission
BRIEFING: Language, media and the public mind – A case study of reporting of the ‘ricin’ incident
09 April 2003
At the beginning of this year police raids on a flat in Wood Green led to the trace discovery of ricin. Previous to this find, the media was found to be heightening public fear and tension by regularly propagating unfounded scare stories, making headline news without fail. Unsurprisingly ‘Islamic extremists’ were the focal point.
It was feared and rightly so, that the expressive prose used by the media to describe the potential perpetrators would cement the stereotype. Taking on board criticisms against the particular use of language when briefing the press, the Metropolitan Police Service explained to the Muslim community as a way of expressing the seriousness with which they board such criticisms, that this time they had specifically omitted the use of terms such as ‘Islamic’ during their press conference.
Praiseworthy as it is, especially as the effect was immediate in terms of the mainstream media coverage, it shifted and narrowed the focus from a general religious community to specific racial groups, asylum seekers and refugees. It was no longer the ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ of late renamed ‘Islamic terrorists’ that were involved in this latest scare. This same problematique has now been restructured to target a more precise community or type or people.
Both broadsheet and tabloids as well as the media in general were and are resorting to unpleasant stereotypes some with added disclaimers such as ‘But we should not penalise all Algerians or North Africans for this’ somewhere in the article as if it would somehow compensate for its content. More alarmingly however, some papers most notably the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph have taken a stance against refugees and or are also pushing to make a direct link between Asylum seekers and terrorism. Readers of some papers were asked quite literally by journalists to react with anger over what they had just read; a barrage of hate, xenophobia and chauvinism.
This briefing will deal specifically with BBC articles on the web as way of example. The statements and arguments used are typical of general coverage in the media. Particular attention is paid to articles written by Frank Gardner the BBC security correspondent.
In an article titled “Sleeper cells terror threat to the UK” on the 8th January 2003 Gardner refers to Algerians as ‘North African Militants’, ‘North African extremists’, ‘Muslim extremists… from North Africa’ as well as mentioning ‘North African terrorist sleeper cells at large’.
In addition, his terminology which replaces the word ‘Algerian’ implies that most if not all Algerians, especially those residing in the UK are involved in terrorist activity, thus demonising an entire community.
Reference is made to the bombing of the Paris metro in 1995 by stating that;
‘Algerians bombed the Paris Metro’
This is no more accurate than saying the Irish, as opposed to the IRA, bombed the Docklands in 1996 or the Baltic Exchange in 1992. Although this event occurred over eight years ago, and evidence has not been provided for a link between Algerians in France and Britain, it is immediately assumed that they are part of the same network. In addition there is no mention that the Paris metro bombings have since been widely reported to be the work of the Algerian secret service.
Gardner continues to push the argument by providing a simplistic rational for the very existence of the British Algerian community;
“The French authorities then cracked down and made large scale arrests.
One of the effects of that, was to drive a number of North African militants across the channel -to the UK.”
This makes three implicit assumptions, first that British law is somehow lax in comparison to French law, second that the British asylum system is so ‘soft’ that it would somehow allow ‘violent’ ‘Algerians’ to relocate in London en masse and third but most significantly, that the ‘crack down’ was indeed the reason Algerians moved from France to the UK. It also demonises the Algerian community in the UK as somehow existing only as the result of de facto expulsion by France. This is not borne out by the longstanding presence of the Algerians in the UK from different groups or none at all, arriving as asylum seekers, immigrants or indeed being born or brought up here.
Gardner persists “Now these cells appear to be going active”, again without justifying how the link was made. The motivation of these so called sleeper cells becoming ‘active’ is simply attributed to Osama Bin Laden. No basis is given for this statement. Indeed the term ‘sleeper cell’ itself is being used both widely and loosely despite its sensationalist nature.
The article ends with a race against time scenario;
‘Whatever the plans for its use, the police are now desperate to find out who else has it and where it might be hidden.’
It is due to articles like this one, that all Algerians are being implicated, a dangerous lead to take.
In another article published the same day, again with regards to the ricin find Gardner states that:
“Of course, one line of enquiry for the police will be of any political links with al-Qaeda, although investigations are continuing”
In the first place this contradicts the previous article which matter-of-factly attributes the activation of specific ‘Algerian’ terror cells to Osama Bin Laden the Al-Qaeda leader.
In this article entitled “Ricin find ‘very significant’ ” he describes those arrested as being of “north African origin, mostly from Algeria.” From this statement it is clear that almost nothing is known of the suspects, so much so that they are identified only as a race. This kind of disclosure is inappropriate and serves no useful purpose, for this reason its inclusion is entirely questionable.
The article in general talks of how dangerous the chemical substance that was found is, and how it could be used, stating that it is “the most significant find of poisonous materials in Britain since 11 September 2001”. This automatically connects the ricin incident with the horrific twin tower attacks, and insinuates so far an unsubstantiated link. In addition no poisonous materials were found in Britain on 11 September 2001 or thereafter making the reference completely misleading and inflammatory.
In trying to make the Algerians synonymous with Al-Qaeda Gardner goes on to mention that “Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have made a strategic decision in the last few months that Britain is a legitimate target for them. Interestingly the article, states on Gardner’s authority that:
“When the British government or various agencies have issued these often rather garbled, confusing and slightly hyped-up warnings about non-specific threats they are in a way covering themselves.”
The exact meaning of this is unclear. However the scaremongering used to ‘cover’ the backs of the government or any other one of its agencies imposes psychological stress and unease in an already nervous population. There is no mention of the psychological damage it causes, instead only justification.
A picture of a London underground carriage accompanies the article to achieve maximum impact, suggesting much as the article does, that every innocent civilian is at risk. The pertinence of the photo relates specifically to other terror stories circulated in the previous months relating to chemical attacks on the tube.
The last Gardner article to be examined, was published on 15/01/03 titled “Q&A: North African terror in the UK” a series of four questions and answers. It talks of a vague “international crack down on North African terrorism” in a particularly hyped manner. Multiplying this fear factor it refers to a “North African militant network in Europe that is believed to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda”. This projects an image of organised groups across the continent who aim solely to wreak havoc through indiscriminate mass murder. Again no specific details are mentioned.
Gardner answers the question “How do these terror cells show support for al-Qaeda?” by explaining;
“What we saw in Wood Green, in terms of the ricin, looked like an active operation”
By using the term ‘active operation’ an assumption is made that those arrested were in the first place members of a ‘terrorist sleeper cell’ and in the second members of Al-Qaeda. According to the police, so far there is no proven connection. To allege or advocate this to be factually correct creates an alarmist atmosphere which benefits neither the police investigation nor the general public. Further this statement is in stark contrast to Gardner’s previous article which stated that any connection is still a line of inquiry.
It is worth noting that the language and tone comprising the questions themselves form a context that effects the answers by shaping the direction they take. One such question asks ‘Why are Algerian or North African terror suspects living in the UK in the first place?’ Here, the question assumes the position taken by Gardner i.e. that Algerian terrorist live in the UK is correct, which, as argued earlier, is misleading to begin with.
Gardner answers this question by stating: “A lot of them have come in as asylum seekers”. The answer immerses ‘terrorist’ into the asylum seekers category and thereby apportions guilt by way of association. He goes on to explain that “The reason why a lot of Algerians are here in the first place… is that…the French anti-terrorist people really cracked down, after a number of bombings in the metro that were carried out by Algerians…”
The use of ‘Algerian’ as a generic term must be noted as it adds to the vilification of an entire national group. In addition the statement implies that the Algerian community in France relocated to form an Algerian community in Britain because their activities in France being illegal caused a crack down. There is no evidence to suggest an Algerian migration from across the channel.
Gardner follows with “Quite a few Algerian extremists sought refuge in the UK” Again reinforcing his point and now citing the term Algerian with the term extremist.
To reinforce his point made earlier, Gardner justifies his own claim by explaining that “Britain let them stay here because…” although they were extremists from France “…the authorities didn’t see them as a threat to the country” and further adds that the “authorities” in Britain “do not have enough resources – they did not then and do not now – to monitor all of them.” This creates a spectre that will haunt the public mind as it can never be caught, essentially this fear can also be resurrected on demand. It also implies that blanket or indiscriminate and widespread surveillance of dissidents or indeed ordinary asylum seekers is an acceptable and desirable measure, when it is infact a gross infringement on civil liberties.
To the final question ‘Why have they suddenly become a threat to the UK?’ Gardner tries to intensify the ‘Algerian’ threat by linking it quite clearly to the notorious Al-Qaeda;
“Some of these people have become extremely dangerous because they have subsumed into al-Qaeda’s whole psyche, its whole mindset. In other words they have forgotten about their own struggle in Algeria”
This simplistic rationing coupled with the lack of evidence presented by Gradner brushes aside complex reality and tries to create a valid argument based on a false premise, namely that the Algerian suspects are indeed members of Al-Qaeda.
Where before fears were a faceless menace in the Islamic garb, they now have Algerian features. Previously called ‘terrorist sleeper cells’ in reference to suspected terrorist activity, the term now has an added prefix, ‘North African’ or more frequently ‘Algerian’. Little evidence however, is provided to flesh out the allegations. A strong connection is made between Algerians who are grouped under North African terrorists/militants/fundamentalists and asylum seekers. The article implies that most Algerians here are allegedly illegal immigrants; many who were given asylum are known terrorist suspects who slipped through the soft asylum laws of the UK. They further argue that they are also in general somehow connected to Al-Qaeda.
Any inhibitions with regards to racist imagery used in association with a group of people, more explicitly Algerians, have been completely abandoned. A pertinent example of good practice is the coverage of issues relating to the Jewish community, it is difficult to perceive the media in any way blaming the entire group of people for the faults of a few. Each specific case would and should be extracted from the irrelevant context of origin. These arguments will and have lead to an increase in aggression and hostility towards the most vulnerable group of people already on the fringe of British society as well as weigh heavily against an impoverished migrant population. As 80% of refugees are Muslim, the stereotype affects them all. Journalists have again played into the fears they helped create partly through the illusion of impartiality.
The UN Commissioner for Refugees has already condemned the British media for provoking racial hatred and a report published by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) recently confirmed that asylum seekers are more likely to become victims of crime in the UK as opposed to being the perpetrators of any sort of crime. Reports that journalists have been contacting the police and asking for examples of ‘crimes committed by asylum seekers’ and that leader writers and columnists have been ordered to write damning commentaries is contradictory to everything that journalists and media in general should stand for.
Quite regularly over the past year and probably into the future, British newspapers have, usually after government and or police briefings, dutifully alerted the public about the imminent terrorist threats. There was of course the Nine-Eleven anniversary scare, the sarin-on-the-Tube scare, the smallpox scare, the “threat to public transport” scare, the Christmas shopping scare as well as the “London quarantine” scare. This type of psychological terrorism is not used exclusively by the press. It must be noted that politicians are also compounding the issues by using superficial rhetoric. The opposition in particular have used the media’s stance as a means to attack the government without considering the accuracy of the reporting in the first place. This has dramatically affected social perceptions towards a specific and particularly vulnerable community for the worse.
Although, there appears to be an overt use of personal conjecture and speculation in the reporting, there continues to be a lack of evidence and thorough investigation to support these claims. It is plausible that this focus on race issues is subconscious, however it does not excuse in any way from the hysteria it whips up -by the press itself. Journalists have of late reflected a desperate lack of independent thought and analysis in their reporting. A noticeable shift in use of language from ‘Islamic extremists’ to ‘Algerian asylum seekers’ has been echoed by all media. This move can not be ignored, since its implications echo and permeate all aspects of society and civil life. Whatever the case may be, there is no excuse for lazy journalism.
Assistant Commissioner David Veness Muslim consultation 08/01/03
please see http://www.ihrc.org.uk/show.php?id=247
Frank Gardner ‘Sleeper cells terror threat to the UK’ Wednesday, 8 January, 2003, 17:53 GMT http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2639625.stm
Frank Gardner ‘Ricin find ‘very significant’ Wednesday, 8 January, 2003, 15:44 GMT http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2636153.stm
Frank Gardner ‘Q&A: North African terror in the UK’ Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 07:04 GMT http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2659807.stm
Steven Morris ‘Press whips up asylum hysteria’ The Guardian Friday January 24, 2003 http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,881213,00.html
Simon Jenkins ‘There is no reason for Britain to go to war’ The Times January 01, 2003
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