The Norwegian atrocities demonstrate yet again the danger of jumping to conclusions

My good friend and webmaster, Jon Worth, has it absolutely right in his blog written earlier tonight:

“We have known for a few hours that twin attacks have taken place in Norway – an explosion in central Oslo and a series of shootings at Utøya, an island in Tyrifjordento the north east of Oslo where a Labour Party youth meeting was taking place.

Beyond that what do we actually know? Rather little, at least for sure. That’s indeed the position taken by Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg, who was calm and collected in a television statement (can’t find the video of it online), saying it was not known who or what was to blame, the priority was for everyone’s security, and people should remain calm. Spot on, and my good friend Bente Kalsnes who lives in Oslo agrees.

But what do you then get? 24 hour news channels start an endless stream of speculation about what may or may not have happened.”

And his latest update notes:

“Partial volte-face from BBC’s Gordon Corera from BBC’s Live Text? (BST to CET explains time difference)

2211: Gordon Corera Security correspondent, BBC News During the day, after an initial focus on an al-Qaeda link, the possibility of domestic extremism increasingly came into focus. The choice of targets – government buildings and a political youth rally – suggested a possible political agenda rather than the mass casualty approach typically employed by al-Qaeda.

Maybe you should not have been so swift to jump to conclusions at the start?”

It is always worth remembering that in the immediate aftermath of an incident even knowing what has happened may be difficult to determine for some while. Remember the initial reports of a “power surge” on the London Underground on the morning of 7th July 2005.  Or the misreporting of the man who jumped over a ticket barrier wearing a bulky coat at Stockwell Station fifteen days later (he turned out to have been one of the armed police team pursuing the tragically unfortunate Jean-Charles de Menezes rather than a suicide bomber).  Or for that matter the initial reports assuming that the Madrid train bombings were ETA-related.

Generals used to talk of “the fog of war”.  But rolling media with their desperate need for an endless supply of talking-head experts create their own fog.  I was in New York on 9th September 2001, sitting in a diner listening to a feed from one of the New York radio stations, when first one “expert” opined that the attacks on the World Trade Center could have been so much worse – “suppose those airliners had been packed with anthrax spores” – which prompted the radio station to produce another “expert” fifteen minutes later to tell listeners what the symptoms of anthrax were and what they should do if they started to have difficulty in breathing ….

This is not to suggest that the media should be censored in the aftermath of atrocities like those today, but rather that media editors and presenters should be responsible and avoid speculation until more facts are known. Maybe, given the excitements about the News of the World and the British media over the last few weeks, the idea of the media acting responsibly looks like a forlorn hope.  However, I do not believe it is an unreasonable aspiration.

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