Thursday, 4 November 2010

Can you hear me?

Whatever you think of Jon Stewart, his 'Rally to Restore Sanity' sticks an interesting question across the press coverage here of Al Qaeda's latest murderous plot.

Sure, that wasn't its purpose; that was more about creating a counter-voice to the vehement certainties that dominate US mid-term politics. Hence those banners:

"We could be wrong" or "If your idea can fit on a sign, you need a bigger idea."

Ho, ho. But deep inside is something that's more than just a parochial American, left/right, Tea Party/East Coast Liberal, Republican/Democrat thing. Take a look at this; it's part of Jon Stewart's closing homily:

"The press could hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen.

Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire. And then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

Ring any bells? Probably.

But what's it got to do with us. And Al Qaeda. And coverage of the printer ink bomb plot?

Well, this was what Clark Kent Ervin (honestly), interviewed on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, had to say; he was Inspector General when the US Department for Homeland Security was first set up. He resigned and is now a member of the Department's advisory council:

"We always tend to fight the last war.

Al Qaeda finds one vulnerability in our system, exploits it and then we close that vulnerability without anticipating what the next vulnerability they might exploit is."

Which brings us to the obvious question. Is the way that the British press tends to cover stories like this calculated to help us - citizens, voters, politicians - focus on anticipating future vulnerabilities?

Or is it - by raising alarm and fear and hunting for 'bunglers' - better calculated to ensure our political discourse and decision-making is backward looking and aimed principally at career preservation?

Take the Daily Mirror: its paper edition had the headline:

More Air Bombs Head for UK

Frightening headline suffering only from a complete lack of supporting evidence. It's almost as if truth doesn't matter. The Mirror website has the more restrained:

"Al-Qaeda may be plotting new Lockerbie-style bombing, experts warn"

adding it

"may herald the beginning of a new wave of al-Qaeda terror attacks"


"Britain could be among the frontline targets"

It could, of course. Or not. Without evidence, take your pick.

But what does this feel most like? "Holding a magnifying glass up to a problem" or "lighting ants on fire"?

And while it's vital, of course, that any security loopholes are closed, is this kind of fact-free, fear-focused journalism more likely to produce sound judgments about the true threat or decision-making that's more anxious to show it's across the last terror threat than that it's trying to anticipate the next?

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