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Reassuring rituals of reporting

31 May 2013

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IT IS an interesting example of the power of the media to fix things into a timeless past by repeating the same stories and images over and over that I could not believe the Woolwich murder happened last week, when I sat down to write this. I have read and seen so much about it that it seems to have been something that has always happened, like the past in 1984. After 72 hours of bombardment with chunks of rolling news, your mind looks like the surface of the moon, covered in impact craters, and empty of life.

What gave the Woolwich murder its fame and penetrative power were, of course, the mobile phones of the passers-by. All of the coverage was filmed on them, and, without the pictures, the immediate bloody horror would never have had the impact that it had. But the phones themselves were not enough. Their message was amplified by the television, and then set in its canonical form by the front pages of the newspapers the following day. Almost all used the same image of a man with blood all over his hands and wrists, holding a cleaver that was entirely covered in more blood.

The Guardian's caption was disgraceful: "No one is safe." I know that that is what the man said, but it was not remotely true, and the only reason for printing it was to sell the paper by appealing to vague fear. Not even the Mail ran that particular quote on the front, while the Daily Express set everything in proportion by using one third of the page to show a picture of the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge wearing a yellow dress. The news story justifying this was that the Duchess is pregnant, and had that day worn a yellow dress.

After this barrage of upsetting images in the media, it was shameless of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to propose still further legislation banning "preachers of hate". We have perfectly good laws against inciting racial and religious hatred. Sometimes, that is what the news does, too. At a time when all the newspapers are facing financial ruin in the medium term, none is going to pull back from sensationalism just to improve the atmosphere of public discourse a little.

Yet, without all this news coverage, would there have been a huge upsurge in attacks on mosques, and reports from all over the country of Muslims afraid to go out at night? The only thing to hope for is that, if anyone is imprisoned for being a dangerous fanatic under Mrs May's regime, he or she turns out to have similar literary gifts to that other treasonous fanatic justly imprisoned for his seditious ideas, John Bunyan.

One of the rules of televised horrors is that if anyone behaves with heroism, we can expect within 24 hours someone to explain that this is a result of their theological beliefs (which, by coincidence, the observer shares) and their adherents' exemplary quality, natural affinity with heroism, and innate tendency to modesty. This happened with the Oklahoma typhoon, when an atheist teacher saved the lives of some of her charges.

At Woolwich, it turned out that Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the woman who talked calmly to one of the suspects, was a Roman Catholic. Sarah Rainey, in the Telegraph, got the quote: "Around her neck, she wears a small gold cross, encrusted with rubies and diamonds. She is a practising Catholic and partly credits her faith for how she acted. 'I live my life as a Christian,' she explains. 'I believe in thinking about others and loving thy neighbour. We all have a duty to look after each other. A whole group of people walking towards those guys would have found it easy to take those weapons out of their hands. But me, on my own, I couldn't'."

Her son, meanwhile, started a Twitter campaign expressing his feelings in a less pious way, with the hashtag "#MyMumisaMother-------Badass". But that behaviour is also fairly typical of the children of believers.

And then, sure as night follows day, up popped A. C. Grayling in The Independent with the inverse of the argument: the villainy of the villains proves that he was right all along: "In fact, the relentless drip of bad news about religion-prompted violence in the world shows that the more zealous people are in their religious beliefs, the more likely they are to behave in non-rational, antisocial or violent ways."

I don't know whether to be shocked by the falsity of this argument - how much non-violence of any sort makes news? - or to admire the elegance with which he leaves himself an escape hole in "non-rational", since, by Professor Grayling's definition, all religious belief is non-rational. So, of course, any religious believer in the news shows how religion makes people behave irrationally. And these are the atheists who mock believers for their trust in reassuring rituals.

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