Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Differentiation of Terrorism in the Media

In contemporary portrayals of terrorist violence, there emerges various genres and niches for the application of labels, trying to project some level of apparent understanding onto an amalgam of politics, history and propaganda. It's this attempt at "knowing" something; the process of presenting a theory and defining narrative that fulfils a purpose for an audience. There is a desire to feel that one "understands" an event, a person or a motive. However, the predominant linear-narrative based presentation of social history throughout the hegemonic media of the West lacks the capacity to deal with non-normative values and cultural positions. This is inherently problematic for communities who are currently or historically excluded from fully participating in society.

Two terrorist attacks were chosen for comparison: the killing of two soldiers in 2009 outside Massereene Barracks in Antrim and the killing of Lee Rigby in London in 2013. These events were objectively similar in important ways: the targets were members of the British armed forces and were stationed within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. They were attacked during peace-time and in public. Those killed were all citizens of the United Kingdom, male and in their twenties. The attacks fell within the definition of ‘terrorist act’ as set down by the relevant legislation.

The Massereene Barracks murders occurred on March 7th, 2009, when two armed men shot at a group of soldiers and pizza-delivery men outside a military barracks in Antrim. Two soldiers were killed and four others were wounded. The armed men fled the scene and escaped. The Real IRA claimed responsibility for the attack in phone-calls made to Samaritans and to an editor with the Sunday Tribune.

The location of the attacks in Northern Ireland and South East London

Lee Rigby was killed in South-East London by two men, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale on May 22nd, 2013. After hitting the soldier with a car and stabbing him repeatedly, the two men waited at the scene, describing their motivation for the murder with members of the public. When police arrived, the pair attempted to attack them and were shot and wounded. At their trial they were found guilty of murder, with Adebolajo receiving life imprisonment and Adebowale receiving 45 years imprisonment.

There were several differences between the attacks, in their modus operandi and the individuals involved. The Massereene attacks were carried out using two assault rifles, whereas in the killing of Lee Rigby, a car was used as a weapon in combination with a selection of knives. The individuals or groups who claimed responsibility are also different. The Real IRA has a relatively long history and complex organisational structure in comparison to the two men who claimed responsibility for the killing of Lee Rigby, who could be considered non-professional terrorist individuals. The Massereene murders differ from the murder of Lee Rigby in that a number of people were tried for offences related to the event but no successful prosecutions were made for the murders. (Marian McGlinchy was found guilty of aiding in the commission of a terrorist offence. She purchased a phone used to claim responsibility.) This difference largely stems from the actors’ willingness to be challenged by police in south London, rather than attempt to escape as what occurred in Antrim.

The Portrayal of the Attacks in the Media

By establishing characters, events and the “story”, the media provides the framework for the public’s consumption and understanding of an event. In the aftermath of the attacks, news outlets, government representatives and private individuals were providing statements on what occurred. There are a number of reasons why the media coverage from the two events were different:

The Massereene Barracks attack took place on a Saturday night, outside a military barracks on the edge of a town. No photographic or video footage of the attack or its aftermath appeared in the media. The geography limited the number of witnesses as well as prevented the generation of citizen-journalism type media. It was a different case in the killing of Lee Rigby: the attack took place in the early afternoon in an urban area of London; ensuring that the attack would be witnessed by dozens and the event would be photographed and filmed by citizens. Footage of the attack was aired across news channels that evening, with some warnings provided due to the graphic nature of the scenes depicted – a young black male, with bloodied hands holding several knives speaking directly to the camera with the body of Lee Rigby visible in the background in some of the footage.

In both events, statements from a wide range of political actors were made to the media. In that moment of heightened attention, the construction of a portrayal of an actor is first formulated – and it is in this situation that agendas are made public and views outlined. In the wake of the Massereene Barracks shootings, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said: “The contrast between those who serve the community and those who would destroy it could not be clearer. The people who did this will be pursued and they can be assured that they will never be able stop political progress in Northern Ireland".

Downing Street declared that the attackers “wish to ignore the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland and attempt to derail the peace process”. Peter Robinson, the First Minister of Northern Ireland gave a statement strongly condemning the attacks “[T]he events of this evening are a terrible reminder of the events of the past. These murders were a futile act by those who command no public support and have no prospect of success in their campaign.”

The Republican movement of Northern Ireland also came out strongly against the attack and reiterated the need for those who seek to achieve political goals will only be able to do so through non-violent means. Gerry Adams said “It was wrong and counter productive. Those responsible have no support; no strategy to achieve a united Ireland…Our responsibility is to defend the peace process and the progress that has been made to achieving national and democratic rights." Martin McGuinness addressed the attacks and framed them in a contemporary setting saying “that war is over”. Use of language like “barbarism”, “cowardly” by Peter Mandelson and “cold-blooded” by the Defence Minister John Hutton generate an image of the attackers; at one stage frenzied and at other times a calculated murderer, machine-like in their criminality.

A statement which stands out amongst these statements was Ian Paisley Junior’s comment which likened the attack to something that happened "in foreign countries, places like Basra…There are people who have been intent on murdering police officers or soldiers, or someone else, to strike home and galvanise support for some mad cause".

Throughout the statements reference is made to three concepts; firstly: criticism of the acts, secondly, those involved as isolated, “mad” individuals and thirdly, within a political and historical narrative of a struggle for self-determination. In the media flowing from this event, the focus was on the political nature of the attack and how the motivations of the attackers was out of sync with those they claimed to be acting on behalf of.

The Killing of Lee Rigby

Between March 2009 and May 2013, the media environment altered as new technology altered the way news was produced and shared. The proliferation of smartphones as well as changes in reporting dynamics may have contributed to this, as well as the very public nature of the killing of Lee Rigby in comparison to what occurred in Antrim.

Reaction from the political sphere in relation to the killing of Lee Rigby were immediate. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom hoped to portray a nation standing in unity against a terrorist threat, saying “The people who did this were trying to divide us. They should know that something like this will only bring us together…This was not just an attack on Britain and on the British way of life, but it was also a betrayal of Islam and on the Muslim communities who give so much to our country.” Muslim groups in Britain also responded to the murder, with he Muslim Council of Britain stating “a barbaric act that has no basis in Islam and which we condemn unreservedly.” The Association of British Muslims also commented on the events to the media and said that because of their behaviour, it "removed them from Islam, because there is [sic] no grounds to justify attacks of terrorism". These Muslim groups joined politicians in labelling the behaviour of the two attackers as violent extremism.

Some politicians also commented on terrorism and Britain’s foreign policy. Natalie Bennett, leader of the British Green Party pointed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the impact it was having on the perception of the country abroad and internally. She said “[if] we’re going to stop that happening again in the future, one of the biggest things we have to do is stop regarding ourselves as the world’s policeman.” This discourse about the spread of instability in the Middle East, along with the negative attitudes towards the British presence there took a lesser role in the media portrayal of the terrorist attack relative to other leading figures' comments. Rather, the primary issue considered by leaders was a reflection about the unity of the British nation and the betrayal of Islamic values.

Statements made by Protagonists

Claims of responsibility generally follow terrorist incidents as the attackers’ agenda is proliferated by the media and can promote their cause. It allows terrorists to justify their actors before the public, which is essential for groups who act in secrecy. Protagonists in both occasions made statements to through the media in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

Suzanne Breen, editor of the Sunday Tribune was contacted by the Real IRA, using a recognised codeword. In this communication, the spokesman for the group claimed that the pizza delivery men who were also injured in the attack were legitimate targets for servicing the British Army. The nature of the attackers’ perspective and how they viewed their victims was seen in the statement released to the Sunday Tribune that evening. “We make no apology for killing British soldiers while they continue to occupy Ireland. Nor do we apologise for shooting the pizza delivery men who were collaborating with the British military personnel by servicing them.” The language of the caller is couched in the rhetoric of a politically motivated group as well as how the group choose to identify themselves; the “Real Irish Republican Army” – Irish Republican – that is, an ideology based around nationality as well as a political ideal.

A claim of responsibility was made by Michael Adebolajo just moments after the attack on Lee Rigby. In a video captured by a passerby, he points to the deaths of people living in predominantly Muslim countries by British soldiers which compelled him to act. The underlying concept of ummah (from the Arabic for 'community' or 'brotherhood') underscores his arguments. In Adebolajo's statements, there appears to be a commuted sense of betrayal, hurt and humiliation from those directly affected by British foreign policy in the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the United Kingdom's participation in air-strikes in Libya on to him. Expanding on his rhetoric, Adebolajo states to the camera: “The only reason we've killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers…Why does that mean you must follow us and call us extremists and kill us? Rather, you lot are extreme…When you drop a bomb, do you think it picks one person?”. The words of Adebolajo suggest that his concept of social identity extended beyond traditional philosophies of community.

There are two narratives presented by the media generated from the attack. The first narrative was constructed by David Cameron. He stated that the actors were “betraying Islam” and Muslim communities; implying, that the terrorists’ primary motivation was Islam. The second narrative, laid out by a politician much lower in the hierarchy of opinion was that of Natalie Bennett. This second narrative was that UK foreign policy has a role in radicalisation and leads to extremism becoming more relevant to disenfranchised opponents of British foreign policy.

In David Cameron’s speech, reference is made to British foreign policy. But, rather than acknowledging the accusation made in the claim of responsibility by Adebolajo, Mr. Cameron clouds the issue, associating Islam and terrorism and portraying the protagonists as isolated actors: “Britain works with our international partners to make the world safe from terrorism. Terrorism that has taken more Muslim lives than any other religion…and the fault for them lies solely and purely with the sickening individuals who carried out this appalling attack.” The association made by Mr. Cameron is that fault for this terrorist act lies within a dogmatic sphere flowing from individual religious extremism. Flowing from the killing of Lee Rigby, a pronounced sentiment of government-led association between terrorism and Islam along with the individualisation of responsibility to isolated extremists is present.

Direct Contrasts in the Portrayal of Objectively Similar Events

Two events with objectively similar results were given different constructions by those in the political hierarchies commenting and analysing them. The social and historical context of two divided communities and international politics were repeated throughout the comments related to the Massereene attack. When commenting on the killing of Lee Rigby, it was David Cameron’s statement about working with Britain’s “international partners to keep the world safe from terrorism” that there appeared to be the greatest disconnect by Mr. Cameron between the terrorists’ message and his perception of the event. David Cameron framed the event as one based around religion, while the protagonists attempted to frame it in relation to power structures in international relations. It is only in Ian Paisley Junior and Natalie Bennett’s comments are made referencing UK intervention abroad. Even so, these insights remain sidelined and reflect minorities in political discourse.

In the aftermath of the Massereene attacks - the political statements focused on the aims of the paramilitary republican agenda of the removal of British soldiers from the North. The focus was not on religious difference, despite the historical background having a Catholic/Protestant division. There is a broad political consensus now that division largely stemmed from issues relating to sovereignty, self-determination and political representation. After the Massereene attack occurred, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness made references to the lack of a coherent strategy by the attackers in a perceived ‘war’.

It is in this differentiation that the contrasts become most apparent: the Real IRA were ignoring the ‘overwhelming majority’ of people in Northern Ireland. They are (1) an “army” and (2) acting on behalf of a disenfranchised minority. The men who murdered Lee Rigby however were “sickening individuals”, who betrayed Muslim communities. The Massereene attack was framed by politicians as a majority/minority issue and the killing of Lee Rigby as a societal/individual conflict. Political leaders' inability to clearly communicate what community the killers of Lee Rigby represented who is responsible for the killing of Lee Rigby and from what community they were from stigmatises ordinary Muslims and alienates further those who empathised with the attackers.


Within this discussion of violent extremism, the public framing of actors is constructed by government commentators. While the events are objectively similar, they are portrayed in a different way. Groups can be portrayed as militant and rational while another is presented as violent and irrational, thereby legitimising one with historical and social significance and delegitimising another as devotees to some mad cause. By misconstruing terrorist actors’ message, the reality of a situation is misrepresented. British foreign policy has a real impact on modern society, regardless of how political thinkers would like to ignore the perception of their acts abroad.

In an era where technology is restructuring community dynamics beyond traditional geographic and social boundaries, it may be the case that the modern Western conceptualisation of the freedoms of the individual and the limits on the state will be cast into doubt. The philosophical freedom of the individual to act in as self-determining way has reached its zenith when the concept of participation in armed conflict is in question. In developed Western countries, engaging in warfare is allowed and promoted, as long as it is against a declared state enemy. In an age of digital transboundary communities, non-nation state actors challenge the state's ability to manage non-orthodox threats.

This lack of self-awareness undermines government response to issues and threatens the progressive inclusion of minority groups into a well-functioning, healthy society. The media’s role in this dynamic is to allow the construction of government agenda and aids in the proliferation of a thematic concept of an actor. The effect of this will be seen in the way marginalised and disenfranchised groups behave in the future.

This essay was originally completed as part of the coursework for the Law and Contemporary Politics course in the final year of my Law degree at UCD. It appears here in an adapted format.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Stand.ie's 8x8 Festival

Focusing on development issues inside and outside of Ireland, the 8x8 Festival hopes to shed greater light on the structures and challenges experienced by people as the world around them changes. With a range of events occurring across campuses around Ireland, including workshops with film makers and photojournalists, photography exhibitions and film screenings the event aims to provide a new perspective on dominant narratives surrounding development.

The photography exhibition pictured above is in place outside the Berkeley Library in Trinity College, Dublin from the 6th to the Friday, the 10th of October. The selection includes photographs from Marcus Bleasdale, Jim Xu and Sally Hayden and will also be on display in other universities on later dates.

More information is available on the festival website.

I was asked by Gráinne Carley of Suas to participate in a working group for the selection and organisation of some aspects of this festival. I would like to thank her for including me in this project; it has given me far more than I could ever hope to contribute.