The media and the massacres

As I write, French police have the suspected mass killer and convicted Islamist terrorist Mohammed Merah, holed up and surrounded inside a block of flats in Toulouse. Merah, who is armed to the teeth and is suspected of killing three soldiers and four Jewish people in Montauban and around Toulouse in three separate incidents, has proclaimed that he belongs to the terrorist al-Qaeda and acted to “avenge Palestinian children.” According to reports, he had apparently spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was jailed for three years for planting bombs before escaping from prison in 2008.

By Graeme Atkinson

So, there it is. The fevered speculation can end. What does need looking at, though, is the knee-jerking of sections, but not all, of the mass media, at home and abroad. Just as in the case of the massacre conducted by Islamophobic mass killer Anders Breivik last July, some of the reporting of the horrific bout of shootings in south-west France by the printed and broadcasting media has fallen a bit short of the mark.

Whereas, in Breivik’s case, the immediate assumptions of the world’s media were the grisly work of Islamic extremism, in the case of the Montauban and Toulouse killings, the media leapt to the conclusion, before anything had been confirmed, that the shootings had been carried out by someone with far-right motivation, an assumption the blogosphere quickly picked up and sprinted away with. With a few honourable exceptions like the BBC, the possibility that the killer might have been an Islamist extremist hardly got a thought.

Worse than that, though, was that a whole package of other groundless assumptions were taken out of their boxes, dusted down and employed with alacrity,and enthusiasm, not least the assertion, as one of numerous newspapers and media outlets put it, that the “Rise and rise of the far right casts a shadow over Europe”.

Evidence is seldom presented when huge assertions like this are made.

There is none.

If some of the media’s immediate, and then sustained assumptions, about the French events were misplaced, their longer term explanations – of a so-called relentless “rise” of racism and right-wing extremism – were even more so.

Reporting the far-right raises issues of what happens to “news”. For example, momentous events like the Breivik massacre, the murders committed by the terrorist National Socialist Underground in Germany and the gunning down of four paratroopers and four Jewish people – three of them children – in France take place, rightly produce universal shock and disgust and become the “big story”.

In those circumstances, journalists often seem to be asked to cover issues that have rarely been touched by their publications or programmes for the previous 360-odd days and which, through no fault of their own, lie outside their field of experience and remit. And, suddenly, they are expected to become experts on matters and countries about which, again through no fault of their own, they know little.

An indication of what can then happen was seen in the aftermath of the tragic Breivik events in Norway when a leading UK quality daily printed articles trying to link Breivik with the now defunct British nazi Combat 18 and with the long since dead and buried “Column 88”. As to the source of this, one can only speculate but the paper was clearly led up the path because, perhaps, having routinely ignored the far-right in the past, it had no knowledge on which to base a sound assessment. Additionally, all manner of “experts” – some real, many not – are wheeled out, some of whom are academics specialising in other fields, drafted in to add their poorly informed four penn’orth or to grind their own particular axes or to vent their own peculiar conspiracy theories.

None of this really helps and helps false assumptions about the “rise of racism and fascism and/or neo-nazism and/or right-wing extremism” to dominate the press, TV and radio. At the office of Hope not hate (and, before that, Searchlight) we are asked, every time there is a “big story”, for information from some of the biggest name newspapers, magazines and broadcasting companies in the world about the supposed tidal wave of far-rightism that is about to drown us all.

Our answer is that there is no tidal wave of right-wing extremism, there is no avalanche of racism and fascism, democracy is not on the verge of collapse and civilisation as we know it is not about to end but “what we can happily help you with is…

Hope not hate is here to help and we strive to be accurate. We will not present or give credence to analysis that does not stand up to proper examination. Our approach is simple. It is to measure political risks and threats carefully, the better to confront these serious challenges. It is to empower people, not to frighten and paralyse them.

The far-right is not an undifferentiated mass. It is multi-faceted and composed of elements whose relationship with each other is frequently one of friction: nazis, right-wing parliamentary populists, parliamentary fascists, organised racists, violent Islamophobic gangs, would-be terrorists and the real thing. This heaving mass of contradictory tendencies does not “grow” in a linear or exponential manner.

On the contrary, the entire far-right is best compared with a worm. It expands at one end and contracts at the other. In political terms, it has successes in some countries and its star declines in others. Thus, far-right advances in Austria, Hungary, Finland, Netherlands and Switzerland (where the right-wing populist SVP has sat in the government since the 1980s!) have been more than balanced by electoral reverses and losses, internal crises and debilitating splits in the UK, Belgium, France, Denmark, Germany, Bulgaria, Italy and Norway in the past five years.

Likewise, in the 2004 European elections, the combined vote of the far-right across 25 countries with a total electorate of 342 million, was 10,851,911 winning 52 seats in the 732-seat European Parliament.

In the 2009 European elections, the combined vote of the far-right across 27 countries, with a total electorate of 500 million, was 10,667,818, winning 37 seats in the 736-seat European Parliament.

Facts are stubborn and speak for themselves. That is not to downplay the obvious dangers but rather to attempt to locate them in a proper context and estimate them properly.

What we are seeing, driven by the deepest international economic, social and political crisis since the 1930s, is the growth of conditions favourable to exploitation by the extremists of the right: economic insecurity, mass unemployment, mass transnational migration and increased tendencies to the various kinds of racism, xenophobia and other hate prejudices and ignorance that the far-right feeds off like leeches with varying degrees of competence and success.

It is by bringing these factors to the centre of our approach that we can best combat these socially-destructive tendencies and sink them politically, encouraging communities to stand together and politically wipe out those intent on undermining them and dividing people from one another with the poison of hatred.

And, it also facilitates the best of assistance to the media and the public.