Media: Protect and survive

Bomb attacks have given the minority press a dilemma
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The Independent Culture
THE PINK Paper, the weekly gay news magazine, hit the streets last Thursday with a front-page story headlined "Gays on Fascist bomb alert". Twenty-four hours later, an explosion ripped through Old Compton Street, the heart of London's gay community.

It was the one angle that the mainstream media had overlooked as it speculated, in the wake of the Brixton and Brick Lane nail bombs, about the next target of the war on Britain's minorities. The gay press, though, is all too well aware that homophobia is a staple part of the far right's ideology of hatred, alongside racism and anti-Semitism.

"We thought it imperative to warn our readers to be extra vigilant," said Mike Ross, the Pink Paper's publishing manager, speaking before a man was charged with planting the three bombs. "To many people in the community, we are like a lifeline. We are trusted."

Over the past fortnight, with their readers under direct threat, newspapers that cater to minority communities have considered it their duty not only to purvey the news but to play a leading part in helping to avert further violence.

After the first explosion, apparently aimed at Brixton's large Afro-Caribbean population, Eastern Eye, Britain's biggest-selling Asian newspaper, carried a front-page story headlined: "Brixton bomb: is Southall next?" Some accused Eastern Eye of scaremongering. But the prediction that an Asian community would be targeted the following weekend was correct, although it turned out to be Brick Lane rather than Southall. Sarwah Ahmed, its publisher, said: "There was a serious risk and people needed to take precautions. If we had to be dramatic to get the message across, so be it. We are a communal newspaper with a responsibility to our readers."

The Jewish Chronicle sees itself as performing a similar protective role, but uses a very different method. Its editor, Ned Temko, said that he was "unapologetically" prepared to engage in self-censorship in the interests of community safety. He pointed to the lead story in the current issue, published last Friday, which referred in its original version to increased security arrangements at a London synagogue where a new Torah scroll was to be dedicated last weekend.

"In successive stages of the editing process, we became less and less specific about where the synagogue was, and in the end we just left out the reference altogether," he said.

After Brixton, The Voice, Britain's main Afro-Caribbean newspaper, took the unusual step of offering a pounds 10,000 reward for information that helped to trap the bomber. "We wanted our community to know that we are on the ground with them, that we are as vulnerable as they are and that we feel their pain," said Garfield Myrie, The Voice's news editor. "Atlantic Road, where the bomb went off, is 300 yards from our office."

The priority of all these newspapers has been to inform and protect their readers. At the same time, they, like the mainstream press, have been faced with a dilemma: how to report a major news story without giving a platform to the fanatical organisation or individual behind the attacks.

Mr Temko agrees that newspapers have to perform a difficult balancing act. "The idea that you are giving publicity to neo-Fascist thugs is always at the back of your mind. But our primary responsibility is to report the news and warn our community. The only alternative is no coverage at all, which would be wrong and unworkable. Where do you draw the line? What do you cover and what don't you cover? And you could argue that this is what the extremists want: to place society in a position where it ceases to believe in the free exchange of information."

The other question is whether headlines like "Is Southall next?" can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whether stories about communities living in fear create an irresponsible sense of momentum.

But, as Mr Ahmed puts it: "The bombers don't need us to tell them where large ethnic minority communities live."