Ian Burrell: The Woolwich story broke quickly – but the press managed to keep it together

 

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Britain's most senior police officer, stood up in front of a room full of many of the most powerful figures in the British press last Wednesday and delivered a serious message.

The news media, along with the London police force, shared a common challenge in serving a fast-changing population of already remarkable cultural diversity. "You must find ways to speak to all Londoners," he said in his broad Yorkshire accent.

The topic was prescient. Within an hour of the Scotland Yard chief giving his speech to the London Press Club in the ancient timbered surroundings of Stationers' Hall, his officers had been called to deal with one of the most gruesome murders in the capital's recent history. And the news media were attempting to decipher and relate a story of great political and cultural sensitivity in the helter skelter that now accompanies any big breaking story.

Whereas once the sources were limited but mostly reliable – national news agencies, local professional stringers – offering details away from the public gaze, now the story comes from multifarious online contributors. Some are invaluable (eye witness accounts, immediately conveyed), and some are hazardous (erroneous interpretation, malicious misinformation). Almost every small development now plays out in the open forum of social media, meaning it is subjected to further reams of attempted analysis.

Like the Oklahoma tornado that dominated last week's British news agenda before it was dislodged by Woolwich, the breaking story moves at frightening speed, a swirling mass of wind, clutter and debris.

Was it a surprise, in such a febrile atmosphere, that Nick Robinson lost his footing? Rushing onto the Six O'Clock News after taking a call from a Whitehall contact regarding the motives of the killers, the BBC Political Editor used the ill-judged expression "of Muslim appearance". Pictures have since emerged of Michael Adebolajo (the man with the bloodied cleaver), wearing a skull cap and standing alongside firebrand preacher Anjem Choudary at an Islamist demonstration. But Robinson blogged his apology for the offence caused by a phrase that was a direct quote from his source.

Around 100 people complained about the BBC's reporting and some 400 were offended by ITV's use of footage of Adebolajo, filmed by an eyewitness on his BlackBerry. An ITV news editor found the witness in Woolwich and brought him back to the Gray's Inn Road studios, where the film was taken from the phone on to the ITV server at 6.04pm. Twenty-six minutes later, after intense discussions, the footage was shown on the evening bulletin. It was the sort of nimble operation which ITV news editor Deborah Turness has encouraged (reminiscent of the user generated content it acquired at the time of the 2005 London bombings). That's why she has been hired by NBC News.

But some people didn't approve of the graphic content. Online, doubts were expressed about the supposed "contacts" cited by professional journalists, as if nothing was verifiable unless it could be searched on Google. The news media must feed a clamour for immediate information in an atmosphere of cynicism. This is where we are. Newspapers are broadcasters too these days. The Sun and the Daily Mirror hosted shocking films of the two suspects being shot by police officers. The Mirror's footage, taken by a member of the public from a high rise block, quickly clocked up nearly 9,000 shares on Facebook. Many watched the awful drama unfold via Twitter, and one eyewitness, a filmmaker and musician using the account @boyadee, picked up 16,000 new followers after a flurry of tweets including the observation "Mate ive seen a lot of shit im my time but that has to rank sumwhere in the top 3. I couldn't believe my eyes. That was some movie shit." His new followers may hope he is on the scene at other global news events that makes his "top 3", though, for the time being, they will have to content themselves with his requests for help in locating white chocolate and raspberry flavoured Haagen-Dazs ice cream and other observations.

While @boyadee and other citizen journalists won kudos (to his credit he refused money for his story), newspapers were catching heat for their attempts to tackle the story in the traditional format of print. The Press Complaints Commission fielded 73 complaints. The Guardian, with a poster-style picture of Adebolajo and a headline quoting some of his words, was accused by New Statesman writer Sunder Katwala of producing something which came "uncomfortably close to being the poster front which the murderer might have designed for himself". Simon Jenkins of The Guardian also criticised the media and politicians for giving terrorism the attention it craves.

Clearly the actions of the suspects, in not trying to flee but instead posing for photographs, suggest they were highly conscious of the value of the media in amplifying their appalling act. But how else were news organisations supposed to react, other than simply abandoning the stage? Surely that way leads to commercial suicide.

Taken as a whole, the UK media response to an act of almost incomprehensible savagery and confused cultural connotations was swift and helpful in supplying the public with authoritative information. By contrast, American-based international networks such as CNN and Fox News were slow off the mark in seeing Woolwich as a story with global relevance, rather than simply a grizzly tale of suburban crime.

The Met Police commissioner, when he was back at the Yard, appealed for calm and asked for time to investigate the circumstances of the murder. But, increasingly, time is a luxury the news media does not have.

Sir Bernard's presence at the awards ceremony was not appreciated by all those present (there was anger among Sun representatives – some of whom are on bail – that the Yard was lecturing at a press event after the force has arrested many journalists). But, after last week's horror, his words on the shared challenge of addressing the complexities of Britain's capital will have a deeper resonance.

twitter.com/@iburrell

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