They are astonishing pictures by any standards. From the moment the terrorists struck, in London and Glasgow, what happened was filmed – not by the press or the police, but by members of the public who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Ordinary people are driving media coverage as never before – but at what price? A combination of pictures taken by the public, and the voracious appetite of 24 hour news channels and now newspaper websites, means these iconic images are often published within minutes. The days when police could bargain with broadcasters over their effects on community relations, or the police investigation, or public understanding of what’s happening, are passed.
The phenomenon of the citizen journalist covering terrorist events emerged after the 7/7 attacks in London two years ago. But the public response then was as nothing compared with the response this time. Technology has moved on. Nearly all of us now have a mobile phone with and in-built camera. The BBC alone was emailed more than 70 pictures of the burning Jeep in Glasgow, filmed by passers by.
In 2005 the police were slow to grasp the implications of this – they took days after the London bombings to appeal for photographs and video pictures. Not so this time. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Unit was promoting the anti-terrorist hotline number within hours of the car bomb attempts in London, appealing in his understated way for people to send their pictures not to the press but to Scotland Yard.
Not surprising when you look at the detail in some of these pictures. They clearly contain critical evidence, capturing the actual, breaking story – the Jeep on fire, the driver writhing from his burns being sprayed with water by an off-duty police man, the dramatic late-night arrests on the M6 motorway, the close up images of the components of the home-made bomb next to the Mercedes outside the London night club.
The police operation
Of course it’s a problem – not just because these pictures could be giving away vital clues, such as the recipe for a home made bomb for example – but because they destroy that element of surprise so critical to police involved in a follow-up operation like the one they are involved in now, tracking those behind the failed attacks.
But the events of the past few days have also revealed how the police are becoming adept at turning the media coverage to their advantage. While we were engrossed in the chillingly dramatic pictures from Glasgow, police sources were playing down links with the London attacks. We now know the London trail had actually led them to Glasgow before the attack there even took place – they were clearly buying time as they continued the hunt for suspects, exploiting the fact that 24 hour news channels will run with speculation in the immediate aftermath of an event as they attempt to fill long hours of airtime.
The effect on analysis
The speed at which terrorist incidents are now reported, and the thirst for breaking news, does seem to have had a detrimental effect on analysis of those events – at least in the early stages after an attack has happened. Where for example is the in-depth scrutiny of why these potentially lethal events were so amateurish? Why so little on the fact that the UK is not isolated as a target for terrorism? Last July two suitcases containing similar components (gas cylinder, petrol, and detonator) to those found here failed to detonate on two trains in Cologne. But it got very little mention in the British media.
The fast turnaround also leaves little time to analyze the effects on community relations.
The police and MI5 are desperate for Muslims to give more information on those who’ve become radicalised to the extreme. But dramatic pictures of police raids on Asian homes can have the opposite effect, fuelling suspicion and resentment in some, not least because the police won’t comment on what they’re doing because of legal restrictions, so what’s reported is again based on speculation over pictures taken by the public.
Yet it’s pointless trying to stop publication of these. Scotland Yard has in fact asked media outlets not to show the faces of those they’ve arrested in case identity becomes an issue in any future court case. A handful of broadcasters and newspapers have complied but most have not. It does seem a pointless exercise – the names are already public and the images would still appear anyway, on unregulated websites on the internet.
The real challenge for both police and media is to embrace the technological changes that mean news is spread at unparalleled speed, without losing integrity.
Margaret Gilmore, July 2007
Margaret Gilmore is a former senior Home Affairs Correspondent with BBC News, now a freelance writer and broadcaster, and a RUSI Associate Fellow.
The view expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI