At least two brutal and disturbing hate crimes have been carried out this month. Each of the two I will draw your attention to left an apparently innocent man dead from knife wounds. And each victim was apparently selected on the basis of what they were wearing (a Help for Heroes t-shirt) or what they looked like.
These attacks differed in only one important feature, in that one of the attackers had something to say and sought help from passers by in order to communicate his message to as many people as possible.
Without the assistance of others, the ambitions at terrorism in Woolwich would have failed. I am not suggesting that members of the public should not have accepted requests to film the murderers (It would have been dangerous for them to refuse the requests of a man waving a meat cleaver at them). But once the attackers were apprehended by the police, the amateur film-makers should have made a point of handing their footage to the police in full view and earshot. The phrase “Your message of hate will only be heard as evidence against you” might have been appropriate.
I saw apparent experts on the television describing this murder as “easy terrorism” or something similar that it would be “impossible to prevent”, and drawing parallels with Al Qaeda. All coverage of this sort is granting these men a status among their extremist peers that they could have easily been denied. It cements the attack as an example of “successful” terrorism and tells their peers that terrorism is “easy”.
The heroic public act is to refuse to spread their message; to deprive them the oxygen of publicity. The responsible course of action in the media is to refuse all footage of proselytising hate criminals and all pictures of perpetrators beyond their pitiful mugshots.
But instead the media have failed the British people abysmally in this instance. Special mention has to go to ITV for being first to show the attacker’s speech. But for the BBC News Channel to follow clearly stating “ITV showed this first” was cowardly in the extreme.
I hope in the coming weeks that the Government issues new anti-terrorism guidance. I hope guidance is all that is necessary to stop the public and media turning despicable hate criminals into blueprints for successful terrorism. If guidance isn’t successful then we have to ask ourselves whether in the digital age the man who passes mobile phone footage to the press rather than the police is aiding and abetting an act of terror.
Imagine how sick these men would feel if they had to trawl the papers for any tiny mention of their actions. Next time – and the media have almost certainly ensured there will be a next time – let’s make sure they suffer a lifetime in prison regretting the futility of their murderous deeds.
* Ewan Hoyle is the founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform and member of the Scottish Liberal Democrat policy committee.