I don’t think it’s being melodramatic to say that, between unexpected and terrifying acts of political violence and the unexpected and terrifying burning down of a West London tower block, it’s already been a violent summer in the UK. And, I would imagine, a pretty profitable one for all kinds of media. Nothing provokes people to buy newspapers, watch TV news, or swarm on to Twitter, Facebook and so on like a good, large-scale human tragedy, except perhaps an election, which of course we also had.
There hasn’t been a war yet, of course, so the media haven’t quite hit the jackpot of revenue-maximising opportunities. But who knows, maybe that can be arranged? After all, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate on whom Citizen Kane was based, is supposed to have told his man in Cuba, who was sceptical about the possibility of a war between the US and Spain, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” (There isn’t actually a lot of evidence that Hearst said this).
If this sounds cynical, well…it is cynical, really. But still not half as cynical as making your living from mass death and unimaginable grief, especially when that living is quite as good as it is for those who own the institutions of the media. And especially when, as has been the case this summer, a lot of the death in question simply would not have taken place if there had been no-one to report on it.
Whatever happened at Grenfell Tower, the media clearly weren’t responsible for the fire (although a lot of what I say below also applies to the reporting of that). Terrorism, however, is a different matter. As a military strategy, the launching of attacks on wholly civilian targets by small groups seeking radical social change simply makes no sense without a mass media to publicise those attacks. The proof of this is that, before there was something you could call a mass media, there was nothing you could call terrorism, in that sense anyway. The first people to get seriously into throwing bombs in public places as a way to make their point were anarchists and nationalists (like the Irish Fenians) in the late 19th century, which was also, not coincidentally, the first time in history there was a press with a mass readership.
Murder and violent assault are as old as humanity. Regular warfare, assassinations, arguably even genocide, have been around since civilisation began. But committing mass atrocity for publicity can’t work without something to publicise your atrocities, and it’s modern. There’s been a tendency, in recent years, to treat Islamist terrorist groups of the Al Quaeda/ISIS variety as somehow different from previous terrorists, scary religious maniacs who’ll sacrifice their own lives to inflict as much death as possible more or less without rational objectives. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and so on.
Partly this is because it suits Western governments to portray them as dangerous and beyond-the-pale loonies and partly because it suits these groups themselves to be seen that way. After all, that provokes more fear. However, just like all previous terrorists, they’re pursuing a rational strategy of achieving power by using fear and terror to undermine their opponents and rally their supporters, and no-one can do that without achieving the maximum amount of publicity for what they do.
And that is something that, over the last few months, the British media has seemed perfectly happy to give them. Some of the reporting on the recent incidents, to me, seemed like little more than obsessive slavering over death and misery.
There were relentless attempts to establish exactly how many people had died each time, as if there was somehow a score to keep. Microphones were shoved in front of people who were clearly still in shock and should probably not have been given an international audience in the emotional state they were in. There was a constant quest to see whether blame might be placed, not on the people who actually did the killing, but on the police and government generally for lacking the clairvoyance to know which of tens of thousands of disaffected young men were disaffected enough to actually do something about it.
The coverage went on, in each case, for days, and to the extent where I’m surprised that more of the audience didn’t find it as unbearable as quickly as I did. Actually, this is one of the more depressing aspects of the whole thing; that more people don’t just turn off. After all, it would not be worthwhile reporting these kinds of attacks in this kind of way if it routinely led to the audience plummeting. And it goes further than that. The kind of obsessive coverage that happened was partly made possible because so many participants were willing to whip out their mobile phones at a moment’s notice and film what happened long before any professional camera operator could arrive.
If there genuinely is a huge audience out there for death and violence, that doesn’t say much for us as members of that audience. If we’re prepared to do the media’s work for it, we can’t wholly blame it for the result. Are ISIS the only ones here who “just want to watch the world burn”?