To mark the 10 year anniversary of the London 7/7 terrorist attacks, HuffPost UK is running Beyond The Bombings, a special series of interviews, blogs, in-depth features and exclusive research reflecting on how Britain has changed since.
In the early aftermath of the London 7/7 bombings, journalists were already claiming that the day's events would prove a tipping point for their profession.
An unprecedented 20,000 emails, 3,000 text messages and 20 videos informed their real-time reporting on the developing picture. The burgeoning idea of 'citizen journalism' seemed to have become real.
Emphasising the rate at which the BBC was sent information, then-director of news Helen Boaden said at the time: "We had 50 images within an hour."
Anyone who has watched a breaking news story develop on Twitter today will be underwhelmed by that figure. Twitter was only launched in 2006, a year after the bombings, and the media professionals describing a "tipping point" could barely have foreseen how social media would turn material published by eye-witnesses, into something that could overwhelm and dictate what major news organisations cover.
BBC World correspondent Nik Gowing uses the phrase “the tyranny of the timeline” to describe the pressure placed on media to cover breaking information, and on officials to react to it. He says this timeline has shortened dramatically in recent years.
In the late 1990s, authorities could expect to have around 24 hours to evaluate information reaching them, before having to respond to it, Gowing says. By 2005, this was down to a few hours. In a report for the Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism, he noted that broadcasters were “wrong-footed or ill-prepared” for how changes in technology had changed the pace of breaking news by 7/7. "I have never experienced anything like this before, the bar has been raised suddenly," one source told him of covering the bombings.
The government was slow to react. For three hours after the first three explosions at 8.49am, their official line was that a catastrophic power surge was the cause of the disaster. The BBC stuck to this line for most of the morning of 7/7, eager to avoid speculation.
"We continued to go with that until we had verifiable evidence. Some of our competitors talked immediately of 90 dead," Helen Boaden told The Guardian two months later. "They talked about three bus bombs. That was off a range of various wire services and it was complete speculation, and we wouldn't go with that. We would be careful - we would try to check things out."
In fact, the BBC stuck to the "power surge" narrative despite the fact that around 1,300 blog posts were written in the first 80 minutes after the train blasts, saying explosives had gone off. Meanwhile, other broadcasters adopted what Gowing calls the 3F approach, that is being "first, fast but flawed" with the information.
Within minutes of the final bomb going off on a bus at 9.47am, Bob Mills, a Sky News producer who witnessed it, was on air saying: "As far as I'm concerned, a bomb has gone off or something has exploded." About an hour after the explosion, Sky was broadcasting a photo of the destroyed bus, taken by someone who lived nearby.
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Sky News first reported an explosion at a tube station at 9.16am - nearly half an hour after the first blast. If judged by today's new standards, this is a remarkably long time.
Gowing writes in his report that by 7/7, the time it took for ordinary people to flood the public sphere with their own information - providing details and suggesting theories that had to be acknowledged by the media - had gone from hours to "a few minutes".
This growth in content produced by the audience rather than journalists has fuelled a change that has forced reporters to rethink how they approach reporting terrorist attacks and threats. Ben O'Loughlin, who has researched how the media select and edit material on terrorism published by others, says one of "the big changes" in terrorism coverage is that journalists increasingly act as verifiers for the enormous amount of content from the public that they are now faced with.
"The social media deluge has changed the roles of different kinds of journalists," O'Loughlin tells HuffPost UK. "We did a workshop with many of the leading wire services and international broadcasters... I can't name any names but one of the trends was that wire services' role, rather than having reporters in every city in the world, and gather information, was to be the fact-checkers and verifiers of social media content."
If an attack like 7/7 happened today, the huge volume of 'UGC' (User-Generated Content) available means that news gatherers could move more quickly to label that attack as terrorism.
But that is not the only reason that BBC might be more likely to report speculations of terrorism earlier, if 7/7 were to be repeated.
"Journalists now are so familiar with a terrorism story," says O'Loughlin. "We've had so many of them over the last 15 years now... It would be no surprise and it would be kind of understandable from an audience point of view," O'Loughlin says.
He pointed out people initially "jumped to the conclusion" that Anders Brevik's 2011 murder of 77 people in Norway was Islamic terrorism. "From debates from the media and policy circles, people could understand why people would jump to that conclusion. It might be an unfair conclusion but because we're kind of, primed, to expect terrorist attacks... It seems slightly more legitimate to report that."
For O'Loughlin, 7/7 was the tipping point for cementing what has become a familiar narrative of terrorism in the minds of journalists.
He points out BBC Panorama had broadcast a simulated terrorist attack on London in 2004 that eerily forecast 7/7. The show hypothesised an attack in which three bombs were detonated on tube trains and another on train tracks.
For some media outlets, 7/7 soon slotted into a wider global narrative. Sky News showed archive footage of 9/11, the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 Madrid train bombings on that day of the 7/7 attacks. "Sky reported it as though it was always going to end up in London," O'Loughlin says. "Because we'd had Madrid, there was an idea of what [an attack on a] European capital would look like."
ON THE BLOG:
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- 7/7 - When My Routine Turned Into a Nightmare
- How the Terror Came to My Doorstep
- How I Escaped With My Life Through Sheer Luck On July 7
- Introducing Beyond the Bombings
- Caroline Feraday: That Night I Hosted the LBC Radio Phone-In
Imran Awan, an expert in press coverage of Islam and how it contributes to Islamophobia, said 7/7 was a crucial moment for the growing association in the media between the religion and terrorism. "Before 7/7, some of the incidents, there was this sense of downplaying this idea that it's something to do with any violent terrorist act," he says. "[Now] you tend to see much more emphasis, not just on the word 'terrorism' but on... 'fanaticism, radicalisation, extremism'."
Awan, an academic at Birmingham City University, compared the press reactions to the murder of Lee Rigby and the murder of Mohammed Saleem. Saleem was an 82-year-old Muslim stabbed by a 25-year-old man who was later convicted of planting bombs at mosques under the Terrorism Act.
Awan's study found the press was far more likely to refer to the Woolwich event - in which Rigby's killers were Muslim - as terrorism, with 40% to 50% of articles doing so. But in the case of Saleem's murder, for which the perpetrator was convicted of terrorism, only around 20% of articles used the word "terrorism".
Compared with the BBC's cautious coverage of 7/7, its coverage of Lee Rigby's murder was quick to insinuate that this was Islamic terrorism.
Awan points out that the BBC's Political Editor Nick Robinson said the two attackers were "of a Muslim appearance" during the 6 O'Clock News, hours after the attack was carried out. Robinson later apologised.
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Woolwich also illustrated how quickly visceral images of a news event can now appear in the media, after footage of one of the killers, armed, bloodied and trying to justify the murder circulated online. Broadcasters faced an agonising decision over whether to show it. Ofcom called the footage "unprecedented" and produced new guidelines on how to handle such situations.
If an attack on the scale of 7/7 was indeed to happen again in London, changes to traditional and social media would radically alter what we'd see the media, Awan says. "There'd be a lot more intense reporting of it, not just on TV but on social media. I'm not sure there was as much power in terms of the online presence that is there now... Today you'd see much more amplification [of it as] extremist terrorism."
But crucial aspects of coverage of such an event would be similar, O'Loughlin says. The BBC not reporting on speculation or evidence that 7/7 was terrorism might seem laughable given the pace of today's news, he says, but the corporation would likely maintain its cautious approach in the event of a major attack. "[The BBC's] values haven't really changed... They'd be able to report 'on Twitter, people are speculating this may be terrorism'. There are ways to fudge it."
As footage of previous terrorist attacks was used on 7/7, so footage of 7/7 would itself be picked out from the digital archive in the case of another attack, to emphasise that it was a "continuation," O'Loughlin says. But he doubts our television screens would be wall to wall UGC.
"If you look at say, the 2013 Glasgow helicopter crash, user-generated content was used only until professional journalists arrived on the scene and there was professional content, professional footage. So user-generated content would be used if there was another 7/7, [but] only when there was a gap in the professional coverage. That's still the case. Journalists and audiences would rather use professionally-shot footage."
"You still need a news anchor. Audiences still want a credible, charismatic figure to present the news," he adds. "And be their gatekeeper to the news."