General Election Changes Press Coverage of London Bridge Terrorist Attack

08/06/2017 13:47 BST | Updated 08/06/2017 13:47 BST
Xavier Arnau via Getty Images

Responses by the UK press to last Saturday's terrorist atrocities appear, for the moment, to have adopted a new, intensified tone. Unlike the coverage of the Westminster Bridge attack and even that of last month's bombing at Manchester Arena, analyses of the latest bout of terrorism from across the political spectrum feature an intensified condemnation of the state for its failure to protect the people. While praise has been heaped on the emergency services involved in Saturday's attack, the lack of satisfactory immigration controls, the lack of intervention by the intelligence services and the police to apprehend would-be terrorists, and the lack of police funding are cited as causes of the needless loss of life on London's streets.

In a piece for Monday's Daily Telegraph entitled 'Our history has made Britons nice. Terror means we must learn to be nasty', Tim Stanley, overlooking the historical violations perpetrated by Britain in the name of empire, attacks the inadequate practical steps taken by successive governments and by the police to rein in jihadism. '[T]he first job of the states is to protect us, and the failure of the state is plain to see,' he asserts, by way of a preface to reeling off the death tolls at each of the recent terrorist attacks. This sentiment is echoed by the Daily Mail, whose polemicist-in-chief Katie Hopkins on Tuesday drew a similar distinction between 'the people' and 'the state': 'No wonder they [ie London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the investigating officers, MI5, and Theresa May] didn't want us to know who the London Bridge Butchers were. The more we find out, the more ineffectual the people who are supposed to protect us from the killers look'. The Guardian took a different, characteristically leftist perspective. In a markedly less vitriolic, and more balanced article on Tuesday Faiza Shaheen argued that tackling social inequality in Britain is the root to killing off extremism. Yet the message across the political specturm is, broadly speaking, the same: Britons are being attacked because of the way in which their country is run; because of the way in which key problems are addressed; because of the inaction of the government in relation to 'the bigger picture' (whatever that may be).

In the case of the right-wing press, these responses to Saturday's attack mark a shift in emphasis from the scapegoating of the Muslim community, and the scaremongering regarding the refugee crisis that has characterised a considerable amount of the coverage surrounding terrorism in recent months. The spotlight of blame has been momentarily taken from 'dangerous Muslims' or 'dangerous migrants' and re-trained on the various state bodies and their leaders who are thought to not be doing enough.

But why has such an important change occurred? It is surely no coincidence that the new tone of popular representations of terrorism has surfaced just days away from a closely fought general election. Equally, it is no coincidence that the new tone has come about at a time when the Prime Minister's leadership and track record as Home Secretary are being questioned both in and outside her own party.

What we are told to think about terrorism is, whether we like it or not, conditioned by broader political events and motivated by increasingly fractured and volatile political allegiances. The fall-out from Saturday's terrorist attack has provided a timely occasion to highlight and challenge the brokenness of the status quo. Representations of terrorism, meanwhile, have provided a channel through which these challenges can be made - and a channel through which, at times, uncomfortable political admissions can be aired.

In indicting 'their leader' and her government inter alia for not doing more to combat the threat of terrorism, commentators from Conservative-supporting publications, who would usually loyally tow the party line, are essentially admitting something that they would most likely not admit in relation to any other issue: 'Big society' needs a bigger state to take care of it. In the run up to the general election, they are effectively voicing a vote of no confidence - not for the Conservative Party per se, but for the status quo, and the relationship between state and society, which the Party helped build.

We can only watch and wait to see what impact this will have on 8th June.

Dr Rachael Attwood is a Lecturer in the Department of History, Sociology, and Criminology at the University of Westminster.