By Jean-Paul Marthoz
The live-streaming of the March 15 Christchurch terror attacks confronted Western Europe’s mainstream media with a new challenge in the dramaturgy of terrorism.
Most newsrooms reacted the way they were expected to react, according to their specific routines, aprioris, and business models. While some ‘populist’ media broadcast the terrorist’s live-stream, others refused and even refrained from linking to the video on their website. Naming or not the attacker, publishing or quoting from his ‘manifesto’, led to lively discussions, inspired by conventional ethical principles but also by the lessons drawn from previous attacks in Paris, Brussels, or London.
Those dilemmas however were overwhelmed by more fundamental questions. One had been lurking for a couple of months. Did the media as well as the security services underestimate the threat of violence from far right circles? In recent years the memory of the 2011 Oslo/Utøya massacres by Norwegian white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik had mostly faded away and had been supplanted by a nearly absolute focus on “jihadist” violence or “Islamist terrorism”. Until very recently in my discussions about terrorism the far right never came up first and was even utterly forgotten when discussing the issue of political violence. ‘It was years ago’, many would suggest. ‘It is not the primary threat against us’.
In recent years in Europe the far right universe has been analysed first and foremost within the context of the electoral rise of so-called ‘rightwing populists’, like the French Rassemblement national (formerly known as Front National), who had opted for a strategy of ‘de-demonisation’ (dédiabolisation) and swapped the bomber blouson for the three-piece suit. Many in the security services agree today that they failed to devote enough attention and resources to monitoring the outer fringes of the far right. “We lowered our guard,” confessed a state security official to the French weekly L’Express (February 22, 2019 issue). “You’re always behind in dealing with extremism, because extremists can mobilise and change faster than mainstream institutions and mainstream values,” concurred, in a March 18 interview with Vox, J.M. Berger, a research fellow at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence, a European Union-funded academic network focused on researching Violent Online Political Extremism.
Did the media also ‘miss the story’? Until the August 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right white supremacist marches in Virginia and, more recently, the October 27, 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack, such forms of violence were considered secondary to the threat of the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. And as a number of surveys demonstrated it was much less covered than jihadist terror.
The introspection however goes deeper than a reflection on a failure in reporting adequately and sufficiently on violent white nationalism. It extends to the framing of the stories. Did the media contribute (volens nolens) to the spread and the mainstreaming of an Islamophobic discourse which was bound to lead to violence? In France, in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, a collage of front pages from leading weekly magazines went viral on Twitter. It showed an impressive collection of images of veiled women topped by scaremongering headlines which depicted Islam(ism) as a threat. Nearly everywhere in Europe anti-racist groups and Muslim organisations have been complaining for years about the generally negative representation of Islam in the media, as most stories referred to violence or bigotry, and have been warning about the risks that such coverage would incite hate and violence.
More precisely, to what extent was the Christchurch attacker influenced by allegedly Islamophobic public intellectuals? This interrogation, drawn from the terrorist’s ‘manifesto’ on ‘The Great Replacement’, led to Renaud Camus, the French essayist whose ideas about ‘ethnic substitution’ had already attracted attention after Charlottesville, in particular in a long December 4, 2017 New Yorker essay under the title: The French origins of “You Will Not Replace Us”. The European thinkers behind the white-nationalist rallying cry’. On March 15, the newspaper of record, Le Monde, published a long piece describing how “la théorie du grand remplacement” was percolating among France’s media, intellectual and political circles. “Renaud Camus’ ideas circulate more and more openly within the conservative right,” Le Monde wrote, quoting former President Sarkozy and Laurent Wauquiez, the chair of the mainstream rightwing party, Les Républicains.
The prominence given to Prime Minister Jacinta Adern’s reaction to the massacre, her call for tolerance and inclusion, reflects the awareness among journalists that ideas matter and words have consequences. It also reflects the search for a frame which counters the hate-mongers from all sides. The equivalence between jihadist terror and violent white supremacism has been prominent in editorials and TV debates. Both are described as inimical to liberal democracy and human decency, against the ‘gray zone’, “where there is diversity, tolerance, understanding and debate, where there is exchange and enquiry and curiosity”, as The Guardian journalist Jason Burke writes in his 2015 book, The New Threat.
The Christchurch massacre confirms the globalisation of far-right ideas, mimicking the Islamic State’s globalisation of jihad. It therefore requires more than ethical terror reporting, with its concern for the dignity of the victims or the refusal to provide oxygen to terrorism. As it was done with jihadism, journalists are called upon to devote time and resources to investigate the global white supremacy networks and to cover the ‘battles of ideas’ which feed the far right discourses and how they are being normalised by more conventional politicians.
Christchurch reminds journalists of two crucial points. One pertains to fundamental values of journalism – fairness, balance and humanity – which means that the coverage of violent extremism should not be determined or weighed by ethnic, religious, gender, or social identification. The other refers to the duty to reflect the world as it is, with the acknowledgment that terrorism and journalism are global. Christchurch underlines the vacuity of the ‘nationalism of news’, which French sociologists Michel Wieviorka and Dominique Wolton already denounced in their 1987 book Terrorisme à la une (Frontpage Terrorism). “This weaker mobilisation of the public as soon as events do not directly affect their nationals or territory, is a barrier to the project to mobilise democracies against terrorism.”
Paris or Oslo might be a 30 hours flight away from Christchurch but the attack which killed more than 50 people hit them too. They were Charlie Hebdo, they were Utøya, they are Christchurch too.
Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist. He is a columnist for Le Soir and the author of Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalists.