Under no circumstances can anyone justify the appalling act of wanton brutality that unfolded in Woolwich this week. The murder of an off-duty soldier and the actions of his killers after his murder and before they unsuccessfully sought death from the guns of the Metropolitan Police should bring home to the public the sacrifice of the British army in its long campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. That a soldier who had served bravely in different theatres was then chosen, presumably at random, by his killers and died on the streets of London makes his death even more horrific. Soldiers face the risk of death or injury on the battlefield; they do not expect it at home as his wife eloquently expressed it in yesterday’s family news conference.
What has concerned me in the last two days has been the wall-to-wall news coverage of what happened and why. In a world of 24/7 news this is hardly surprising but has it all been necessary and who has it been for? The difficulty for the media is that much of what is know or not know is inevitably speculative. For instance, according to a friend, one of the killers was been approached by MI5 for information or even, according to today’s Times to act as a covert agent. Or what happened was or was not part of a broader conspiracy. What did MI5 know and why did it not act? These are legitimate issues for investigation, and the inquiry set up by the Prime Minister will undoubtedly do so, but are they are questions that have almost endlessly and fairly fruitlessly been speculated about in the media? The problem with speculation on terrorism is that it gives succour to all shades of extremists and, perhaps more importantly given their actions the oxygen of publicity. We do not know why the killers decided to act as they did, other than their distorted view of Islam, and we will probably never know. While the public wants to know about events such as this, it is important to distinguish between the facts of the case, people’s opinions and speculation and this distinction is not always clear in the media coverage. I sometimes wonder whether it would be better if there was less speculation in the media on terrorist questions, a vain hope perhaps in an age of social networking and extensive media coverage, since it can lead to neglect of what is a human tragedy.