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Graeme Archer: The Woolwich terrorist shouldn't have been given so much publicity

Archer Graeme NewGraeme works as a statistician, and won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011.  He writes a column in Saturday's Daily Telegraph.  Follow him on Twitter.

We have a new face of evil. I don't know - don't want to know - the name of the man with the axe and the bloody hands. But there he stands, all over the media, achieving his aim. His image is not one we'll forget. 

(Neither will we forget his victim. Not forgotten. Not any of the fallen.)

It's fashionable (and was so, back then) to deride Margaret Thatcher's Government's decision, to ban the voices of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness from the television news. The BBC worked itself into such an outrage about censorship that they continued to allow both Sinn Fein representatives full access to their pulpits, employing actors to read out their words over images of the men saying them, while displaying a banner at the bottom to remind viewers of the government's heartless autocracy.

So banning images doesn't work (though Sinn Fein's "director of publicity" at the time has admitted that the six year ban frustrated that party's electoral strategy while it was in place). And the world is much faster than it was in the 1980s, so full of mobile videophones and Twitter timelines and Youtube streaming; perhaps it's hopeless of me to regret the speed with which media ran to display the image - and message - of yesterday's (alleged) murderer.

But that doesn't mean that Douglas Hurd - hardly our most illiberal Home Secretary - was wrong in 1988 to seek to deny terrorists what he called (perhaps displaying the facility with words that fuels his "other life", as a novelist) the "oxygen of publicity". And it doesn't mean that it's wrong, now, to question whether we should rush to broadcast mobile phone footage from obscene acts of terror.

Whatever justification we give: a terrorist sought publicity through an unspeakable act. Its widespread broadcast has helped make it more speakable. That which can be spoken, can be done. That which we view, can never be un-known. Please do not wave any arbitrary, absolutist principle in my face: there are some images which would never be broadcast. Not showing every available image on the News At Ten is not the same as supporting China's censorship of google.

There are other reasons for wishing that a more circumspect approach to the reporting of this crime had been taken. Primary amongst these is respect for the dead man, and his family. A human being has been butchered in London: he's a man; not a story. It was possible to report this murder without the glorification through visualisation of his (alleged) murderer. (I don't accuse the broadcasters of deliberate glorification; but the significance of an act is not affected by its inadvertence.)

Secondary is what we might term "public order" considerations. As soon as the EDL began to cause trouble in South East London, the blogosphere erupted into lofty disdain for the "far right" movement. I share the general revulsion at any form of thuggery, but at one point it did read as though the disturbance in Greenwich was as serious as the incident which sparked it. "Oh that's absurd", someone will write under this piece: "I abhor all violence, whether it comes from Islamists or the EDL!"

Who doesn't? But what I find absurd is the desperation with which moral equivalence seems to be sought - or at least implied - between religiously-inspired malevolent anti-British murder, and the foolish response of the politically impotent, angry young men who perhaps didn't expect to be living in a country where British soldiers would be attacked in the streets. I find it impossible to see these as two sides of the same repugnant coin; they didn't both spurt into existence at the same time by coincidence. In any case, perhaps the EDL aren't articulate, or particularly bright. Doesn't that increase the need for the media to consider its role in the dissemination of such inflammatory images?

Moral equivalence debates - I've moved too far from the man whose death has upset (nearly) all of us. The man whose face we haven't yet seen. Any murder is one too many, and I want to know why this one happened. I want to know the exact aetiology of the cultural disease which led to this death in Woolwich, and for all that to be reported.

But the monster who committed it? Back in its box. He exists. We know it. Possibly I'll change my mind later; possibly it's a futile wish in any case. But I'm not convinced he should have received so much detailed, imagery-heavy publicity, in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity.


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