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On the day of the attacks in Norway, the name Anders Behring Breivik was not yet known worldwide. But in the immediate aftermath of the bomb blast in Oslo and the shootings in Utøya, the absence of a culprit caused a frenzy — not amongst Norwegians, but amongst the journalistic community. Several prominent news organisations attempted to make sense of the fast-paced breaking news story by simply filling the void with their own beliefs – and what seemed to be the preferred narrative — that the attacks must have been the work of Islamist extremists.
During incidents like this, the first question most people will ask is “Who did this?” and later “Why?” — but just because these questions are asked instantly, doesn’t mean an answer can or should be provided straightaway. Following the explosion in Oslo, only dubious claims of responsibility were made and no truly solid facts were given. A certain degree of speculation is completely natural, but as I watched the BBC News Channel’s rolling coverage, I saw speculation taken to a level that made for uncomfortable viewing. The presenters began to press their interviewees to speculate with them, causing one Norwegian police official to become so frustrated that he hung up mid-question.
The confirmation that the explosion was a car bomb seemed to be enough to trigger the word ‘terrorism’, which was repeated all evening. Experts were quickly called in to tell viewers that the bombing had all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda terrorist attack. Maybe this was true; maybe this was even the most likely possibility. But at that stage, it was a possibility — no more than that.
The morning after the attacks, The Sun chose to run the headline ‘Al Qaeda Massacre: Norway’s 9/11’. During a summer when the phone hacking scandal has damaged the reputation of many journalists and papers, accusations such as these just made matters worse. At the time this headline went to print, there was no evidence for such a link and by the following morning all claims about an Al Qaeda bomb attack were proven to be entirely based on conjecture. Details about Breivik had already begun to emerge, yet The Sun even managed to explain this away by saying that his blonde hair raised fears of “a home-grown Al-Qaeda convert”. The revelation that responsibility lay with a Norwegian right-wing extremist came as a shock to many, not just to the Norwegian people but also to those who had speculated so wildly in the wrong direction, and had neglected this alternative.
It is easy for me to sit and judge with the benefit of hindsight, and if the attacks had been the work of Al Qaeda then I probably would have forgotten all about any of my initial reservations and simply accepted that the experts’ opinions were right. But I think important lessons can be learnt – namely that when in doubt, we should avoid succumbing to hysteria and stick to the facts. Or if we don’t know the facts, we shouldn’t make possibilities sound like certainties.
On the programme Newswatch, the Controller of the BBC News channel, Kevin Bakhurst, addressed a number of the concerns raised. He was asked if journalists should just admit that they don’t know the facts rather than rushing to a premature conclusion, to which Bakhurst replied, “I think the key in this is to say ‘This is what we know’. The audience will want a sort of informed view about how it might have been and I think in this case, yes, we were wrong about that.”
The attacks were the biggest tragedies to hit Norway since the end of WWII, but when Norwegians were interviewed, there was no exaggeration about what had happened to them, just stoical acceptance and calm. Somehow, they managed to channel their anger and grief into solidarity and peace. As an outsider looking in, I was staggered by the sight of the ‘rose march’ — a procession down the streets of Oslo with thousands of people holding flowers in the face of violence. Perhaps in the same way that Norway has turned its anguish into national unity, the media will learn from their mistakes and remain much calmer should a similar news story break again.