My Big Mouth: Why did the press presume the Utøya killer was a Muslim?

By Tom Midlane

Oh dear. At a time when half the nation’s newspapers are in deep disgrace, the media response to the tragedy in Utøya and Oslo was almost a plea for state regulation.

While there was acres of sensitive coverage, the response from certain quarters during the initial period after the killings when facts were scarce was shocking. The clear presumption was simple: it woz the Muslims wot done it.

The Sun did its bit for British pride with its in-no-way-inflammatory headline: ‘AL QAEDA’ MASSACRE: NORWAY’S 9/11’, while the American response inspired a hilarious round-up from the Daily Show’s Stephen Colbert:

As Colbert put it: “By going with their guts, these journalists managed to get the story they want and scoop reality.” Putting aside the merits of idly speculating over mass murder, even once it became clear that a blonde, blue-eyed Aryan had committed these atrocities a commentator on CNN suggested it might just be a well-disguised jihadist.

Everywhere there was a disturbing trend to somehow qualify Anders Behring Breivik’s acts. While a lunatic fringe openly condoned the slaughter, a greater many more showed they were sympathetic to his beliefs, if not his methods. Italian MEP Francesco Speroni said the killer’s ideas were “in defence of Western civilisation”, Mario Borghezio, a member of Italy’s Northern League, said the gunman had some “excellent” ideas and Jacques Coutela, a member of France’s far-right National Front, called Breivik an icon.

The trend was not confined to far-right politicians though. It was echoed in the readers’ comments section of nearly all national newspapers. “An evil act, but he had a point.” If the tables were turned and the Oslo bomb and Utøya massacre had been a jihadist act, would people be looking for any legitimate grievances the Muslim bombers might have? After all, anyone who dared suggest that the 9/11 or 7/7 bombers were motivated by American or British foreign policy were shouted down.

And to a degree that’s fair. While the terrorists behind 9/11 cited US foreign policy as a rationale for their actions, there’s a vast disconnect between their words (we are protesting against America) and their actions (we are extinguishing thousands of innocent lives). Flying planes into skyscrapers or blowing up a tube carriage isn’t a protest, it’s a massacre. If the 9/11 bombers are deservedly known only as mass murderers, the same should go for Breivik. He doesn’t have anything valuable to tell us.

While it’s difficult to find a silver lining to the mass murder of 76 human beings in Norway, it was hard to suppress a smirk at the news that killer Anders Behring Breivik had quoted Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips in his rambling manifesto.

Her initial response to this unnerving fact was to stress that Breivik had only quoted her twice in 1,500 pages  which is, let’s face it, still not a great hit-rate.

But let’s be clear, there’s a world of difference between Breivik and Phillips. While her anti-immigration views might be sensationalistic, I think we can safely say that Melanie Phillips does not condone the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, even if they are card-carrying Labour Party members (now mass detention, that’s another story. No no, I jest.)

In fairness to Phillips, Breivik did also quote such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, and George Orwell – and an author has no control over who reads their material. Was it J.D. Salinger’s fault that the Catcher in the Rye “inspired” a psychotic Mark Chapman to kill John Lennon? Clearly not.

But the episode does serve to underline the danger of Phillips’s inflammatory rhetoric. She believes her tirades exist on some rarefied intellectual plane, and Keith Kahn-Harris may well be right when he says she is “polite company with a ready (if sometimes acidic) wit and a very sharp mind”, but if you write incendiary words, there’s always a chance they’ll come back to bite you on the ass.

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