Envisioning Terror: Representations of Al Qaeda on the BBC| Jared Ahmad

Representing terrorism

There is an intimate relationship between the news media, politicians and terrorist groups. For journalists, terrorist violence fulfil several essential “news values” that help to attract and secure large audiences. Politicians and terrorist groups use the news media to promote their own, preferred images, symbols and representations. Indeed, given the relatively infrequent nature of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, for most of us, news media representations formulate one of our primary sources of knowledge about such phenomena. Despite access to a growing range of information sources, research suggests that television remains the most important source of news for citizens across the Western world during terrorist incidents. And yet, often news media representations distort public understanding of terrorism and reinforce simple “us” and “them” binaries.

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It is these representational practices that I explore in my latest book, The BBC, the “War on Terror” and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism: Representing Al-Qaeda. Published as part of Palgrave-Macmillan’s “New Security Challenges” series, it interrogates the shifting ways in which the BBC sought to represent the al-Qaeda phenomenon for British television audiences during the opening stages of “war on terror” (2001-2011). Drawing on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, and combining rigorous multimodal analysis of BBC “News at Ten” bulletins and interviews with the Corporation’s top journalists and editors, the book the provides much-needed insight into the way these representations developed over a ten-year period.

As the nation’s most trusted news provider, with over 80% of Britons using its services daily, the BBC makes an important case for extended analysis. Its “News at Ten” bulletin, the subject of my analysis, regularly receives around 35.9% share of audience ratings, and is the U.K.’s most watched news programme. Yet, when it comes to coverage of issues of war, political conflict and terrorism the Corporation has been criticised for its bias and the fact that it often functions as a mouthpiece for the state. My book, however, paints a more complex picture of the BBC and provides deeper insight into the challenges faced by the broadcaster today.

Challenging dominant representations of terrorism

In the widespread uncertainty following the September 11th 2001 attacks, the BBC’s representations functioned as a site for a continually-shifting range of fears, identities and discourses. Simplistic, cliché-ridden stereotypes about the East, Islam and terrorism appeared alongside more nuanced assessments of the various aims, motivations and backgrounds of the hijackers.

During the first few days of coverage, for example, al-Qaeda was depicted as a conventional “terrorist organisation”, “a group of Arab fundamentalists” or “an umbrella network of Islamic militants”, alongside more fleeting characterisations as a “faceless”, “elusive”, “shadowy” and “unseen enemy”. Visually, these tensions were further played out by juxtaposing images taken from al-Qaeda’s grainy, home-spun propaganda releases with a series of more benign, yet equally unsettling, family portrait photos of the hijackers. While sometimes bewildering for audiences, these fluid patterns of depiction served to call into question deep, culturally-ingrained representations of the terrorist “Other”, offering deeper insight into the everyday reality of the terror threat.

The complexity of these representations became even more apparent with the July 7th 2005 London bombings. Since the perpetrators were British citizens, BBC journalists began to explore difficult questions concerning the identity of the bombers and their possible motives. This not only involved correspondents directly quoting from al-Qaeda propaganda statements describing the attacks as “revenge against the British government for… its massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan”. It also led to several reports exploring the perception of Western foreign policy on individuals within Muslim communities across Britain. In one report, for example, a Leeds teenager suggests that “[i]t doesn’t help when there are these American and English are going into our countries and killing our brothers and sisters” (emphasis in original).

Home Affairs Editor Mark Easton offers insight into the challenges faced by BBC journalists at the time. As he explains,

I think that it is absolutely right after such an appalling series of attacks that we reflect really hard on what this tells us about our society and the things that helped create that situation; to ask ourselves difficult questions, and indeed ask what we could, and should, do to try to prevent this happening again… The motivation from our point of view was to try and understand a confused and contradictory and difficult situation, not to over simplify, but equally not to dismiss as too complicated to go into. We absolutely had to understand the environment in which those attacks happened.

The BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines and public purposes further help to explain such fluid representations. These policies specifically call upon the broadcaster to not only avoid playing politics with terrorism, but also report on such issues in an impartial and socially responsible manner. This led the BBC to find ways to draw a clear distinction between al-Qaeda’s violence and the beliefs and practices of Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims.

Drawing boundaries around the BBC’s representations

Importantly, despite the complexity of such portrayals, my findings do lend some support to the BBC’s many critics. In particular, around the time of the 2003 Wood Green ricin plot, the BBC’s representations aligned themselves much more closely with the government’s own exaggerated threat assessments. The event was considered the first instance of “al-Qaeda-related” activity in the U.K., and reporting incorporated careless speculation about the alleged links between al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussain’s Baath Party and weapons of mass destruction. Taken together with wider social anxieties regarding immigration and Britain’s asylum policy, this meant that the broadcaster led considerable support to claims made at the time by politicians such as Tony Blair and Colin Powell. In one report, for example, London correspondent Ben Brown made the connection explicit, stating, “[d]ocuments discovered in Afghanistan showed Osama bin Laden’s terror network had planned to produce ricin, and the Iraqis are said to have manufactured it in the past”. These comments were immediately followed a statement by the prime minister, declaring “[i]t is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of it [weapons of mass destruction], and as the arrests that were made earlier today show, the danger is present and real and with us now, and its potential is huge”.

What is most concerning about the BBC’s coverage of this event, however, is the fact that it coincided with the final build-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In my interviews with those who reported on this case, few were comfortable discussing this period. One correspondent noted, anonymously it should be said, that the Corporation was somewhat unwittingly “sucked into the narrative of the ‘war on terror’” during this event. Indeed, given the shifting portrayals witnessed in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 and July 7th 2005 attacks, the representations seen here clearly raise significant questions for the BBC and its ability to challenge “official” accounts when covering alleged terrorist plots. As I suggest in the book, during such events, government control over the flow of information severely limits the range of representations the broadcaster can offer its audiences, thus leading to more simplistic depictions.

Looking forward

Evidently, the BBC has a difficult balancing act when it comes to representing phenomena such as al-Qaeda. First, it must provide citizens with vital information about the threat posed, the diverse origins of those involved and the context and causes in which they act, and the ways in which government are expected to respond. Moreover, it has to do this in ways that steer an informed middle-ground between “official” and “unofficial” representations, and thus avoiding propagandising on behalf of one group over another, while also avoiding alienating sections of its audience. Despite focusing on one facet of its news output, The BBC, the War on Terror and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism provides a clearer assessment of the way the Corporation represents terrorist phenomena such as al-Qaeda and sheds light on the barriers to such portrayals.  

And in an era in which the very notions of “truth” and “factuality” are increasingly being called into question by both political elites and citizens themselves, the difficulties facing the BBC are certainly not going away. It is subject to frequent attacks from both left and right-wing politicians, global media outlets such as RT, a partisan and increasingly bitter press, and a host of new “attack-sites” such as Media Lens, The Canary, News-Watch and Biased BBC. This has fed repeated calls to end its licence fee. The broadcaster faces more threats than ever in today’s hypercompetitive and multi-layered media environment, and in the face of such pressures, the BBC must seek to maintain the quality of its reporting and its ability to offer nuanced representations of terrorist phenomena.

Yet, the picture is not all bleak. While it is clear that the BBC does not always adhere to its own exacting standards, what distinguishes it from other news organisation is that it is a broadcaster that has an enduring capacity to learn and reflect on its journalistic practices. As veteran correspondent, and current BBC Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen put it to me,

I think there is an ongoing attempt at the BBC to want to educate people in terms of what’s going on around the world, and I think that what it takes is a lot of editorial vigilance, that editors and senior editors need to be able to say that “look, the tone isn’t quite right” or “the nuance is wrong”. And as well as that, not to fall into easy stereotypes. Sometimes as well, to be aware of the frames that governments use and you have to be critical of that. And when governments and militaries use these umbrella terms, like “the war on terrorism”, you’ve got to be quite careful to try to look at the bigger context and deconstruct it if necessary. This of course takes time and effort, but I know it is possible and can be done.

 

ahmad headshotJared Ahmad is a lecturer in Journalism, Politics and Communication at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The BBC, the ‘War on Terror’ and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism: Representing Al-Qaeda (Palgrave 2018) and his work has also been published in international journals such as Critical Studies on Terrorism and Media, War and Conflict.   

“It’s not me, it’s you.” – Russia’s Perspective on ‘Information War’ | Connell Beggs

Since two Russian nationals were publically accused of committing the Novichok poisoning attack of March 2018 on Sergei and Yuliya Skripal in Salisbury (UK), the case has repeatedly made headlines across the world. The battle of narratives between Russia and the UK has only intensified following the alleged exposure of the suspects’ real identities – military intelligence officers Colonel Anatolii Chepiga and Aleksandr Mishkin. As an example of how hostilities between Russia and the West are played out through the media, the Skripal case has become a subplot in a broader storyline of ‘information war’ that has been simmering away since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

What is ‘Information War’?

Essentially, ‘information war/warfare’ (IW) is regarded as the use of information to achieve strategic aims. IW can be: 1) structural – concerned with operational infrastructure and communication capabilities (as with cyber warfare); and/or 2) psychological – concerned with targeting and affecting (international) public opinion through information.

The term ‘information war/warfare’ has become a central topic of public discussion in both Russia and the West post-Crimea. The charge of state-level engagement in IW has since been repeatedly brought against Russia by Western commentators. Russian elites, however, see the situation differently – instead arguing that Russia is the victim of IW and the West is its perpetrator.

To understand Russia’s actions and adequately assess the threat posed by Russian information activities, an essential knowledge of Russian elites’ perceptions of IW is vital. Here are some of the main characteristics and patterns that are present surrounding their discussions of IW.

US Origins, Russian Academic Engagement

The term ‘information war/warfare’ originated in the United States during the Cold War, but only began to appear in Russia in the late 1990s. Despite this, Russian academics were engaging with the concept long before their Western counterparts. In particular, academics Georgii Pocheptsov and Igor Panarin explored the concept throughout the 2000s, mainly scrutinising only the West’s information activity and firmly judging it to be IW. Pocheptsov mostly focused on the forms and mechanics of information activity, not originally grounding IW in politics but rather linking it to communication theory, public relations and marketing. Panarin later explored the geopolitical aspects of IW, vigorously driving forward this area of IW study. Panarin, who has strong links to Russia’s government and security services, has been especially critical of the West in his work.

The content of Russian scholarly literature on IW also became generally more anti-Western post-Crimea, suggesting the politicisation of academic output. Fundamentally, whilst Western academics treat IW as a Russian phenomenon, Russian academics have long considered it to be a tool of the West.

From Textbooks to Television

Since the annexation of Crimea, IW has often featured as the main topic of political talk shows, has regularly been brought up on current affairs programmes and has frequently appeared in news programming on Russia’s two main television channels, Pervyi Kanal and Rossiya 1. The media framing of IW closely aligns with the position and rhetoric of the country’s political figures, whose commentaries are prominently reported.

IW is presented on Russian television only as a one-way process – the US/UK-led West conducting an unprecedented and unjustified IW campaign against Russia. Therefore, it follows that these media discussions have been stridently anti-Western in nature – politically, socially and culturally. As the majority of Russians rely mostly on television for their news consumption, the increased frequency of the term across the mainstream media has helped to popularise this interpretation of IW across the country.

(Information) War of Words

 IW also spread to Russian politics post-Crimea. Russian politicians have accepted, adopted and/or commented on the concept far more than their Western counterparts. A number of high-level political actors – including Vladimir Putin – argue that ‘an information war is indeed currently being conducted against Russia in the media,’ but “we [i.e., Russia] are not interested in [information] wars” (Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov). Western accusations are firmly rejected by outright denying any state-level engagement in IW.

A number of non-ministerial members of the political administration have adopted more hard-line rhetoric, in contrast to the relatively diplomatic approach of senior ministerial figures. For example, Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative Maria Zakharova posted on social media this year that two former members of the Obama administration, John Kerry and Jen Psaki, were ‘soldiers of the information war.’

As with the Russian media, politicians point the finger of blame firmly at the West. Denials and dismissals are often followed by assertions that the Russian government is legitimately compelled to respond defensively and proportionately in kind to incoming information operations. Clearly, these assertions logically contradict their insistence of non-engagement in IW.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Through the introduction of government policies, various departments within the Russian security forces have recently been expanded and their duties and powers broadened in order to specifically address and engage in information operations. However, state representatives have either been very vague in explaining what such information operations entail, or have completely avoided clarifying. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu described their activity as a continuation of ‘counterpropaganda’, for which he advised that “[Russian] [p]ropaganda must be smart, competent and effective,” as a “harsh and uncompromising information war is being carried out against Russia.”

The country’s armed forces and security services have been receiving significant investments of resources to ‘fight back against […] Western propaganda’ by “engag[ing] in information warfare.” By pursuing a policy of ‘fighting fire with fire’, as they perceive it, political elites admit to Russian engagement in IW, conducted in a way that does not necessarily foreground the truth or facts.

The military has adopted rhetoric that echoes the mood music of the political administration – Russia as the victim, under sustained attack from Western information activities. Interestingly, however, most high-ranking serving military personnel have avoided using the specific term ‘information war’. This is likely to reserve use of the word ‘war’ for conventional cases of armed conflict, so as not to devalue and dilute the term through liberal and inappropriate use. NATO, on the other hand, has discussed IW extensively and repeatedly insisted that the Russian state has adopted a large-scale IW programme.

 

Despite originating in the USA, the term ‘information war/warfare’ was enthusiastically picked up by Russian academics after the collapse of the Soviet Union, who applied the concept to their own national case. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to usage of the term increasing and spreading considerably, with politicians and the media being the main drivers behind its popularisation. Fundamentally, Russian elites frame the West as the aggressor-perpetrator of IW and Russia as the victim. This perception has become widespread in Russia and has only intensified over the course of the continuing crisis in Ukraine. As a result, polarisation and tension has increased significantly between Russia and the West. In this context, the apparent unmasking of the Russian suspects in the Skripal case is read not just as an example of independent investigative journalism, but a ‘crude provocation’ in the latest chapter of the West’s ‘information war’ against Russia.

 

Connell BeggsConnell Beggs is a PhD candidate in Russian Studies at the University of Manchester. His research explores the influence and interests of Russian cultural organisations in post-Soviet space.