Sunday, January 01, 2006

My Interview for 'The Message' on Radio 4, Friday 30th December

[If the following reads a little disjointedly, it's because it was an 'interview' from which the interviewer's questions have been cut.]
Jenni Murray: Good afternoon, and today we review some of the year's biggest stories. What was it like to be under the spotlight of the press and how do those involved regard the message the media put forward? Paul Vallely, Associate Editor of The Independent, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian and the Labour MP for Dewsbury, Shahid Malik, join me to look back on: the ejection of Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Party Conference, he'll be telling us what he thought of the coverage of his story; David Okuro, the cousin of Anthony Walker who was murdered in Liverpool, describes how his family handled national media attention and the columnists' response to the concept of forgiveness; but first we go to Beeston in Leeds where two of the July London Bombers had lived as part of the community. An international media circus descended on the inner-city suburb. The Revd Neil Bishop is a Methodist minister in the area and described what it was like.
NB: It was quite an upsetting and disturbing experience. Nothing really quite prepares you for it. I mean you do see other people obviously being door-stepped by journalists and so on, and you think you can imagine what that would be like, but it was quite surreal. There was a helicopter circling overhead all of the time on the first day, which we thought was the police, actually, doing surveillance. It turned out to be the BBC. There were journalists getting into buildings on false pretences, pretending to be local people and then all of a sudden – you know - whipping out a notebook and starting asking questions, and then there were perfectly sort of polite and reasonable journalists who were just sort of knocking on the door saying, 'I'm from a newspaper in France and please can you give me an interview,' that kind of thing.
What happens, obviously, is that journalists come up and they want to do vox pop interviews and so they went into the local park and they just sort of gathered as many young people as they could. There were rumours that people had been given ten pound notes to say things, and so on, (I've no idea whether that's true), but certainly they just sort of grabbed any sort of young person they could find and started asking them all kinds of questions. At first the questions are perfectly reasonable ones like, 'Did you know the people who exploded the bombs?' But then they move on to, 'Can you explore their psychological motivation?' and so on, and any sensible person at that point would say, 'Well, actually, no, I can't.' But you know, I mean, you could see people thinking, 'Well, I'm on television. I'd better try and answer these questions.'
At first people wanted to engage with the media and they tried to answer the questions, they tried to put across what they thought was the truth about Beeston as they saw it, and then they opened the newspapers the next day and sometimes saw – you know - what they'd said totally distorted, so then the following day they'd batten down the hatches and refuse to talk to any journalists at all...
So on the one hand you had people who came in with a script they'd already written. Then on the other hand there were people who obviously came looking for someone who would back up their story, and then there were other people who I felt were genuinely puzzled about how terrorists might have come from such an ordinary community and were really interested in getting to the bottom of what was going on. One Spanish journalist, who'd interviewed a number of us, in his report began, 'There is a hell and it's a place called Beeston,' which was – you know - totally ludicrous... It's just an ordinary inner-city suburb in a Northern city.
I mean, the excesses were quite bad but on the other hand there were lots of journalists who did try to do a fair report on what Beeston was like and on what might have motivated the bombers and I'd be the first to say that in a democracy everybody needs to know.
The other complaint was that people were very anxious to say that Muslims were in a kind of ghetto in Beeston and that they didn't get on with their White neighbours, that there were very poor community relations, and nothing could be further than [sic] the truth.
I felt some of the international reporters were more willing to ask some of the hard questions than some of the reporters from within the UK. I think some of the local reporters found the story too close to home, to be honest. I suppose readers didn't really want to open their newspapers or turn on their radios and hear that, actually, terrorists can come from a street like yours. So they were very anxious to paint Beeston as sort of somewhere that had problems that could be solved and then - you know - terrorism would go away.
JM: Paul Vallely, you went there. How do you respond to the Revd Neil Bishop's description of the whole thing as surreal? [etc.]

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