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Crime, Media, Culture
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DOI: 10.1177/1741659012443363
2012 8: 279 originally published online 11 July 2012 Crime Media Culture
Jon Silverman and Lisa Thomas
'I feel your pain': Terrorism, the media and the politics of response

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Crime Media Culture
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The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1741659012443363
I feel your pain: Terrorism, the
media and the politics of response
Jon Silverman and Lisa Thomas
University of Bedfordshire, UK
This paper focuses on the interaction between a rapidly changing media and the policy
responses of UK governments, faced with terrorist violence which has evolved in form
and intent. New Labours final term in office was dominated by the tension between the
competing claims of liberty and security, expressed in Tony Blairs declaration after the 7/7
attacks, Let no-one be in any doubt, the rules of the game are changing. We argue that
insofar as crime, justice and civil rights are governed by a normative set of rules, they were
subverted by New Labour in the mid-1990s for party political reasons. Thus, after 9/11, they
needed little reshaping to meet the challenge of 21st-century terrorism. Our thesis is based
partly on primary interviews and partly on analyses of media coverage, parliamentary debates
and government responses in the form of press releases and speeches. The purpose of the
interviews with insider figures from the world of politics, the police and civil society was
to triangulate the known policy responses to 9/11 with the views and perceptions of these
figures to assess whether some of the assumptions about the impact of that event on the UK
need to be rethought.
civil liberties, media, New Labour, politics of response, terrorism policy
Its the nature of the media exposure today. Its the 7-day a week, 24-hour multi- channel satel-
lite, instant response which makes the difference. Twenty years ago, we could have put out a
statement saying we are reflecting, we will make a statement soon. Now, you cant do that
because politicians who dont respond to the world moving on (which happens now almost
instantaneously) are left high and dry because other people do respond (David Blunkett, inter-
view with authors, 8 October 2008).
Corresponding author:
Jon Silverman, Research Institute for Media, Art and Design, University of Bedfordshire, Park Square, Luton LU1
3JU, UK.
443363CMC8310.1177/1741659012443363Silverman and ThomasCrime Media Culture
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This article has developed from research into the interaction between a rapidly changing media
and the policy responses of UK governments, faced with terrorist violence which has also evolved
in form and intent as the focus has switched from the Provisional IRA (PIRA) to Al-Qaeda.
Labours third and final term in office was dominated by the tension between the competing
claims of liberty and security, expressed in Tony Blairs declaration after the attacks on 7 July 2005,
Let no-one be in any doubt, the rules of the game are changing.
We argue that insofar as crime,
justice and civil rights are governed by a normative set of rules, they were subverted by New
Labour in the mid-1990s for party political reasons. Thus, after 9/11, they needed little reshaping
to meet the challenge of 21st-century terrorism.
Our second theme is the opportunistic congruence between the empathic style of leadership
of the two key policy respondents to 9/11 Tony Blair and David Blunkett and a media which
was both privileging the experience of the victim (hence, I feel your pain) and, in its tabloid
form, demonstrating a growing contempt for the sluggish pace of due process and the legisla-
tive inhibitions imposed by the Human Rights Act, as interpreted by the courts.
Our thesis is based partly on primary interviews
and partly on analyses of media coverage,
parliamentary debates and government responses in the form of, inter alia, press releases and
speeches. The interviews are with figures from the world of politics, the police and civil society,
including six former home secretaries and their policy advisers; the former head of UK counter-
terrorism; the former chief constable of Northern Ireland; the founder of the Muslim Contact Unit
at Scotland Yard; leading newspaper commentators; and a number of figures from think-tanks
associated with issues around Islamist radicalism. The purpose of the semi-structured interviews
was to triangulate the known policy responses to 9/11 with the views and perceptions of these
key insider figures to assess whether some of the assumptions about the impact of that event on
the UK need to be rethought. As Davis (2007: 181) notes, interview-based research can offer
some interesting perspectives on the relationship between political journalism and the political
process at Westminster, perspectives which are not always detectable in textual analysis-based
research, where political responses may be tallied up during content analysis but are usually more
likely to be of a symbolic rather than a substantive nature (Davis, 2007: 183).
The interviews lead us to suggest that insufficient emphasis has been placed on an important
change in New Labours psyche as it entered its second term in office in 2001. Tony Blair commu-
nicated an intense frustration that too little had been achieved during the first term and that the
focus of a government re-elected with a healthy majority should be on delivery.
It was an attempt
to bring some order and rationale into a world in which social and economic certainties appeared
to be crumbling. Fears about asylum and immigration and the breakdown of community cohesion,
as reflected in the electoral popularity of far-right parties and, in the summer of 2001, riots in
towns and cities with large Muslim communities Oldham, Bradford and Burnley fed what we
call a pervading crisis of insecurity. Both of our protagonists, Blair and Blunkett, attest to the
impact on the ruling elite of these events (see, for example, Blair, 2010; Blunkett, 2006).
David Blunketts policy adviser, Huw Evans, put it like this:
We had a view that it was governments job in times of insecurity, fuelled by 9/11, to reassure
people and one of the most unfair criticisms made of David, in his time as Home Secretary,
is that he fuelled this insecurity for his own nefarious purposes to push through lots of legisla-
tion that restricted peoples civil liberties. (Interview with authors, 10 February 2010)
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Silverman and Thomas 281
But New Labour always operated on more than one level and Evans admits there was another
driver at work:
There was a political imperative, which was that, for people at the heart of New Labour, tack-
ling crime and insecurity was absolutely at the core of the project, and distinguished it from the
Labour Party of the 1980s, which, frankly, was not very interested in crime and home affairs.
(Interview with authors, 10 February 2010)
Thus, we argue that the raft of measures brought in after 9/11 as a declared response to terrorism
should be re-interpreted in the light of New Labours own neo-liberal evolution, away from its
past, in the 1990s.
New Labour and the politics of security
Problematising the carceral boom, which took off in both the US and UK in the 1990s, Loc
Wacquant (2009: 8) coined the meta-formula: withering away of the economic state, diminution
and denigration of the social state, expansion and glorification of the penal state. For Michael
Tonry (2003: 5) the 1990s was the decade in which politicians, for reasons of self-interest, cyni-
cally stoked public concerns in order to win favour. Indeed, Tony Blair admits in his memoirs (Blair
2010: 55) that fighting crime was a personal cause it showed leadership. But his (and New
Labours) particular genius was to identify and exploit opportunities beyond the narrow crime and
anti-social behaviour agenda to represent the national mood.
Two examples will suffice. In 1996, the killings at Dunblane in Scotland
initiated a fevered
media-led debate about the need for legislation to restrict the ownership of handguns. The
Conservative Government hesitated and set up a judicial inquiry instead, enabling New Labour to
seize the initiative. Many Conservatives were dismayed, including the former Home Office minis-
ter, David Mellor, who told his partys conference in 1996: I suspect the Labour Party sees how
effective their campaign on this has been We called it wrong on the subject of Dunblane. To
blame the Labour Party for getting it right is a mistake (BBC News, 1 May 1997). The second
example, the death of Princess Diana in a car accident in August 1997, hardly needs elaboration.
Blairs pitch-perfect articulation of the nations pain allowed a whole country to see itself as a
victim and grieve accordingly.
How did this translate into policy? Ed Owen, political adviser to New Labours first Home
Secretary, Jack Straw, saw both Blair and Straw at close quarters when the party was in opposi-
tion. Tonys great skills were in presenting a vision, whereas Jack is a detail man so the policy
[which became the Crime and Disorder Act, 1998] was very much driven by Jack at that time
(Interview with authors, 1 October 2008). But vision and policy came together in a shared view of
what it meant to be liberal. Jack Straw says:
Im very liberal as to what people should be able to do in their private lives and on race and
religion. The reason Ive always had a pretty tough, but I dont think inhumane, approach to
law and order is because those who commit criminal acts are actually undermining the free-
doms of those who are law abiding. (Interview with authors, 21 September 2010)
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And this is a key feature of the particularism of New Labour. Despite the advance of neo-liber-
alism and the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, both Conservatives and Labour had shared a
broad conception of civil liberties that balanced the rights of the individual against the might of the
state. In exploiting the anomie exposed by the James Bulger killing in 1993,
Blair presented the
electorate with a fresh civil liberties equation: the right of the community the media-friendly
term which became as closely associated with New Labour as spin to be protected from the
suspect or aberrant individual. This reflected the influence of the communitarian nostrums of
Amitai Etzioni which, with additional ingredients from the theorist, John Macmurray, and the soci-
ologist, Anthony Giddens (1998), became the intellectual recipe for New Labours Third Way.
Although foregrounded as a delicate balance between rights and responsibilities (Etzioni, 1995:
x), the scales were tilted in favour of the latter from the moment that New Labour came to power
and enacted the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. From there, it was but a series of short steps to
summary justice, the curtailment of habeas corpus and an extension of the surveillance society.
Thus, in 2006, when Labours proposal to extend the time limit for detention before charge to
90 days was thrown out by the Commons, it is no surprise to find the Home Secretary, Charles
Clarke, reaching for the terminology of communitarianism to express the dilemma facing the
My appeal is to urge our media to come to terms with a modern concept of rights and respon-
sibilities to accept the modern reality that human rights are wider than those that the indi-
vidual possesses in relation to the state. (Guardian, 25 April 2006)
Priming the Response: The Crisis of Insecurity Pre-9/11
Unsurprisingly, the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001 have provoked a raft of
responses from scholars of media and politics (see, for example, Jackson, 2005; and Norris, Kern
and Just, 2003). As Papacharissi and de Fatima Oliveira note (2008: 52), much of this research has
focused on public response and reaction to terrorist attacks, definitions of terrorism, policy ques-
tions, media portrayals of terrorism, and framing across different media and nations. For their
own study, Papacharissi and de Fatima Oliveira (2008: 71) utilised framing analysis to compare the
way in which terrorist issues were portrayed in the US and UK press over a one-year period, and
found that the alignment of news frames with corresponding policy in the two nations, [pointed]
to the symbiotic relationship between the policy agenda and the press. In another UK-centred
study, Mythen and Walklate (2006: 123) examined the way in which state agencies in the UK have
communicated the terrorist threat to the public and how these new terrorism discourses are
themselves entrenched into broader cultural formations of crime and (in)security. The epistemol-
ogy of terrorism is, of course, highly contested but we would concur with Burnett and Whyte
(2005: 5) who assert that: The new terrorism thesis sets up an understanding of an enemy that is
not only more apocalyptic and dangerous, but also less amenable to traditional forms of control.
Our interviews and the published memoirs of police protagonists such as Andy Hayman and Sir
Ian Blair (see Hayman, 2009; Blair, 2010) bear out that this was the predominant view as seen
from the heart of the security state.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an in-depth comparison between Irish terror-
ism before the Good Friday Agreement and Islamist terrorism post 9/11, except to observe that
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Silverman and Thomas 283
the PIRAs violence tended to be based on specific political and practical objectives (a united
Ireland) whereas Islamist terrorism is much more generalised in terms of the practicality and
ideology of its stated aims. A more obvious difference between Irish terrorism and Islamist ter-
rorism is the modus operandi; suicide bombing, for example, is a tactic that was never employed
by the PIRA.
This qualitative change has fed into the policy-making process, which has increasingly been
based on a precautionary response to threats (Furedi, 2009: 197). And, as Furedi (2009: 197)
notes: The main accomplishment of this response has been to intensify the sense of existential
insecurity, a sentiment shared by Beck, who argues: what is politically crucial is ultimately not the
risk itself but the perception of risk. What men fear to be real is real in its consequences fear
creates its own reality (cited in Mythen and Walklate, 2006: 126).
Though its origins are hard to pinpoint, this growing sense of insecurity coincided in the 1990s
with a greater transparency within the security agencies. In December 1991, the name of the
newly appointed Director General of MI5 was publicly revealed for the first time. The announce-
ment generated a substantial amount of media coverage. As the historian of MI5, Christopher
Andrew (2010: 775) notes: Every detail of her unremarkable private life became a news story
(2001: 244).
In October 1993, another veil was lifted from Britains espionage community (The Times, 2
October 1993) when Sir Roderic Braithwaite was named as the outgoing chairman of the Joint
Intelligence Committee, with Pauline Neville-Jones named as his replacement. However, it was the
appointment of Neville-Jones, the first woman in the post, that elicited the most headlines with
the Independent proclaiming: Second Top Secret Service Post is Given to a Woman (2 October
1993); and the Daily Mail: The Spider Queen; Spy Chief at the centre of Britains Web of Secrets
(2 October 1993).
Gender politics aside, this level of media attention also led to an increasingly mediated debate
around terrorism and public safety. Thus, the move by MI5 and the Anti-Terrorist Branch towards
greater openness, while strengthening democratic accountability, also served to intensify public
The traditional reticence of the security agencies to engage in public and political debate on
security issues changed considerably during the 1990s. Indeed, prior to this period, security policy
was neither a politicised nor a heavily mediated issue. As Douglas Hurd confirms: We would have
done something about security gaps if the police or MI5 had come to us saying there were flaws,
but we did not think of that in media terms (interview with authors, 21 July 2008). On 16 July
1993, MI5 held its first press conference to launch a new publication detailing the operational
activities of the Service. Stella Rimington explained the reasoning behind this new approach to
greater openness post-1992:
Part of our thinking behind the move to openness was, lets try and get rid of the MI5 blunders
thing and James Bond, and let people see what kind of service this is and what job it has to do
in a democracy Our objective was not to seduce these guys [journalists], but to put more
information into the public domain. We never thought we were going to get a good press, but
what we wanted was a greater understanding of what the issues were, so that we could be
judged in a more sensible context. (Rimington, 2006)
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By 2006, statements by the Director General of MI5 were no longer a rarity, and the head of the
Anti-Terrorist Branch was a familiar figure on television screens. And the messages emanating
from both echoed the alarmist discourse of the UK government. Eliza Manningham-Bullers
public statement on 9 November 2006 is a prime example of this:
My officers and the police are working to contend with some 200 groupings or networks,
totalling over 1600 identified individuals (and there will be many we dont know) who are
actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas I do not speak in
this way to alarm (nor as the cynics might claim to enhance the reputation of my organisation)
but to give the most frank account I can of the Al-Qaeda threat to the UK. (The Times, 10
November 2006)
Various motives can be ascribed to the delivery of such messages one being the need to justify
increased resourcing of MI5 to meet the terrorist threat. Another factor is that, having emerged
from the shadows, the security service could not escape the obligation to play its role in an
increasingly mediated environment, as reflected in 24-hour TV and radio news, increased Internet
access among the UK population and, in the late 1990s, millennial panics, such as the Y2K bug
which became an unfounded media obsession (see Davies, 2009: 912).
This social anomie was given concrete expression in a number of ways in the 18 months or so
immediately prior to 9/11. The first significant issue was the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais,
France which opened in 1999 and closed in 2002. During this period, the British media carried
intensive coverage of the asylum seekers who were attempting to enter the UK illegally via the
Channel Tunnel. The second issue was the so-called race riots that took place in Oldham, Burnley
and Bradford in the summer of 2001.
The furore surrounding Sangatte was to have an immediate impact on the governments asy-
lum and immigration policy and, by extension, its security measures. As Blunkett notes, during this
period the Home Office wasnt functioning terribly well on asylum and immigration, and policy
in this area was an obvious shambles. He also highlights the role of the media in fuelling this
insecurity around immigration and asylum (interview with authors, 8 October 2008). Indeed,
media headlines especially in the Daily Mail and the Sun defined the Sangatte immigrants as
a mass of illegals, who were swarming, plaguing and flooding Calais in an effort to come to
soft touch Britain. More significantly, asylum seekers were portrayed as uncivilised, criminals,
violent, sexual deviants and thus the threatening Other. Understandably, the Opposition also
exploited Sangatte, with William Hague accusing the government of being unfailingly weak on
illegal immigrants (Mail, 1 February 2001), while both the tabloid press and the Conservatives
urged ministers to take a harder line on asylum and a more militaristic approach in securing British
borders. Blair (2010: 204) admitted that his party had come to power with a fairly traditional but
complacent view of immigration and asylum and that, ultimately, New Labour were unprepared
for the explosion in asylum claims through 1998 and 1999.
This marginalisation of policy-thinking on asylum/immigration was deliberate, although a seri-
ous oversight, as Jack Straw acknowledges:
On asylum, I made the judgement quite explicit in opposition that we were having to turn so
much around on the crime side that Id better just travel as light as I could on asylum. But what
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Silverman and Thomas 285
I did do when I came in was to publish a white paper and then introduce the 1999 act, which
was starting to bite, because the system before that was chaotic The other thing I did, which
I shouldnt have done and I regret now, is agree to a write-off which was essentially an amnesty
for about 30,000 people who frankly were never going to get sent back but the problem with
doing the write-off is it did send out a message. (Interview with authors, 21 September 2010)
The focus on crime, at the expense of immigration, was partly because it better suited New
Labours aim of reconnecting with those voters who had shifted allegiance to the Conservatives
over a generation and partly because Blair was convinced that his brand of social democracy
needed underpinning by a moral agenda, pace Etzioni (1995: xxi):
The best time to reinforce the moral and social foundations of institutions is not after they have
collapsed but when they are cracking. Does anyone truly believe that they have not yet cracked
in the United Kingdom?
A dependence on such an alarmist diagnosis could lead in only one direction. And it is difficult to
disagree with Jordan (1999: 203) when he writes that New Labour policy was forged in an atmos-
phere of moral condemnation and mistrust, relying on top down, authoritarian methods to
achieve its ends. In short, the prescription for precautionary policy-making which was applied so
profligately to terrorism post 9/11 had been written out even before New Labour came to power.
Politicians and press in harmony
Much has been written about New Labours pragmatic embrace of the Murdoch empire in order
to pave its way back to power. But, arguably, there has been too little analysis of the medias role
in the partys criminal justice policy-making. Tonry (2003: viiviii) points out that Englands [sic]
government employs the most hyperbolic anti-crime rhetoric of any in Europe, language that
elsewhere characterizes xenophobic right-wing fringe parties.
No doubt this is one consequence of the fact that Britain has also advanced further down the
neo-liberal road than most of its European partners. But it is also incontestable that Britain has a
more aggressive tabloid media, whose exploitation of simplistic archetypes the family as nur-
turing, the jobless as work-shy and so on undoubtedly serves as an influential artery of public
discourse and a pressure point on government. This was particularly evident after 2000.
As the Guardian (7 February 2002) notes: The Blair government [was] consistently pricked by
stories in newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail, decrying Britains soft touch on the asylum
issue. To counter the negative publicity surrounding the asylum and immigration issue, Blair
looked to replace Jack Straw as Home Secretary with the more hard line David Blunkett only days
after the 2001 election campaign had begun. Reading the Sun headline, Blunkett: Ill make Jack
Straw look like a liberal, was the first Straw knew about it. The Daily Telegraphs chief political
commentator, Peter Oborne, points to this as a typical example of mediaNew Labour collusion,
prominent during Blunketts tenure in office:
The Downing Street grid [showed] a collaboration between Blunkett and the Sun when it was
running a campaign to crack down on immigration. The grid says Sun to launch anti-immigrant
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campaign and on the third/fourth days, Blunkett is wheeled out to say: Sun readers are right
about immigration. (Interview with authors, 14 December 2010)
Indeed, much of the tone of the centre-right media found its way into the Anti-Terrorism, Crime
and Security Act 2001 the legislation introduced in response to 9/11 most notably, the inclu-
sion of new provisions to deal with foreign nationals (i.e. suspect immigrants). Blair, in particular,
was frustrated that foreign nationals accused of terrorism-related offences could not be deported
because of the poor human rights situations in their countries of origin. As he attests, his efforts
to tighten immigration laws in 1998 were thwarted by the liberal courts and the European
Convention of Human Rights, with its absolutist attitude to the prospect of returning someone to
an unsafe community (Blair, 2010: 205). Thus, whereas previous political leaders whether of
Left or Right - would, if pressed, have been happy to stand foursquare behind the declaration that
the liberty of the citizen under the law is the most fundamental of all freedoms,
Blairs valedic-
tory comment was that it was a dangerous misjudgement to put civil liberties first (Sunday Times,
27 May 2007).
Terrorism and Community Cohesion
Although Irish and Muslim communities in Britain have, to varying degrees, been constructed as
suspect (Nickels, Thomas, Hickman and Silvestri, 2010: 2), we argue that the terrorism of the
PIRA period did not lead to any significant introspection about British identity in the way that Islamist
terrorism has. It is certainly the case that, especially in the 1970s after the Guildford and Birmingham
pub bombings, sections of the British media fomented anti-Irish sentiment (Nickels et al., 2010) but
there is little evidence of a sustained discourse around a threat to the fabric of British life. In their
comparative study on the construction of suspect communities, Nickels et al. (2010: 19) found
religious difference is a key element of the contrast between the representations of the Irish
and Muslim experiences, with Catholicism/Protestantism being made invisible or assimilated in
news discourse, and Islam/Muslims being made highly visible and constructed as outside British
Indeed, Islamist terrorism has had a profound impact on the debate around issues of Britishness
and social cohesion, which has been exacerbated by the changing media environment.
For the past several decades, asylum and immigration in Britain has been the subject of consid-
erable division among and between the media, politicians and the public particularly in relation
to the impact migration has had, and continues to have, on issues of nationhood and social inte-
gration (later to be rephrased by New Labour as community cohesion). As Husbands (1994: 191)
notes, during the 1970s, debates on national identityhad been stimulated by populist fears
about swamping and cultural dilution, but that by the 1980s, these fears had largely been
quietened due to the then Conservative governments restrictionist immigration legislation
(Husbands, 1994: 191). Indeed, when she was leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher capi-
talised on the media-stoked anxieties over asylum and immigration in the lead-up to the 1979
election. In an interview with Granada Television on 27 January 1978, Thatcher quotes a commit-
tee report which states that failure to tighten up immigration laws will result in an influx of four
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Silverman and Thomas 287
million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan by 2000, which resulted in her infamous
swamped statement:
Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this coun-
try might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British
character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world
that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hos-
tile to those coming in. So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples fears
on numbers. (Thatcher, 1978)
By the early 1990s, as Britain edged closer to joining the European Monetary Union and in the
wake of the Salman Rushdie affair, a new wave of mediated panics surrounding asylum seekers
and the perils of multiculturalism ensued. But it was the reaction of British Muslims to the publica-
tion of Rushdies Satanic Verses that proved to be the defining moment with regard to the ques-
tioning of national identity, with a series of protests by British Muslims being used by some
sections of the media, as well as by some right-wing politicians, to justify suspicions about the
Britishness of the countrys Muslim population (Husbands, 1994: 194).
In retrospect, because it provoked protests carrying threats of violence, both at home and
abroad, the Satanic Verses episode can be seen as a key bridge between the culturally/ethnically
defined debate about identity in the early Thatcher era and the overt linkage of asylum and immi-
gration issues to terrorism from the 1990s onwards (See Malik, 2009). Far-right parties, such as
the BNP, undoubtedly benefited from this linkage in some voters minds as they steadily gained
seats in local elections.
Given the increasing move towards more punitive policies, or populist punitiveness in the past
two decades, it is hardly surprising that New Labour embraced the hitherto Conservative approach
towards assimilation politics a trend also fuelled by the destabilising effects of modernity, which
Richard Garside (along with Anthony Giddens and Tony Bottoms) associates with the rise of indi-
vidualism, technological innovation and the disorienting impact of globalisation (Garside, 2007:
32). The commentator, Peter Oborne, argues that, as a result, New Labour has ended up as very
populist, anti-immigrant, opposed to the rule of law, pro-market and they have ended up quite
close to the far right (interview with authors, 14 December 2010). As Bagguley and Hussain
(2006: 45) argue:
since the 2001 riots there has been a shift away from multiculturalism and ethnic diversity in
New Labour discourse. This has been replaced by an atavistic assimilationism that demands
integration reminiscent of the failed policies of the 1950s and 60s. We are confronted by a
contradictory mix of valuing diversity and opposing racism with policies restricting the move-
ment of refugees. This is linked to New Labours ambivalence about Britains national identity
as a post-colonial power and its liberal opposition to social injustice.
In April 2002, David Blunkett (2006: 370) made headlines when he used the word swamping in
relation to asylum seekers and how public services close to dispersal centres were struggling to
cope with extra numbers of people speaking not English as a second language but no English at
all. Interestingly, he refers to the medias role in stoking this controversy in a way that would not
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have happened in the Thatcher era. He reflects on how difficult it is to deal with not just broad-
cast but new forms of news media that politicians from even a few years ago did not have to
engage with (Blunkett, 2006: 371).
A key finding of the review into the Oldham riots was the recognition that communication
between communities at all levels is an essential part of creating a mixed community. As part of
this, there needs to be adequate understanding of the English language across communities
(Ritchie, 2001: 7). This particular recommendation was a mainstay of later social integrationist
policy. For example, the 2002 White Paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity
in Modern Britain states that the English language is a vital skill for refugee job-seekers and an
important tool for successful integration (Home Office, 2002: 72). In September 2002, Blunkett
took this a step further in his essay Reclaiming Britishness, where he suggested that those long
settled in the UK should converse with their children in English, as well as in their historic mother
tongue, at home and to participate in wider modern culture (Independent, 16 September 2002).
In the wake of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, the government set out to win the hearts
and minds of Muslim youth, most notably in the form of the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE)
agenda a policy that has been mired in controversy ever since its inception. Thomas (2010)
argues that the PVE strategy has been a vehicle for a significant growth in state surveillance of
Muslim communities, which is contrary to the aims of other key governmental priorities such as
Community Cohesion. Daud Abdullah, the former deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council
of Britain, agrees that the PVE was counter-productive, it was alienating Muslims, but acknowl-
edges that:
There were people within the establishment and the security services who took a very balanced
and fair approach to this thing, but they were in a sense driven by the politicians. They had to
deliver, they had to show that they were tough and then the politicians also somehow had to
play to the gallery and show that they are tough also. So it was a vicious circle. (Interview with
authors, 26 April 2010)
Robert Lambert, one of the founders of the Metropolitan Polices Muslim Contact Unit, also
describes how unhelpful certain Home Secretaries have been in tackling the issue of Islamist extrem-
ism, and the impact this has had on fostering good relations between the police and Muslim com-
munities post 9/11. Describing an incident when John Reid visited a Muslim community in Leyton,
East London in 2006, he states: his guidance to parents to be shepherds for their children, look-
ing out for signs of radicalisation which seemed to include increasing religiosity, less interest in
cricket etc. I found this to be extremely unhelpful (Interview with authors, 14 June 2010).
Indeed, the political emphasis on the social integration of Muslims under the community cohe-
sion agenda has arguably resulted in a greater cultural polarisation within communities, and thus
greater social segregation.
The Discourse of Victimhood
A changing media has undoubtedly had an impact on the way in which the public perceive and
relate to politicians, especially in todays highly visual age where the image predominates.
Television, more than any other medium, has been instrumental in the drive towards personality
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Silverman and Thomas 289
politics a phenomenon that would serve Tony Blair very well during the first few years of his
premiership. Tony Blairs visual response to the London bombings on 7 July 2005, where in the
immediate aftermath of the attacks he is photographed standing alone, head bowed, and body
stiff as though in genuine shock was, according to Tulloch (2006: 49), a performance, a photo
opportunity to gain empathy by a politician who, because of his illegal, media-spun military entry
into Iraq, was deeply unpopular it was a posture well-practiced, an attitude thought about and
rehearsed long before.
But what distinguishes the New Labour government from previous governments in terms of
their response to the terror threat, and how were these issues communicated to the public? New
Labours move towards an emotionalistic political discourse is, as Gaffney (2001: 131) notes, a
rhetorical device to reach out past the office in order to connect at an imagined more human
level. Television has been a vital medium in terms of creating an imaginary proximity between
politician and public (Gaffney, 2001: 128). Tony Blair, in particular, addressed the electorate with
a new level of intimacy and ordinariness. Moreover, the political first person oratory of New
Labour Tony Blair and David Blunkett in particular paralleled the tabloid focus on victim-driven
first-person narrative. This new style of political rhetoric served to show the electorate that not
only were the politicians listening to them, but that they were being proactive in their response.
As Richards (2007: 107) affirms: One thing that was new about New Labour was arguably the
attention paid to the emotional tasks of political leadership, to intuiting the anxieties of the public
and seeking to respond to them.
If the visual media highlighted the importance of the image in political life, the advent of
24-hour news was to create a climate whereby politicians needed to be seen to respond more
rapidly than they had done before. Put simply, the ever increasing news cycle has meant that
governments now need to respond to issues round the clock. Online news and information sites
have also intensified this trend.
As Garland (2001: 157) notes, the changing media has not only had an impact on the speed
at which politicians respond, but has heralded a new style of political communication. He states:
The TV encounter with its soundbite rapidity, its emotional intensity, and its mass audience
has tended to push politicians to be more populist, more emotive, more evidently in tune with
public feeling.
Adopting a psychological approach to the context of terrorism, Richards (2007: 107) uses the
term emotional governance to describe the deliberate attention paid by politicians to the emo-
tional dynamics of the public. It is a useful aid to understanding the transformation in approach
from the Home Secretaryship of Douglas Hurd to that of David Blunkett at the time of 9/11. When
the IRA resumed its mainland bombing campaign in 1988 (with the attack on the Mill Hill bar-
racks) there was shock in government and security circles that a four-year hiatus in mainland ter-
rorism (since the Brighton bomb in 1984) had ended, and extra powers were added to the
Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA 1989). But there was no government-initiated public debate
about the balance between security and civil liberty. As Douglas Hurd says: There was no real
feeling that the IRA could overwhelm us all. Even if the Prime Minister had been knocked out in
the Grand Hotel [Brighton] bombing, life would go on. We thought the law was about right
(Interview with authors, 21 July 2008).
Nevertheless, Hurd admits surprise that there was not more media or public pressure over the
IRA (interview with authors, 21 July 2008). Contrast this with the frenetic, mediated clamour for
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action after 9/11, which was followed by an almost immediate government response (most nota-
bly in the form of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security legislation, which was drafted within
weeks of the attack). In the 13 years since the two events, the UK media both print and broad-
cast had, according to Andrew Bridges (2008), Chief Inspector of Probation, become increas-
ingly values-opinionated and position-taking making it increasingly difficult to conduct a
rational debate on the criminal justice system. The Guardian columnist, Julian Glover, who left
the journalism profession in 2011 to become a speechwriter for David Cameron, wrote: One
reason I welcome the chance to get off the sidelines for a few years is that I fear comment, like a
strangler-fig, is getting stronger than the politics on which it feeds (Guardian, 24 October 2011).
Both Blair and Blunkett never passed up an opportunity to stress that their criminal justice poli-
cies were intended to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. But the period after
9/11, when tackling terrorism became the number one priority, coincided with a series of spec-
tacular failures in public protection which showed up the hollowness of the pledge. If, as Boyd-
Caine (2010: 22) argues, the states legitimacy turns upon how effective the government can be
in showing its receptiveness to public sentiment, then, as each failure was laid bare, another
thread in the mandate claimed by the Home Office and its agencies unravelled. That, in turn, led
ministers and media to strike out wildly against those they would have the public believe were
jeopardising its safety probation officers, defence lawyers and judges.
The response came in a steady encroachment into principles of due process, via control orders
and extensions to the time police could question suspects. At a deeper level, this expressed what
Reiner (2007: 19) has called a zero sum contest between victims and offenders a key feature
of the currently dominant politics of law and order. By zero-sum is meant the assumption that
what benefits the offender is inevitably detrimental to the victim. The Home Secretary, John Reid
(2006), sought to finesse this balance when he said:
I want to say a word about human rights I am not suggesting that offenders have no human
rights. But I am suggesting and rather more than that that the community has a right to be
protected from dangerous criminals This rebalancing of the system back in favour of victims
ensuring that victims or their representatives get a greater say about the release of offenders
back into the community. Their voice must be heard more clearly.
But as the government, especially after the events of 7 July 2005, felt itself under ever greater
pressure from a media reflecting a waning public confidence, it was inevitable that the voice of
the victim, and the media advocating on their behalf, became even louder.
This then, the politics of response, was New Labours mediated legacy as it left office in 2010.
From 9/11 to Abu Qatada
The news framing of politics and terrorism around the belief that the Human Rights Act weakened
parliaments sovereignty, and privileged the legal rights of convicted prisoners, asylum seekers and
suspected terrorists above those of law-abiding citizens and victims, is one of the key discourses
of the past decade. A government which counted the Human Rights Act as one of its most nota-
ble achievements found itself imprisoned in this discourse. This section looks at the consequences
of that ensnarement, which was a conflict between politicians and judges.
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Silverman and Thomas 291
Home Secretaries as different in temperament as David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid and,
more latterly, Theresa May, all, at one time or another, fulminated against court rulings and the
refusal of the judges to see themselves as partners in the war on terrorism. Blunkett (2006: 453)
described an uncooperative letter from the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, as outrageous
the sheer gall of it was quite breathtaking, while Clarke condemned as disgraceful the Law Lords
refusal to enter into a dialogue about the law and terrorism (House of Lords, 2007: 26).
This disaffection with the judiciary was mirrored by increasingly hostile comment in the media
post-2001, designed to paint the judges as anti-democratic. For example:
Britains top judge has announced he will defy Parliament to protect terrorists and illegal immi-
grants. Lord Woolf says judges must be prepared to be unpopular in making a stand to
prevent the Government from scoring an own goal in the fight against terrorism. Lord Woolf
said: Such temporary unpopularity is a price worth paying if it ensures that this country remains
a democracy committed to the rule of law, a democracy which is therefore worth defending.
He has a curious interpretation of democracy if he thinks unelected judges should be allowed
to prevail over elected politicians. (Sun, 18 October 2002)
Using the European Convention on Human Rights as cover, Mr Justice Sullivan made a ruling
which many will regard as tantamount to a judicial coup against Parliament Britains out-of-
touch judges are increasingly using the Human Rights Act as a means of asserting their will
over our elected representatives. (Daily Express, 11 May 2006)
Such inflammatory language as judicial coup to describe a court ruling is, in the UK, regarded as
the price to be paid for a free and robust media. But it cannot be denied that such discourse has
political consequences. By 2008, the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, was Justice Secretary,
and was writing: I fully understand that Mail readers have concerns about the Human Rights Act.
There is a sense that its a villains charter or that it stops criminals being deported or criminals
being properly given publicity. (Daily Mail, 8 December 2008). Is there a closer synergy between
politician and press to be found than in the admission by an architect of the Human Rights Act,
and self-confessed liberal, that it could be seen as a villains charter?
The alignment of politicians and press is perfectly illustrated by the Daily Mail editor, Paul
Dacre, who said that the public still have great faith in the judiciary but there are worries that it
is not reflecting their values and instincts (House of Lords, 2007: 45). That judges are expected to
reflect something as amorphous as values and instincts (which, in any case, can hardly be shared
by a population of nearly 70 million people) was, of course, perversely unrealistic. Nevertheless, it
infected the thinking of New Labour Home Secretaries to the extent that even less confrontational
practitioners such as Charles Clarke went to war with the judges when his overtures about a dia-
logue on how to reconcile security with liberty were rebuffed. He regarded it as disgraceful that
no Law Lord is prepared to discuss in any forum with the Home Secretary of the day the issues of
principle involved in these matters. The idea that their independence would be corrupted by such
discussions is risible (House of Lords, 2007: 26).
The senior Law Lord, Lord Bingham, did not agree and nor did the House of Lords Select
Committee on the Constitution:
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His [Clarkes] call for meetings between the Law Lords and the Home Secretary risks an unac-
ceptable breach of the principle of judicial independence. It is essential that the Law Lords, as
the court of last resort, should not even be perceived to have prejudged an issue as a result of
communications with the executive. (House of Lords, 2007: 33)
It is a key part of our thesis that this heavily mediated gulf between politicians and judiciary began
to open up before 9/11, indeed, before New Labour came to power. The commentator, Peter
Oborne, traces it back to the last Conservative Home Secretary before 1997:
Michael Howard attacked judges and tried to get the media onside but he got very little trac-
tion for that. He was painted by the media as a bungling Home Secretary who kept getting the
law wrong. So, very few people defended Howard when he was slapped down by the courts,
as happened repeatedly. But because New Labour had such a good relationship with the media
and had a lot of papers on their side, Blunkett got a lot of media support when he was in con-
frontation with the judges. Papers like the Sun, Mail, Telegraph and Times all took the govern-
ments side in their war with the judges. (Interview with authors, 14 December 2010)
And that analysis is equally true of the more recent attempts by the Coalition administration to
deport the radical cleric, Abu Qatada. The media framing of the issue as a contest between the
human rights of the preacher and the security of the British people yet again foregrounds the
challenge posed by the aberrant individual to the wider community. The role of the European
Court of Human Rights in defending the sanctity of a system of justice untainted by torture has
been marginalised. It is the triumph of Blairism writ large. And that is the measure of the journey
which has been taken since the mid-1990s.
This paper has contended that 9/11 was not the defining step change in terms of the burgeoning
crisis of insecurity in the UK. Indeed, as has been shown, anxiety over asylum and immigration
and the breakdown of community cohesion in communities with large Muslim populations was
already evident in the 18 months or so prior to 9/11 most explicitly manifested in the increasing
electoral significance of the far-right parties. Moreover, the anxieties triggered by these events also
set the parameters for media and political debate on what it meant to be British in a multicultural
The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 existed in various forms until it
was eventually replaced with the Terrorism Act 2000 a permanent piece of legislation intro-
duced by the New Labour government partly in response to the Omagh bombing of 1998. In the
wake of 9/11, Blairs government brought in an unprecedented amount of further terrorism leg-
islation in the form of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Prevention of Terrorism
Act 2005, the Terrorism Act 2006, and finally the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Many of the
measures contained in these Acts, such as control orders and increased detentions, provoked
fierce debates over civil liberties, as well as conflict between the government and the judiciary a
feud that was duly played out in the media.
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Silverman and Thomas 293
However, as this article has argued, many of the authoritarian measures found in the later
legislation (for example, greater powers of the police to stop and search terror suspects and
more intrusive surveillance measures) were not a consequence of 9/11 but were already entrenched
in New Labours general approach to crime and security from as early as 1995. One only had to
review the legislation which has been enacted prior to 9/11 the seminal Crime and Disorder Act
1998; the Terrorism Act 2000, with its notoriously malleable Section 44; the Regulation of
Investigatory Powers Act 2000,which allowed greater powers to covertly monitor suspects com-
munications to find many of the trace elements of the post 9/11 response such as a willingness
to give the police greater powers, a reliance on hearsay evidence and anonymous witnesses, and
an obsession with surveillance and CCTV. And, running through it all, a general belief that sum-
mary justice was in many ways preferable to due process.
So, Tony Blairs famous redefinition of the game after the 7/7 bombing in London was another
manifestation of smoke-and-mirrors politics. This was not the start of a new approach to crime
and liberty but the advanced stage of a process which had been going on, with the approval and
connivance of sections of the media, for a decade.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
1. As Richard Jackson (2006) notes: It could be argued that Islamic terrorism now functions as a negative
ideograph of British and American culture, or a culturally-determined label that defines national identity
through negation (p. 22). This paper employs the term Islamist terrorism to refer to post 9/11 terrorist
violence committed by extremist Muslim groups for political or religious aims, particularly (though not
exclusively) Al-Qaeda or groups or individuals inspired by Al-Qaeda. However, it is important to note that
we are equally sensitive to the debates around the use of this particular term.
2. Tony Blair made this statement during his monthly press conference on 5 August 2005, in response to the
London bombings of 7 July 2005.
3. A total of 45 interviews were conducted, each lasting on average 60 to 75 minutes. All interviews were
recorded and transcribed for analysis. The majority of the interviews were carried out for Jon Silvermans
(2011) book Crime, Policy and the Media: The Shaping of Criminal Justice, 19892010 (London: Routledge)
and several for Lisa Thomass PhD research. Interview questions addressed a range of topics within the
rubric of crime, security and criminal justice policy, and the role of the media in political decision-making.
4. In June 2001, Michael Barber founded and headed the Prime Ministers Delivery Unit. The Unit was cre-
ated to monitor the delivery of top public service priority commitments.
5. On 13 March 1996, in the Scottish town of Dunblane, Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 primary school
children and one teacher before killing himself. In the wake of the Dunblane massacre, a major cam-
paign on gun control was launched, which led to the government introducing new legislation banning the
purchase and possession of handguns.
6. In Liverpool on 12 February 1993, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables abducted, tortured and murdered
two-year-old James Bulger. The perpetrators were aged ten at the time of the murder. Thompson and
Venables were later tried in an adult court where they were convicted and sentenced to life imprison-
ment. The then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, recommended that they serve at least 15 years of their
sentence before the possibility of parole a decision that was later overturned by the Law Lords.
7. R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Cheblak (1991) 1 WLR 890, 894.
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Author biographies
Jon Silverman is a professor of media and criminal justice at the University of Bedfordshire. He
was the BBCs home affairs correspondent from 1989 until 2002. His current research interests
include the influence of a changing media on senior policymakers responsible for the criminal
justice system in the UK.
Lisa Thomas is a PhD candidate, researcher and visiting lecturer in media and politics at the
University of Bedfordshire. Her doctoral research focuses on the interface between the media and
the policymaking process, with special reference to counter-terrorism policy in the UK.
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