Opinion: Owen Jones, Terrorists and the Importance of Context

Peter Edwards

Image: Sky News

In the now infamous Sky News press preview where Guardian columnist, Owen Jones ‘stormed’ off (in a tabloid world where ‘storming’ is actually walking off in a very disgruntled but polite fashion), talking about the homophobic terrorist that committed the Orlando atrocity he stated “if he went into a synagogue and killed innocent Jewish people… disgusting anti-semitic terrorist, we would call it out for what it is”. And Owen’s whole point seemed to be that the homophobic nature of the attack was not being as widely reported as, say, an anti-semitic nature of an attack on Jews, or the racist nature of attacks based on race. Well, let’s investigate that.

This writer has been looking into the coverage of the attack on the Jewish supermarket in Paris in January 2015. On the wikipedia page, there are 4 references to anti-semitism – it’s referenced, but buried in the reporting of the events and references to Islamic terrorism; In all the Sky News footage I can find, anti-semitism is mentioned only by Jonathan Sacerdoti from the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, who is interviewed for three minutes; the same is true for BBC coverage – in it, his are the only references to anti-semitism this writer can find. In both BBC and Sky coverage, anti-semitism is referenced but seems to be buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.

In the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo anti-freedom-of-speech attack – which occurred two days before the anti-semitic attack on the Jewish supermarket – there seems to be almost no mention of it being an attack on freedom of speech, or on satire. I’ve scoured every British online news source I can think of, and though there are references to it being an attack on a satirical magazine, and Charlie Hebdo staff being defiant in the aftermath, there seem to be hardly any actual mentions of the (very obvious) fact that terrorists were trying to kill or maim a fundamental aspect of our societies – freedom of speech. If that fact was mentioned, it seems to have been buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.

In the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, we have an example where one of the terrorist attackers actually placed on record his reasons for committing such a horrific act: “The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers”, Michael Adebolajo said immediately after the attack. So these terrorists were against the actions which British soldiers were taking in Muslim areas, and – other than that quote, and the video in which Adebolajo says it – there appears to be very little reference in British media to the terrorists’ motives. They seem to have been buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.

In all these cases and many more, the facts of how the events panned out have been reported – which of course they have to be – and if they’re carried out by terrorists who appear to have been radicalised by some extremely bastardised form of Islam, then of course that should be mentioned. But if the majority of the coverage comprises just those two things – the events and the Islamists – what is being achieved by our media? The demonization of Muslims, possibly; copycat attacks, probably (according to various studies and books); a greater understanding of the global security threat, definitely; a sympathy for the victims, of course.

So many better objectives could be achieved: In coverage of the Orlando shooting, for example, references to past homophobic attacks could have been given much greater prominence, to provide historical context; more awareness could have been raised about the barbaric crimes committed on the LGBT community, both here and abroad; more understanding could be expressed about what Muslims actually believe about gays; and we could have heard much from organisations such as NGOs, about what they’re doing to combat homophobic ignorance. In the anti-semetic attack coverage, as with the LGBT attacks in Orlando, more prominence could have been given to the history of attacks which that community has suffered; more awareness could have been created about what is being done to combat that kind of hatred; and more understanding of religious beliefs could have occurred also. It seems like the British media could have achieved better coverage in the other attacks I’ve mentioned as well, but I won’t go on. You get the picture.

To sum up, what I’m saying is: context is key, and when most of the coverage of such horrific attacks comprises a reporting of the events and references to Islamist terrorism, context is exactly the thing we don’t get enough of. Do we REALLY understand why the US was so hated that terrorists flew planes into buildings on 9/11? Do we really understand why Jews can be hated, and what effect this has on them? Do we fully understand the extent of the patriotic pride a British soldier feels, despite the risks? I would suggest no, we can’t fully understand any of those things – despite them all being important issues that media outlets could have featured much more of, in order to provide much greater context during their coverage of terrorist attacks.

So, really, Owen was pretty much spot on in his assessment of Sunday’s coverage of the Orlando homophobic attack: he commented during Sky’s press preview about the lack of LGBT voices in the coverage, and he was right, as surely only LGBT voices could have given some of the context required. More voices from the particular communities affected would provide the much greater context required, and inform people in the much fuller way that news organisations are morally required to do. And let’s make sure those voices don’t get buried amongst reporting of the events, and references to Islamist terrorism.

About Peter Edwards 2 Articles

Peter is studying a Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree and has campaigned for the Conservatives. He also performs improv comedy with The Murderettes, and has a vegetable garden and allotment.

  • Wordsear

    No, I’m afraid Owen Jones was not “spot on” about the coverage. In fact ultimately he turned out to be about as wrong as a person can be.
    The first problem with Owen Jones is in HIS failure to view the event “in context”. An Islamic male calls in to the local police and announces his allegiance to ISIS. For the Sky news commentators to approach the issue from the standpoint of Islamic terror–was both logical and “in context”. Owen Jones was demanding that they proceed in a far more limited definition of the attack being a “homophobic attack”–and he would NOT allow a more expansive narrative that included Islamic terror be introduced. In fact, by the end of his rant, he had accused the host of being incapable of sufficiently sympathizing with the event because he was “not gay” himself. An unbelievable insult to level against another human being in a time of tragedy, and an affront by Owen Jones against several other classes who ALSO had personal stakes in this tragedy. Notably the victims families–the majority of whom are not gay, but who presumably will feel SOMETHING for the loss of their loved one, and of course for the Latino community, because the majority of the people killed were from that group. Presumably they had non-gay friends, class mates, co-workers, friends who might mourn the passing of this person they knew–but Owen Jones pushed past all considerations of that in his zeal to make this SOLELY a “gay tragedy”.

    The ironic part of your article is that the examples you mention were the gay aspect of stories, the Jewish aspect of stories, the attack on the freedom of speech aspect that were ignored in previous events…any and all of these could have been addressed by Owen Jones…If He Had Stayed In His Chair! Presumably he would have focused only on the gay aspect because that was obviously his primary goal, to force the narrative into the narrow story that the attack was “homophobically motivated”. So professionally I believe the man was also not “spot on” and in fact I consider his actions to have been a complete failure both as a journalist and as a spokesmen for the gay community. There was an opportunity for him to have quietly acknowledged the Islamic terror aspect of the story, but gotten in his points about the victims being gay in a FAR less damaging way toward the other guests and host and without embarrassing the gay community and acting in a highly stereotypical fashion (the easily excitable gay male who has to storm out of a room when he can’t deal with what someone else is saying….was he auditioning for Les Cage Aux Folies?) Just sit there and defend your position points, make your case. He did none of that.

    And the final way in which he was completely mistaken and wrong headed was with the facts themselves. Which I can’t fault him for in his initial belief, because everyone following the news story also believed this, but its his behavior in the aftermath after a more complete version of the story that has emerged that has cast his behavior in the most abysmal of lights.

    It begins with his statement that “if 50 Jewish people were killed, we’d call it antisemitism”. This statement is true….unless the shooter is himself Jewish. Within a relatively short period of time after Owen Jones–let’s call it “performance”–during his interview, it was revealed that Omar Mateen had carried on at least a 3 years attendance at gay bars, posting dating ads on gay sites, and propositioning gay men.

    In short, he was “Jewish”. Or, more correctly, he was a part of the group he was accused of being homophobic against. And in being gay, all claims that he could act as a homophobe…fail.

    He can be confused about his religion, his sexuality or his place in the world. He can be acting out of jealousy because someone at a gay club spurned his advances. He could be doing it in a bid to become famous. But our societies do not recognize the “Jewish antisemite” who acts a Jewish synagogue. We do not recognize the “black racist who shot up a black church”. We do not characterize the Caucasian male who shoots up his family barbeque as “a white supremacist who hates whites”.

    As I say…there is little way Owen Jones could have known that Mateen would turn out to be gay….but once it was known he WAS gay, Owen Jones could have made efforts to apologize for not allowing the host at Sky news and the guests to have placed the story in its PROPER–much more EXPANSIVE–context, and not tried to turn the tragedy into the far more narrowly “this is all about gays…you can’t understand, you’re not gay!” direction that he tried to turn it. For failing to apologize to the hosts and guests, to the families of the victims for refusing to acknowledge that they TOO might be suffering at that loss of their son, or daughter, or sister, or brother, and for failing to apologize to the Latino community for not even mentioning the effect on their group, and, finally, for not apologizing to the gay community for acting as such a poor spokesman and a complete embarrassment to them, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Owen Jones was FAR from “spot on”.
    He was about as embarrassingly wrong as a person can be, on every level.