7/7 Five Years On: Media Still Unclear How to Report Risk

On the fifth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings of 5 July 2005, Chatham House today held a conference to examine our security culture and the development of counter-terrorism in the years since 52 people were killed. The event also marked the publication of a special issue of International Affairs featuring articles reporting on the various aspects of our security culture – including an article by Andrew Hoskins and myself on media coverage of ‘radicalisation’ in which we argue, controversially, and based on a recent study of British Muslim audiences, that the BBC may have more of a radicalising effect than jihadist websites.

Central to today’s discussion was evaluating risk: what risk of terrorism is serious, and how much risk can we live with? With no repeats of 7/7, has British counter-terrorism policy been a success? To reach an answer, we’d need to know exactly the number of cases security agencies have followed and attacks they’ve thwarted. But such data is necessarily secret, and without it, citizens, many politicians, and journalists are all at sea. Take the front page of today’s The Times:

Security agencies are monitoring round the clock two active terrorist cells known to be planning attacks in Britain, The Times has learnt.

The cells stand out from dozens of police and security services operations because they have discussed methods of attack, including “soft targets” that could result in large-scale civilian casualties, according to security sources.

[…] Andy Hayman, the former assistant commissioner who led the 7/7 investigation … writes in The Times today that Britain is under its biggest ever threat from terror. He says: “There are now probably more radicalised Muslims, their attack plans are more adventurous and the UK still remains under severe risk.”

Biggest ever threat? More radicalised Muslims that ever? What are journalists to do, given that they don’t have access to the data and security agencies have manipulated threat perceptions in the past? The Times decided to publish what appears scaremongering. But what if Hayman is under-playing the number of cases? The point is we cannot know. Five years on from 7/7, security journalism is still not equipped to report with clarity, insight and proportionately on its subject matter.