THE BIG BAD WOLF

The legend of the Lone Wolf in recent history can probably be traced back to Lee Harvey Oswald, though he was more commonly referred to as the Lone Gunman, a label that became so embedded in popular culture that a team of conspiracy theory geeks in ‘The X-Files’ named themselves after it. A Lone Wolf or Gunman has always been a difficult concept for the general public to wrestle with, as though the thought of an attack at the heart of democracy surely requires a complex network of vested interests. After all, John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was part of a plot involving a team of individuals intending to revive the fading Confederate cause by killing the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Only Wilkes Booth succeeded in his aim and his is the sole name history records from the aborted operation.

Even further back than Lincoln’s assassination, Spencer Perceval – the solitary British PM to have been assassinated – was murdered by a Lone Gunman named John Bellingham in 1812. No doubt at the time newspapers cast doubts over Bellingham’s singular role in the assassination and speculated as to a wider plot being afoot in such unstable times. Just eight years later, the Cato Street Conspiracy was a genuine team effort to murder PM Lord Liverpool and his entire Cabinet, hatched by a group already regarded as a revolutionary organisation; it was foiled courtesy of a police informant, though reinforced the common belief that such audacious schemes couldn’t be attributed to one individual.

The speculative industry that has grown around events on 22 November 1963 largely refuses to countenance the idea that one man could execute a plot to take out the President, even if there has never been concrete evidence of CIA, FBI, KGB, Cuban or Mafia involvement in Oswald’s actions that day. It often feels reminiscent of the theory that an oik from the sticks was incapable of penning the greatest theatrical canon in the English language, as though the genius of Shakespeare or the nerve of Oswald somehow highlights both the mediocrity of the masses and their absence of nihilistic ambition. There had to have been more than one man because we couldn’t do what he did without a team behind us.

The gradual realisation that last week’s 24-hour Public Enemy Number One, Adrian Russell Elms (AKA Khalid Masood), appears to have acted alone and not as part of a group hell-bent on attacking the Mother of All Parliaments has again raised these same issues. But the amateurish and ill-thought-out nature of his attempt strikes me as the classic clueless desperation of a disturbed individual with nothing to live for but the prospect of trashy infamy. Professional terrorists would surely have managed more than this useless member of society, whose random victims were indistinguishable from those yer average knife-wielding maniac might have slaughtered down the road in Hackney, something that probably wouldn’t have been labelled a ‘terror incident’.

When the Irish National Liberation Army murdered MP Airey Neave via a car-bomb as he drove out of the underground car-park at the Palace of Westminster in 1979, it was clearly a meticulously-planned team operation that achieved its extremely precise and specific aim. Thanks to the bullets of an armed policeman, we will probably never know what the aim of Khalid Masood was, though it’s possible he himself didn’t really know either.

When no evidence of group involvement can be uncovered, the search for an answer then hones in on whatever it was that may have influenced the motivation behind something that claimed lives within yards of the very place the Gunpowder Plotters failed to obliterate. The current blame game lays responsibility on the doorstep of the internet, though literature largely escaped censure when Lone Gunman Mark Chapman famously murdered John Lennon after identifying with Holden Caulfield, antihero of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.

Nevertheless, the medium of the moment will always fall under suspicion when so many struggle with the fact that some individuals have the capacity to do – or to attempt to do – what most would shy away from. Just as it’s thankfully incomprehensible to the majority that one could become a serial killer bereft of all empathy or compassion where one’s fellow human beings are concerned, it’s equally hard to comprehend how somebody could callously mow down pedestrians in a car and then stab a policeman to death en route to some muddled destination; there has to be some great answer at the root of the individual’s actions, and it may as well be the internet.

What so many cannot accept is the alien idea that some individuals have gradually grown so far apart from the consensus of a society rooted in fair play, mutual respect and shared democratic aims that they can commit a crime so opposed to the foundations that society is built upon; that such a crime can easily only require the planning and participation of one person merely adds to the conundrum. When MP Jo Cox was murdered on the streets of her constituency last summer, her murderer Thomas Mair was subject to the usual speculation as to his membership of far-right groups from both press and police before it emerged he was acting alone. For some reason, it’s easier to envisage something so horrible emanating from an organisation, whether the IRA or ISIS, than the Lone Wolf, as if it takes a team of individuals egging each other on to even invent a scenario of that nature.

The fact is, however, that an organised conspiracy to destroy western civilisation is effectively in the hands (and mind) of the individual rather than a structured criminal underworld recognisable from a Bond movie; but the governments running western civilisation will continue to propagate the SPECTRE theory as long as it gives them more power to act as a cyber lollipop man intercepting your online traffic. Remember – it’s for your own good.

© The Editor

A BRIDGE TOO FAR

Viewed now almost as an appendage to Parliament, Westminster Bridge was once a tourist attraction for all the right reasons. During the construction of the original in the 1740s, the fact it was only the second major bridge erected in central London since Roman times provoked both excitement and opposition. The latter came from the Thames watermen, whose taxi service ferrying people from one side of the river to the other was perceived to be under threat; for centuries, old London Bridge, that marvellous medieval bottleneck crammed with houses and shops and permanently congested with traffic, had been the sole man-made edifice enabling the Thames to be crossed without the need for hailing a boat.

The sudden appearance of a new bridge was so novel a sight that during one of the periodical winters when the Thames froze over and a frost-fair was held on the river, the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge served as part of the entertainment as visitors paid to stand atop them for a unique view of the city. This version of Westminster Bridge survived for just over a century before the current model replaced it, but it remains the oldest working bridge still in use in the capital.

Moving on, say the words Westminster Bridge to TV viewers of a certain age and chances are they’ll think of that iconic shot of the Daleks from the 1964 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; the Time Lord’s arch-enemies gliding along the bridge with Big Ben behind them seemed to enhance their menace. A Surrey quarry masquerading as an alien landscape was one thing, but the natives of Skaro intruding on home territory convinced children they could turn a corner and run into a Dalek on their own high-street.

Of course, Westminster Bridge has now been added to the annals of infamous London locations on account of events that took place there yesterday, effectively erasing all past associations from the popular imagination. The Daleks are the kind of fantasy embodiment of evil we can understand and be excited by, just as we can Dracula or Darth Vader; but the greatest evil, as always, is harboured within man himself, not the creatures he creates. Patrick McGoohan got that when he revealed Number One in the controversial climax of ‘The Prisoner’ as being Number Six all along.

Any individual who can deliberately drive a car into a random selection of pedestrians and then stab a man to death either because he was wearing a particular uniform or simply because he got in the way inhabits a different league altogether, one that provokes repulsion and bewilderment because it bears so little relation to the evil of fiction that we’ve been familiar with ever since being told the story of the Big Bad Wolf’s encounter with Little Red Riding Hood as children. The real bogeyman isn’t a comfortable caricature, but too close to the realities of the dark side in all of us. Just make sure you get his name right.

Yes, it seems apt, considering the topic of the previous post, that the rush to be first with the facts following yesterday’s incident resulted in a catastrophic faux-pas on the part of ‘cool’ Channel 4 News, which tries so hard to be the ‘Magpie’ to Newsnight’s ‘Blue Peter’. With veteran host Jon Snow at the helm, a man who seeks to combine the broadcasting gravitas of David Dimbleby with the wacky tie wardrobe of Richard Whiteley, ably assisted by both Cathy Newman (a woman whose serious news presenter credentials have often been undermined by the occasional glimpse of stocking-top – check YouTube for evidence) and Krishnan Guru-Murthy (a man whose fat neck seems in constant danger of absorbing his entire head), the programme was caught out as it jumped the gun far too early in the aftermath of the afternoon’s confusion by naming the assailant.

Unfortunately, the man they named – Trevor Brooks AKA Abu Izadeen, a disciple of fellow jail-bird Anjem Choudary – happens to be serving a prison sentence at the moment and therefore couldn’t have been behind the wheel on Westminster Bridge. But he’s a fat ‘coloured’ bloke with a big beard, so the cock-up is understandable, eh? Sacrificing fact-checking and journalistic integrity in order to be first off the blocks in the perennial battle with Sky and the Beeb, Channel 4 News blew it big time and became a Twitter laughing-stock last night, even removing the offending section from the sixty-minute delay of the Channel 4 +1 service so their glaring error couldn’t be watched again. But the damage was already done.

As expected, the trickle of misinformation that occupied the hours following yesterday’s events was eventually superseded by a clearer picture of what happened and who was actually involved. The dead have been named, as has the perpetrator of the incident, and his name isn’t either Trevor Brooks or Abu Izadeen, surprisingly. It should serve as a warning to rolling news channels and all media outlets that deal with the news to make sure they get their facts right before broadcasting them, though I doubt they’ll take heed of the warning; the competition is too intense and the self-inflicted pressure to get a scoop to the public before the competitors do so precludes any old-school attention to detail.

© The Editor

SPECULATE TO ILLUMINATE

Rolling news channels tend to break big stories in a melodramatic manner that invariably recalls the ‘War!’ episode of ‘The Day Today’ because rolling news channels for most of the time are about as thrilling a viewing experience as the test card – so many hours need filling and there’s often so little to work with. Therefore, when A Major Incident occurs, they can barely contain their excitement. At last, something to justify their existence! The first rule in the Major Incident manual is that the anchors abruptly disappear from the screen and effectively become radio presenters, as though seeing their perma-tanned countenances and lacquered coiffures will somehow belittle the gravitas of the news story.

The second rule in the Major Incident manual is to cut to a reporter on the spot, often one fairly low in the reporter pecking order, but the nearest on hand. Conscious this could be their Kate Adie-in-Tiananmen Square moment, their lack of experience is evident in the way they can’t keep a lid on the hyperbole by describing events in terms of ‘nothing like this has ever happened before’; there are also usually awkward-on-camera eyewitnesses shoved into shot for said reporter to quiz, ones whose accounts climax with the reporter asking them ‘how they feel’, as though they’ve just spoken to the Queen on a royal walkabout.

The visual lexicon of rolling news clichés roll on – there’s mobile phone footage shot in the wrong aspect ratio; there’s an expert in the studio the presenter can interview; there’s another expert down the line; there’s the distracting Sky Sports ‘Soccer Saturday’-style info blazing a trail along the bottom of the screen, basically repeating what we’ve already been told; there’s a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of images lasting around three minutes – aerial shots, people running away from whatever happened, police and ambulance crews doing for real what they’ve been though in endless hours of training, general panic and confusion – and it’s played out on a loop as speculation reigns. Throw in the phrase ‘Terror Incident’ to hammer home how serious this all is for good measure. As a means of finding out precisely what the hell is going on, one might as well consult the entrails of a sheep.

Following a phone-call, I stuck BBC1 on this afternoon and found it had turned into the BBC News Channel. From what I could gather, some nutter had driven his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, exited his vehicle brandishing a knife, stabbed a copper, ran towards the Palace of Westminster, stabbed another copper, and was then cut down by an armed copper before he could get anywhere near Parliament. There was a report one member of the public was dead as a result of what happened on Westminster Bridge and an equally grim report that there was a body in the Thames. It would seem this was classified as a ‘terror incident’ rather than a knife crime on account of the incident’s location. I don’t know if there’s some sort of invisible demarcation line in London whereby, depending what side of it you’re on, the distinction is evident.

At the time of writing, the assailant’s identity has not been revealed. If he’s called Mohammed, I would guess that fits the terrorist bill; but as with any story of this gruesome nature, I wouldn’t expect to know many details so early after it taking place. Tuning into a rolling news channel in the thick of it is probably the worst way of trying to find out; the dazzling recycling of the same images over and over again intensifies rather than eases the viewer’s sense of bewilderment, while reporters not much more informed than the members of the public surrounding them are trying their best to give the impression they are. It’s like they’ve bragged they can recite a particularly lengthy poem, but when they get the chance to do so they don’t actually know it word-for-word.

JG Ballard famously opined that, for him, sensationalistic reportage of violent events began with the JFK assassination, which may well be true, though he lived most of his adult life in a pre-24 hour news TV age. Bar the old-school newsflash, which would interrupt a scheduled programme for a few minutes to report a breaking news story and then announce more details would follow on ‘The Nine O’Clock News’ a few hours later, the first time I remember a live event taking over the telly was the climax of the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980, when the dramatic actions of the SAS in rescuing the hostages were just about Bond-like enough to vindicate the interruption and keep viewers watching. But it was a hardly a regular occurrence, more of an aberration in the way stories were covered.

As far as I can recall, the inaugural moment when the style of presentation viewers were again served up today gate-crashed mainstream television was 9/11; since then, any sign of an incident that can have ‘terror’ attached to it has warranted the same treatment. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on, certainly not in the first couple of hours following it, anyway. Sometimes, a degree of distance is required to provide a more measured response, but competing rolling news channels can’t afford to do that, so they have to keep showing the same images, repeating the same unconfirmed reports and indulging in speculative guess-work based on what they have so far. It’s not a very satisfactory source of information, to say the least.

It’s pointless me joining in the speculation with this post because I’m no more clued-up than you (if you’re reading it not long after I posted it, of course); I wrote it because I just find the reporting of these events in the immediate aftermath of them taking place incredibly frustrating and liable to induce the feeling of how the world is going to hell in a handcart, something I might not necessarily feel a few hours later when a clearer picture emerges. But the sad fact is we’re now all programmed to reach for the TV remote when we hear A Major Incident has happened, even if doing so leaves us none the wiser.

© The Editor