Bad day to read a Cormac McCarthy novel

In his latest column for The Times of London, Matthew Parris tries to pick a rock out of his shoe. He chastises his fellow journalists for reporting stories based on the limited facts available and then dropping those stories when they don’t pan out:

The habit is more disliked by listeners and readers than I think editors appreciate. Perhaps the first item on each day’s news agenda should be “matters arising from yesterday’s news.” News editors would then do us the courtesy of explaining where some of those stories went.

In particular, he zeroes in on reports arising from the London bombings and calls into question the thesis that the original effort benefited greatly from foreign influence. But then he turns around and admits,

Some of the scares that grip our headlines and imaginations do later turn out to have been every bit the threat we thought they were. I have not the least idea what may be the size, shape and competence of al-Qaeda and would not dream of suggesting (and do not believe) that they are uninvolved.

Nevertheless, he believes that “When all the pressures are to talk up a lethal characterization of the forces at work, we need to be supercool in the way we look at these reports.” Parris fingers four interested parties in talking up the “foreign links” aspect of the story: the press (easier story); the government (easier target); the intelligence services (mostly vanity and ass-covering); and al Qaeda (duh). He concludes:

From a certain point of view, the journalist, the politician, the police chief and the terrorist can be seen as locked in a macabre waltz of the mind, no less distorting for being unconscious. We should not to join that dance.

Oh, but let’s. The facts on the ground are still being sorted out, and British police are in hot pursuit of those responsible for the second, failed bombings. And now, terrorists in Egypt have decided to jump in with both feet.

Journalists are trying to move as fast as the story and I think most readers and viewers understand that a) some of the leads won’t pan out and b) untangling all of this on the fly would be tedious. Journalism is only the first draft of history, subject to massive revision.

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  • Terry Tee

    The trouble is that nearly all news about the police is filtered through the police ie the media have only very limited contacts beyond the official voiceboxes. Two days ago we had a man shot dead in our London Tube (ie subway). The media ran with the police account for 48 hours: that the man was DEFINITELY connected with the bombers, had come from a house under surveillance, was wearing a bulky coat and so they feared a suicide bomber. Today the police admitted that the man was a Brazilian and had no connection with the bombs whatsoever. Their statement of regret is disconcertingly perfunctory.

    I am not aware of any reporter pointing out one problem in the publicly agreed account: the Brazilian was chased on to a train by armed PLAIN CLOTHES police shouting ‘Armed Police’ and waving guns, was pushed to the ground and then shot. BUT: if men came rushing towards you shouting ‘Armed police’ and waving guns, and yet were dressed in plain clothes would you believe them or would you run?

    There is a kind of sad and ghastly relief that at least the poor man was not Muslim.

  • Meg Q

    I think the whole shooting thing is terrible, and I say this as a very pro-gun, very-pro-war-on-terror, and generally very-pro-police American. Terrible because of two things. One: The police shot the fellow in the *head* **five** times! Holy schemoly! Well, I guess they must have thought he might have Semtex wrapped around him or a homemade bomb in a rucksack or something, and so went for the head, that’s understandable. But *five* times? Nasty evil armed American police forces don’t usually shoot a suspect five times in the head! Couldn’t one of the pursuers have called for it? There’s not going to be any head left to bury. Two: He HAD A HEAVY COAT ON? Geez, Louise, you Bobbies have got to do better than that. Look, the Metropolitan Police obviously need to turn their guns back in for nightsticks and not get the guns back until they pass a series of common-sense usage tests as well as marksmanship – it’s obvious they’ve got *that* down . . .

    Frankly, I would have felt better if the fellow was at least connected to the bombings. Now you have armed Metropolitan Police on the loose, shooting at suspicious swarthy Tube passengers. That would *not* make me feel better. My husband’s going to London in three weeks. The bombings really did not scare me – Terror happens – but knowing that Bobbies are shooting in the subways does. That very rarely happens even in New York.

  • Terry Tee

    Meg there is, from the police point of view, a grisly rationale for shooting in the head. Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of Police for London, has just said in an interview that police shooting a suspected suicide bomber aim for the head for two reasons (a) the bomb may be strapped to their chest, and heading for the chest may set it off; (b) even shot in the chest a bomber may still be able to trigger his device. (None of this, of course, would bring any comfort to the grieving family of Jean Charles de Menezes.)

    Still, you have to wonder about the quality of police intelligence work. This poor Brazilian was said to have emerged from a house under surveillance. It seems that they knew very little about the place and its inhabitants, while thinking that they knew a lot. Again, not much MSM scrutiny of the details.