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I felt compelled to write a post this evening, following a long week in the newsroom. At the start of the week, Osama bin Laden died.

Osama bin Laden has long been known as the leader of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda, in turn, has long been regarded as a fearsome islamist terror cell.

In the minutes, hours and days following the rumour which stopped – and then quickly started the newsroom – a rumour which, even before it was confirmed (that’s the word we used) by President Obama, had everyone in the newsroom tingling with excitement, the news that bin Laden was dead, unverified information – and plenty of spin – was being hurled around at breakneck speed, and continues to be. Despite the myriad tweets, articles, packages and talking heads, do we now understand the story better?

There is a dominant narrative surrounding the cult of Osama bin Laden. It is nurtured by journalists, like myself, who are, when it comes down to it, ill-informed and pressed for time. The primary source of information on such figures as bin Laden, as was well-illustrated this week, is the US government and its multiple agencies. Spin, rumour, and plenty of conjecture abounded. You do not have to be Noam Chomsky, seeking the conspiracy, as some would have it, to find a problem here. A state actor cannot have a public enemy number one, but also be the prime gatekeeper of information on this individual or group, without a major distortion of the facts entering the public sphere of knowledge.

Most likely, the individual known as Osama bin Laden was, if you’ll excuse the phrase, a very bad man. Why, then, did the US, dutifully echoed in the media, state that he used his wife as a human shield? From the start of this affair, the misinformation was – or should have been – easy to spot. Yet countless journalists trawled it out. Respected anchors and correspondents mused over ‘the fact’ that he used his wife as a shield, showing us ‘what kind of man he was.’

Was he not bad enough already? I’m pleased to say I did not publish an article following this line in my role as an online producer. But I felt like pulling my hair out when I saw this very line at my and every other news outlet, treated as if it were a fact.

Was there a firefight? Perhaps so, in which case a journalist must report that there was, according to the US, a firefight. How would they know otherwise? This frequently did not happen – and the US, days later, conceded that bin Laden was not armed. Official sources are routinely taken as more reliable. I’d argue they often – but not always – don’t deserve this treatment.

Bin Laden was living in a million dollar mansion, they said. So say who said it. Do not report it as fact. The US government, in the fog of war – for they have always called it a war – is not a reliable source. How could it be? It is besides the point whether the US government is more or less reliable a source than its enemy. It is just a fact that it spends a lot of money, time and effort in winning the information war as well as the war of killing.Days later, it seemed that the house, dirty and unkempt, was perhaps worth $250,000. But who knows. Not me. And not half of the talking heads who spoke about al-Qaeda on 24 hour news channels as if it were now holding a board meeting on who to vote in as the new CEO.

Any journalist who does not take information as it is trawled out from a government with a pinch of salt, including a government fighting some very distasteful characters,  is a mug.  And there were plenty of them this week – I’m sure I failed my own tests once or twice.

The release of a photo of bin Laden’s body is another matter entirely. As one user-generated comment put it, they’d save themselves a decade worth of conspiracy theory documentaries if they’d just release one.

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  1. mlw says:

    Good post, Bill. I was fortunate to have access to BBC World in my hotel room on the day it happened. I think part of the problem in these big stories that unfold over hours is filling the spaces between new facts. It was interesting to watch the anchors – some better than others – put the emerging questions to a line of pundits produced over the ensuing hours. These questions included: was he actually dead; did they try and take him alive; if they didn’t, should they have; did Pakistan know about his hiding place? Most of these pundits were self-interested rather than objective analysts but their self-interest wasn’t referenced. Most of their answers were predictable and I was left draw fact from inference. The best reports came from those on the ground sticking to the facts, but even these on-the-ground reporters were asked for their opinion on these questions and most provided it.

    I was interested to read the comment pieces that emerged the next day, which dealt with those questions. In particular, the treatment of the question as to whether they should have tried to capture him alive. It struck me that most commentators were afraid to say that he should have been taken alive; that because of who he was it was reasonable not to subject him to a ‘messy judicial process’. That was unsatisfying for me and I couldn’t help but strike a few previously respected commentators from my dwindling list of those I admire.

    I have a positive perspective on your critical analysis. That is that there is plenty of space out there for fact-focused, critical thinking journalists to provide an objective conduit between stories and the public.

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