Following the brutal terror attack in Finsbury Park today, social media users have condemned media outlets for failing to call the culprit a “terrorist,” and for not using “an act of terrorism” to describe the incident. That the 48-year-old man arrested on the scene wasn’t immediately referred to in the same way as the Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge attackers, they say, is proof of bias and systematic racism in the British media.
No one is arguing that this isn’t true of certain outlets; we all know that some of Britain’s biggest papers are responsible for fostering hatred toward the Muslim community, and have in the past been reluctant to call white British perpetrators of such attacks “terrorists.” However, there is a reason why the rest of the media can’t immediately brand people terrorists, as pointed out by former BBC journalist Steve Parks on Twitter.
If a suspect is still alive and hasn’t yet faced trial, calling them a terrorist could put the reporter or outlet in contempt of court. Reason being: It has the potential to influence how judges or a jury view the court case and could result in a mistrial, which could in turn result in serious consequences—such as a prison sentence for the reporter or outlet responsible.
If the perpetrator is dead—as those behind the Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge attacks were immediately or almost immediately after the attacks took place—reporters are within their rights to use whatever terminology they like, since there is no chance of justice being influenced. So while it might seem like journalists choose who to call a terrorist based on their race, they’re actually bound by the UK’s legal structures.
You will, of course, have noticed that this morning’s attack is now being widely reported as an “act of terror.” This is because various authorities—including Prime Minister Theresa May and London mayor Sadiq Khan—have since referred to it as such, with police saying the case is being treated as a terror attack, allowing the media to attribute this classification. It isn’t a conspiracy; it’s just responsible reporting.