Why let facts ruin the story? Norwegian comments on US coverage of the Norway terror

Instead of getting the facts, the US media seemed most concerned making reality fit their pre-fabricated narrative.

Being in a sleepy Texas town when my home country was struck by a double terrorism attack was eerie. Following the story developing in American and Norwegian media simultaneously didn’t make the experience less bizarre.

I found the US coverage to be slow, riddled with inaccuracies and at times patronizing towards a nation still in shock. Almost an hour after Norwegian press reported that police had upgraded the death toll to over 80, CNN were reporting 17 dead. But worse: hours after it was clear that an ethnic Norwegian man was arrested, and those with local knowledge had surmised that Utøya was an unlikely target for Muslim fundamentalists in the first place, CNN and FOX still talked Jihad like it was the only show in town. 

When facts about the perpetrator finally made their desks, a good disguise or a convert were immediately floated as possibilities, the willingness to jump to conclusions suddenly dampened by already having settled on one. In retrospect they’ve tried to hide behind the fact that someone on a jihadist online forum claimed responsibility. But somebody always does. Since when did we let an anonymous online forum poster, claiming to represent an organization nobody has heard of, set the agenda of all newsrooms in the world?

When indications started to emerge, suggesting another explanation, the news seemed very reluctant to even consider them. The experts on Islamist terror were already seated, they’d already done a good job justifying why Norway was in fact not such an unlikely target; soldiers in Afghanistan, planes over Libya, the early reprinting of the Danish cartoons, the effort to secure the deportation of Oslo resident extremist Mullah Krekar. So of course the Muslims would attack Norway. Except they didn’t.

Fox News didn’t let that stop them: “Islamic terrorism is a problem in Scandinavian countries”, we were told, after we knew who the actual perpetrator was, "where they're just sort of turning a blind eye to it." And indeed it seemed we were. The proof? After a UN speech where former president George W. Bush had kept to his favourite subject "the War On Terror", the Norwegian PM was the next speaker and had focused on the threat of (gasp!) Climate Change. Such naïveté.

Except Norway has never been the victim of Islamic terrorism. There have been some examples of political violence in the last decades: hate killings and bombings of a labour day parade, a mosque, immigrant corner shops and a left wing book store. Behind all these were right-wing extremists; loathed, few in number, but willing to use indiscriminate violence.

FOX were at pains to paint as irrelevant certain features of the terrorist – or "madman", as he was suddenly relegated to – his professed conservative Christianity, his extensive use of crusader imagery, his admiration for the Pope and his stated mission to protect Christian values against lefties and Muslims. While a good case can be made that his religion was not the source of his deeds, how irrelevant would his faith be had he been a Muslim? Would we hear of madmen and lone wolves then?

The news coverage over the following days taught me a lot of interesting new ‘facts’ about the innocent nation of Norway.

1. Apparently we don’t lock our doors at night. Wrong. We do. 

2. There is no public debate about immigration. Wrong. Immigration generally, and Islam specifically, have been high on the agenda for more than a decade.

3. We’re all white. Wrong. Norway has become an increasingly diverse society since the early 1970s: almost a third of Oslo now has non-Norwegian origin, more than one in ten being Muslim.

4. Owning a gun is practically illegal. Wrong. Hunting and sport shooting are popular recreational activities, and Norway ranks high in gun ownership.

5. The Utøya victims were all white, and the terrorist did not kill any Muslims. Wrong. The victims reflected a diverse Norwegian society. Several of the dead were Muslims, several were of African or Middle Eastern ancestry. This information was available. It is extremely disrespectful to airbrush them out of the story to make it more coherent.

We were all horrified that so many of the victims were young, indeed most were in their teens. But the US news seemed to prefer the term ‘children’, not exactly accurate when the victims’ ages ranged from 14 to 61. 

Later came the outrage, from Piers Morgan and others, that Norway has a maximum prison sentence of 21 years, as well as relatively comfortable prisons, “with flatscreen TVs”, as CNN.com gasped in horror. Never mind that he might get 30 for crimes against humanity and that the law allows for unlimited ‘containment’ for the most dangerous of criminals. Forget that the prisons referred to are low security prisons, that all TVs are flat in 2011, and that he might not get one at all.

Others lament the lack of the death penalty in Norway, calling for the blood of the killer. This is not what the victims’ families say. In a Facebook poll, 80% of Norwegians oppose death penalty for the killer. The terrorist wanted the death penalty re-instated. He will not get his way on this. We won’t let a murderer make us murderers.

Some commentators even claim that the laws against carrying weapons for self-defence are to blame. In all likelihood, all this would have meant is that one of the dead bodies would be clutching a pistol. Lecturing a country that has a murder rate about one eighth of the US one is disingenuous.

Some made a point out of the ‘naïve’ openness of Norwegian society, and one can indeed meet cabinet ministers strolling alone down the streets of Oslo. But this has nothing to do with naivety, they are all too aware of the murders of their Swedish colleagues Olof Palme (1986) and Anna Lindh (2003). Norwegian ministers refuse to let fear rule their private lives, and are willing to take this small risk as a principled stand. Nobody suggests this would be a good idea for Obama, but we insist this is how it should be in our country. It’s not naivety, it’s refusal to give up their freedom, being cordoned off from the people, just to mitigate a small risk. It's a risk they'd rather accept. 

While FOX were patronizing Norway, one CNN anchor interviewed a surviving victim from Utøya. While he was probably in shock and not up to going on live TV, he did an incredible job describing how his friends were mowed down and he played dead amongst their corpses. Instead of letting the brave and articulate young man tell his story, the anchorwoman kept interrupting him to tell him how he (must surely have) felt, filling in detail in his story by guessing. She ‘understood exactly how he must feel’? I think not.

While American cable news was not very good at its job, the Hall of Shame is reserved for others.  Worst of them all, former FOX employee Glenn Beck, who saw fit to compare the slaughtered youth of a democratic organisation in a free country to the compulsory, paramilitary, racist Hitlerjugend. I was horrified to learn this insane agitator has just addressed the democratic heart of Israel, Knesset. Nobody respectable should lend this man a soapbox ever again.

Journalism is not an exact science, and the flow of information in the immediate aftermath of a dramatic incident is chaotic and confused. While trying to sort false information from facts, errors will be made, and the former will be broadcast as the latter. This is what we expect and accept, as long as the uttermost effort is made to verify or falsify what is reported, if all reported information found to be false is rectified and if one mostly refrains from speculation and conjecture.  

The coverage I saw did not uphold this standard. Maybe they thought accuracy wasn’t that important: their viewers didn’t know much about this country anyway, they’d accept whatever they were told.

Norway is a multicultural society. While many rural areas are almost completely white, in my Oslo school in the 80s, there were several dozen nationalities. Half my friends were Muslims, others were Christians, atheists, agnostics. Every world faith was represented on our streets, and it worked pretty well. It still does. That is not to say there aren’t problems, issues to be discussed. But that’s not because of the Labour Party, or because of Islam. That’s because it’s reality, and reality is never obvious or streamlined.

About the author

Magnus Nome is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy. Before he joined oD in June 2012 he worked as a writer, journalist and broadcaster in Oslo, and was Editor-in-Chief of Teddy TV. Twitter: @magnusnome