x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

From Woolwich to Boston, the darker side of instant fame

The Woolwich attack is the most recent instance of how individuals and organisations are using the multimedia age to further their particular aims.

Last Wednesday I attended a book launch in the top turret of the pavilion at Lord's Cricket Ground. The event, celebrating a publication about the rise of women's international cricket, encapsulated a vision of England in all its chocolate-box glory - sunshine, conviviality, tinkling tea cups and far below, the splendour of the grand old ground itself. It was a blend of ancient and modern, encapsulating Englishness at its most integrated and self-assured.

Sixteen kilometres away, however, a very different scenario was playing out in London. The horrific butchering of serviceman Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two knife-wielding fanatics has sent shock waves through the capital. And suddenly the atmosphere is reminiscent of the uneasy tension that followed the 2011 riots.

Of all the myriad horrors attending this atrocity, perhaps the most chilling was its brazenness. The perpetrators' overarching ambition seems to have been to secure maximum media coverage. No instant oblivion via the detonation of a suicide bomb, no attempt to evade capture by fleeing the scene of the crime.

On the contrary, the two assailants, hands dripping blood and still brandishing their weapons, stood calmly by the body of their victim. They even took time to explain their actions to any passer-by brave enough to point a phone camera in their direction. The result was of course instant worldwide publicity.

Their chill reasoning is mirrored everywhere on news bulletins nowadays. With everyone now their own one-man film unit, the opportunity to publicise a cause, however bloody or misguided, is available to all. One minute you're butchering a young man on a London street, the next you're broadcasting to an audience numbering many millions.

The Woolwich attack is merely the most recent instance of how individuals and organisations are using the multimedia age to further their particular aims. Whether it's throwing a shoe at a politician, running onto a football pitch mid-match or filming the aftermath of bombing, the penny has dropped that having your actions recorded can result in fame or notoriety far beyond what could have previously been achieved.

Witness recent events in Syria, where government forces and the rebels are fashioning video footage, both to promote their own version of the facts and discredit the other. Each mortar, explosion and dead body is now a vital propaganda tool.

One celebrated documentary reporter working for the BBC recently told me how an elderly pensioner being canvassed for her views said to him: "Do you want me to break frame at the end, or hold for your close-up?" We are all, it seems, our own Quentin Tarantinos now.

There is already a lively debate in the media as to whether the footage of the Woolwich butchery should have been broadcast. Many argue that not only was it inappropriate, but played into the hands of the malefactors. In a trivial yet relevant comparison, some have pointed out that the decision among TV companies to not televise pitch invasions during high profile football matches soon led to a dramatic fall-off in such incidents. Starved of the oxygen of publicity, the stunts quickly lost both point and potency.

But great good can come from the multimedia environment. Without the tsunami of digital information recorded after the Boston bombings for example - the YouTube videos, security cameras, and mobile phone footage captured by passers-by - it's doubtful the perpetrators would have been brought to justice so soon, or arguably at all.

In the case of the Woolwich slaying, witness the supreme bravery of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the mild mannered mother and Brownie leader, whose attempts to assist poor Mr Rigby and reason with the two assailants were also captured for posterity. The image of her courage in the midst of such brutality reminds us of just how much goodwill exists in the hearts of most individuals when confronted with the sight of others in distress.

Some have even suggested that a statue of Ms Loyau-Kennett be placed on the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square to serve as a lasting reminder to all of basic humanity. I suspect she would be embarrassed by any such commemoration, but as a reminder of simple goodness, it's difficult to image a more powerful symbol. Or, in this instant, digitalised, throwaway world, a more lasting one.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London