It was a barbaric attack carried out in broad daylight on the streets of London. A man hacked to death. The attackers had been shot by the police. An extraordinary and horrific story but not one, you might think, for the Political Editor of the BBC.
However, the fact that the victim was wearing a “Help for Heroes” T-shirt and was walking near an army barracks raised the possibility that it was something else as well – an act of terrorism with implications for the country as a whole. That was my instinct as soon as I heard about the story, but instinct is not enough. I started to try to establish whether the government was treating it that way.
With minutes to go before the BBC News at Six I was told by a senior Whitehall source that the incident was being treated as a suspected terrorist incident and being taken very seriously indeed. This information changed the news from a crime story to something of more significance. The police had, I was told, described the attackers as being “of Muslim appearance” and shouting “Allahu Akbar”. On air I directly quoted a senior Whitehall source saying that the police had used that description.
That phrase “of Muslim appearance” clearly offended some who demanded to know what it could possibly mean. Others were concerned that it was a racist generalisation.
My report and the quotation were picked up by many other news organisations as evidence that this was a terror attack. The reports of eye witnesses and the video of the attacker demonstrated that the attack had been carried out by those claiming to be retaliating because “Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers”.
Despite this and the fact that I was directly quoting a source I’m sorry for using a phrase that, on reflection, was both liable to be misinterpreted and to cause offence. Many Muslims were quick to condemn the attack and to distance themselves and their religion from the brutal savagery seen on the streets of Woolwich.
The overnight protests of the English Defence League and attacks on some mosques lead some to fear the consequences for community relations. This all makes people understandably sensitive about anything which could be used to justify hostility to people on the basis of their appearance or religion.