Choose Your Poison
Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
Here is what we learned from our newspapers about the police raid on a house in Forest Gate, east London, early on the morning of Friday 2 June.
The brothers who lived there were planning a terrorist attack using cyanide, sarin, anthrax, or bubonic plague germs. The noxious substance would be released from a vest or a canister. It would be a suicide attack or a remote-controlled explosion. The "bomb" was inside the house or "out there". Its use was imminent or it was nowhere near completion. The information came from an MI5 informant or a police informant. The police operation was code-named Volga or Volgo.
Officers entered the house by smashing a window or battering down the front door. One brother was shot by the police (either after a warning or not after a warning, and either after a scuffle or not after a scuffle), or he was shot by the other brother. The shot came from a Glock pistol or a Heckler & Koch sub-machine gun. Both brothers had criminal records or they didn't.
The raid may or may not show flaws in police and intelligence practice, but it certainly suggests flaws in journalism. Two things were evident from the start. First, the police had not found any evidence of the device they were apparently seeking. Most papers translated this into "a desperate hunt"; the existence of the device was a given. Second, the operation involved both the police and MI5. These services, with a history of rivalry, were giving briefings to journalists which conflicted in important respects, not least because each wanted to pin the blame on the other if anything went wrong.
Almost inevitably, anti-terrorist operations depend on intelligence of questionable value. There is nothing new in this. Journalists of all people should know there is no such thing as a reliable source; the best you can get is a "usually reliable" one.
What makes anti-terrorist work different is the supreme importance of pre-emption. In most criminal investigations we accept a certain level of police failure; in anti-terrorism work, because of the potentially hugely damaging consequences, we cannot tolerate it.
The media have no register for this degree of uncertainty and contingency. Newspapers deal in facts (though not necessarily accurate ones) and narratives. Reporters ask the classic questions about who, what, why, when and where. If they don't get answers, they go and ask someone else and, if that fails, cry "Cover-up! …