Media frenzy increases risk of attacks

Published: Jan 26, 2022  |  

Founder and CEO of Defuse®

Opinions were divided on whether the emotional statement made by Allegra Stratton outside her home was planned or a response to the media being camped outside her home.

Such is the familiarity that we now have with such a media frenzy seeking to feed off the public’s interest in the latest victim to be offered up by the media, that the risks of such behaviour are often overlooked and seen by some as justifiable. This isn’t a new tactic, in fact both Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse secured court cases banning the paparazzi from photographing them outside their homes almost a decade ago.

The UK’s Independent Press Standards Organisations advises the following: “Journalists must not continue to question, contact, or photograph people once they have been asked to stop. If you clearly request that a journalist stop their activities, the Editors’ Code requires them to do so unless there is specific and adequate public interest to justify a decision to carry on.”

Perhaps the obvious question is whether it is the very presence of the media that generates the public’s interest that justifies their continued presence and whether they are best placed to make such an objective assessment. The security risks of concern relate to those individuals who become fixated on the targets of the media’s focus and how the media provides these individuals with the ammunition that drives their actions.

Fixated people fall in two categories: those who are fixated on an individual and those whose fixation is more ideological and driven by a cause. Those fixated individuals who go on to present a real threat are often motivated by a grievance. That grievance, in their mind, cannot be resolved by any other means than by violence. They consider that other options have failed, leaving them no other option. 

The issue is that, in some cases, it is the media who generate that grievance. It can be argued that Allegra Stratton became the victim of this. She appears to carry the blame for the UK cabinet’s Christmas party in 2020 when, because of COVID-19, such gatherings were banned. However, whilst some on social media suggest all she did was make some clumsy comments to colleagues during rehearsal for a press conference that never took place, others have vilified her and suggested—ominously—she will “get what is coming.”  By camping outside the subject’s house, this will suggest to some that their guilt is assumed, and they become like the medieval villager in the stocks, public property who can be ridiculed, abused, and threatened at will. 

This is important because history tells us that in many cases these fixated attacks are initiated when the person feels they are given permission by others to attack. This was the case when Roshonara Choudhry attacked Stephen Timms MP. She had previously thought that such an attack was only to be initiated by a man, until when listening in her bedroom to online lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki she interpreted what he said to give her permission to conduct an attack.

The second element that fixated people crave is proximity. When they travel to their intended target, that is seen as a Red Flag. They will spend hours, days, months and even years researching their intended target. When the media publish the location of the subject’s home, they make that research so much easier. If the media publish that the subject of interest lives in London, this then requires the stalker to research all 32 London boroughs. By identifying their home is in a specific borough, that makes the research much simpler and quicker. The stalker can then identify the address and match it to Google Earth by comparing the images published by the media, all without leaving their home. Such unnecessary details add little to the story in most cases but can cause significant harm and harassment.

One of the tactics employed, copied from the more extreme animal rights activist group ALF, is to target people’s home addresses. This intimidation is designed to cause harassment and fear encouraging those targeted to change their minds about key issues. But very often the greatest impact is on the partner or children of the person targeted or in some cases such as the targeting of the CEO of Heathrow airport following the announcement of the third runway, completely innocent people. The address targeted was his former address, he had moved!

Only this week an anti-vaxxer from Lancashire travelled from his home to the London address of the Health Secretary to put the health secretary “personally on notice.” He was arrested by police and charged for being in possession of articles with intent to destroy or damage property. The trend of targeting people at their homes is systematic of a growing trend of failing to separate the public from the private and raises the threat of attack from fixated individuals.

Many public and prominent figures, including journalists, go to significant lengths to limit the private information that is publicly available, often for security reasons. That can all be undone by an irresponsible media’s complete disregard for such issues who perhaps are either unaware of or dismiss in the pursuit or that latest story or image. In an age when so much information is so readily available, we must exercise more caution as a society. 

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