‘I received the first media request while the Bataclan siege was still happening. I declined’

Matthew Feldman reflects on academics’ place in the insatiable 24-hour news cycle

November 20, 2015
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Much has already been written about the recent terrible wave of terrorist outrages around the world, including Beirut on 12 November and, closer to home for many of us, Paris on 13 November, when IS-inspired (and likely directed) attacks killed 132 people and wounded many more, scores critically; as I write, reports are coming through of a jihadist hostage-taking in Bamako in Mali.

And, in deeply unsettling ways, the pattern of these violent Islamist attacks is becoming familiar. The running tallies of lives, cruelly ended by bombs and bullets. Stories of heroism and of brutality. The manhunt for the perpetrators. The drawn-out uncertainty and fear of follow-up attacks. Shared voices of solidarity in the ensuing days, especially via social media. And then, a backlash against ethnic and religious minorities.

Where might academics fit in all this? Should they? I would suggest yes, with caveats. Reflecting on the dealings I’ve had with the media as co-director of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies at Teesside University, I’ve come to find that patience is the greatest of virtues. Admittedly, this often feels like the wrong direction of travel in today’s academy. Think of the insatiability of the 24-hour news cycle, always hungry for content, and the growing importance placed on impact and public dissemination in the UK higher education sector – which is sure to be increasingly tied to research funding in coming years. Then, too, there is the laudable desire on the part of scholars and universities to be heard, to lead debate and to inform policy.

Our research centre’s reports on anti-Muslim attacks – termed, in the academese of the field, “cumulative extremism” – show vexing spikes in hate crimes in the wake of terrorist incidents. The number of reported incidents against Muslims in the UK rose by 373 per cent in the seven days following the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in London on 22 May 2013. Thanks to Teesside’s excellent department of external relations, our 2014 report on this phenomenon received 98 pieces of media coverage domestically, reaching some 19 million potential readers. A joined-up approach helped to coordinate and extend this national coverage – even, perhaps especially, if our report wasn’t, at the time of publication in July 2014, directly responding to any ongoing news event.

Given this background, I am often asked to comment on extremism more broadly – including on matters beyond my immediate specialism, such as jihadist terrorism. In fact, I received the first media request to comment on the Paris attacks while the Bataclan siege was still happening. I declined.

Call it the “Emerson effect”: few will remember what you say on television or radio when you are accurate, uncontroversial, platitudinous. But in our day and age, those who make a howler will be immortalised on YouTube or, worse, become a meme. Many will remember, earlier this year, when Fox News’ (former) terrorism expert Steve Emerson declared, from his vantage in the US, that the city of Birmingham was a “no-go” area for non-Muslims – for which he drew rebukes from no less than David Cameron. It was three seconds of airtime Emerson would doubtless like to erase; despite his subsequent apology and retraction, he has all but been erased as a media pundit. In situations in which one is commenting live on air or on television, it is unlikely that there will be any pre-recording or retakes; failing to ask about these matters beforehand sharply raises the risk involved in offering a comment.

Understandably, the temptation for academic experts who are asked to comment on developing stories is to get one’s views in quickly, preferably first. But in my experience, first is rarely best when it comes to media engagement, especially with events still unfolding. Journalists are an impatient breed, and most of the time one’s answers will be limited to a minute or less. Being allowed to make three separate points in an exchange on TV or radio is a rare luxury; it may be more common when giving background interviews for the press, but journalists and editors will choose which of your statements to include – unless you request copy approval, which is rarely granted.

Returning to the deadly Paris attacks, almost immediately questions arose about whether any of the terrorists had entered the European Union as a refugee from the Middle East, or whether all the attackers hailed from France and Belgium. Being asked to speculate one way or the other on such matters is unlikely to be helpful. “Getting it right” in your answer may only be pivotal if you’re first; getting it wrong may well make your opinion worthless in the future. Moreover, offering snap judgements and hasty opinions is the antithesis of the academic’s task, dispensing rhetoric on demand instead of adding to the store of human knowledge.

So despite the temptations of the latest spate of media requests, my views on jihadi Islamism are surplus to requirements just now: there are other experts far better qualified to speak on such an issue. And although initial evidence suggests that there is again a backlash against Muslims in the UK in the wake of these events, and that Europe’s far Right is once more seeking to capitalise on the jihadi terrorist threat, it is too early to tell – or rather, it is too early to explain.

When there is more evidence on the table, I will be glad to accept invitations to speak. In fact, sharing specialist knowledge with a wider audience is, in my view, still too rare an academic undertaking. But for academics, it is a race better run as a tortoise than as a hare. Telling is for pundits; explaining should be the academic’s preserve.  

Matthew Feldman is professor in the modern history of ideas and co-director of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist Studies at Teesside University.

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