Detecting a Bogus Fear Story

Fear is one of the staple products of the mainstream media. Whether it be everyday products giving us Cancer, paedophiles around every corner or terrorists waiting to detonate around us: fearful is the default emotional state that we should be in. Today an article on the Daily Mail website caught my eye, largely because it is just the sort of article that seems to be completely made up just to scare people: ‘Terrorists ‘plan attack on Britain with bombs INSIDE their bodies’ to foil new airport scanners‘.

The article is supposedly based on an ‘operation by MI5’, but details are thin on the ground and a number of unnamed sources sound pretty vague – as if those sources don’t really exist. MI5 apparently ‘became aware of the threat after observing increasingly vocal Internet “chatter” on Arab websites this year’. Which rather sounds like MI5 take seriously people chatting on the Internet. In which case I’m surprised most of the people on BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ haven’t been investigated for wishing all sorts of violence against people slightly different to themselves.

This news story just doesn’t convince me. I could have made it up, anyone could have made it up. The premise is simple: terrorists might try to get round new security measures. Surely we already know this? The article gets slightly interesting because after the author has tried to scare the reader for a few hundred words they then point out that a security company could offer a solution:

Companies such as Smiths Detection International UK, which is based in Watford, Hertfordshire, manufacture a range of luggage and body scanners designed to identify chemicals, explosives and drugs at airports and other passenger terminals around the world.

Interestingly enough Smiths Detection would make a lot of money should airports become convinced that the threat of surgically implanted bombs were real, and the Mail has a history of mentioning the firm by name.

Sometime in 2002 – as far as I can make out – Smiths Detection was holding ‘urgent talks’ with the government to ‘strengthen’ police forces against combat chemical or biological attacks. The Daily Mail covered this with a short, undated article which made it sound like Smiths Detection was selling the government an apocalyptic vision of a Britain under siege from chemical and biological attacks. According to the Mail article they had already ‘provided’ the police with Chemical Agent Monitors and Lightweight Chemical Detectors. Smiths vice-president (at the time at least) Tim Otter revealed – according to the Mail – that the police had been ‘buying little bits here and there’ but perhaps Smiths Detection wanted a more wholesale adoption of their security devices. Although, to date, it seems that there has been no widespread chemical or biological attacks (even though the government ‘terror alert’ has remained at high levels for the past few years).

In 2006 things seemed to be looking up for the company when the Mail reported on a Smiths Detection ‘Machine which ‘sees’ through clothes boosts terror fight‘, a machine which just happened to be launched at a conference where the then Home Secretary John Reid delivered a keynote speech. In 2007 the Daily Mail confirmed that BAA would be buying new Smiths Detection ‘x-ray machines’ in a ’10-year deal worth at least £20 million’. This article focused on explosives on hand luggage, which presumably after being solved by a clever machine provided by Smiths Detection has now led terrorists to store their bombs internally. Which just happens to be something a new Smiths Detection machine can detect.

However, all is not rosy for the Smiths Group, as the Mail reported in March 2009: the company had a net debt of £975 million which wasn’t being helped by governments deferring orders and preferring to bail out banks rather than focus on the threat of terrorism.

I’m not saying that terrorism isn’t a real threat, and I’m not saying that Smiths Detection do not offer effective solutions to certain terrorist threats. However, I am very conscious that around the time when Smiths Detection were talking to the government about their wonderful devices and how we were all going to be attacked a million people took to the streets in London to protest against the Iraq war and were soundly ignored. The London bombers made it perfectly clear that their actions were as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not as Tony Blair protested because they were ideologically opposed to our ‘way of life’.

The mainstream media can keep hyping up the ever more ingenious ways that terrorists can kill us and companies like Smiths Detection can keep hyping up ever more expensive and ingenious ways to try and protect us. However, unless we actually try to engage with the fundamental reasons as to why people want to blow us up I get the feeling that this circle of fear and expensive salvation will continue. After all, the mainstream will never run out of ‘unnamed sources’ and ‘foiled terror plots’ that really did exist, honest, they just aren’t allowed to report any details…

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