'Panorama's coverage of 9-11 and the war on terror'’

This source preferred by David McQueen

Authors: McQueen, D.



Start date: 29 March 2010

The BBC's 'flagship' current affairs series Panorama backed away from reporting on the 9-11 attacks despite having a senior reporter with relevant expertise in the area. Subsequent coverage lacked investigative depth, recycled commonplace analogies with Hollywood films and drew unfounded links between the 9-11 leader Mohamed Atta and Iraq. This paper examines Panorama's much criticised coverage of the September 11th attacks, drawing on textual analysis of archival material and interviews to revisit a disturbing chapter in British current affairs coverage.

The paper will look specifically at journalistic practices which led to such a failure, including the role of the 'star' reporter, managerial interference, over-reliance on official sources and a culture of caution. It examines how Panorama failed to separate fact from fiction in its use of Hollywood imagery and intelligence services misinformation which contributed to a politically charged atmosphere of fear. It will also closely examine Panorama's claims about the subsequent anthrax attacks which have since been traced back to a US bio-weapons laboratory. These claims which tenuously linked Al Qaeda and foreign powers were staged in highly dramatic ways drawing on horror and science fiction tropes and marked a further blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction.

Panorama's coverage, in this respect, was typical of the media's response to the 9-11 atrocities and their aftermath by amplifying fear, echoing official lines of inquiry and avoiding awkward questions, for instance, about the role of domestic agents in the, now all-but-forgotten, anthrax attacks. The many failures of Panorama's 'investigative journalism' of this critical episode in recent history proved extremely useful to the Bush and Blair governments.

The paper will conclude by reviewing the lessons that can be learnt from Panorama's initial failure of nerve and subsequent failure to investigate.

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