Were Londoners told the truth?

A couple of hours after the bombs, Italian news agencies were reporting that 50 people had died - but the UK press took a lot longer to come clean.

Dominic Standish

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Topics Politics

As an Englishman living in Italy, I tend to follow the news through a combination of British, Italian and international media. On Thursday 7 July, I was following the horrific events in London when I noticed something strange.

At 12.38 Italian time (11.38 UK time), Italy’s leading news agency, ANSA, ran a story on its website reporting comments by the Italian interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, that at least 50 people had died in the London blasts (1). At the same time, I was watching TV news reports, mainly BBC World and Sky News, which reported possible deaths, especially following the explosion on the bus. Although BBC television news did briefly mention Pisanu’s comments, up until 3pm that day the leading reports on the explosions only referred to possible deaths. Indeed, the British police refused to confirm that two people had died during a news conference broadcast on BBC World at lunchtime. By 14.20 Italian time, there was a debate on Italian state radio (RAI) about Pisanu’s comments, and why the 50 deaths were not being confirmed or denied in Britain.

Like most people, I was worried about friends and relatives in London and I wanted to get an accurate picture of the tragedy. How we respond to events is often conditioned by the news media. Apart from the media, my only contact with the terrible attacks in London was a phone call from my mum. The contrasting pictures I received left me unsure of how to respond. If 50 people had died, I felt I should be immediately phoning all my friends who work in London to check they were okay. But the British news media’s picture of injuries with unconfirmed reports of two deaths made me wonder if this would be an overreaction. In the end, I sent emails to people I know who work near the underground stations where the explosions had been, including to the spiked office. But the discrepancy in the reporting of the British and Italian media led me to further investigations.

More reports of a substantial number of deaths had surfaced in the international news media. The South African website, News 24.com, reported that a French official who asked not to be named said that 45 to 50 people had been killed in the London bombs – and also noted the Italian interior minister’s comments that 50 had died (2). The story ran at 17.46 (South African and Italian time) on the afternoon of 7 July, which is 16.46 UK time. By this stage, the British police and media were beginning to report around 30 deaths, with most media quoting 33 to 37 deaths – at 21.50 UK time, the BBC News website ran a story that 37 had died (3). Sky News that evening did report the French claim that 50 had died, and linked the information to the British home secretary. An article by Jason Deans in the UK Guardian noted this on 8 July (4): ‘At around 7.30pm yesterday, Sky News carried a Reuters report of a French government minister saying there were 50 dead in the London bombings and claiming the home secretary, Charles Clarke, as their source.’

Most British media stayed with the figure of 37 deaths for the morning of 8 July – including television news that morning on BBC World, Sky News and ITV News. However, some British media placed the number of deaths at around 50. For example, The Times (London) ran a story on 8 July titled ‘Britain “defiant” as bombers kill 52 in attack on the heart of London’ (5). In addition, international reports were contrasting information about 52 dead to an official figure of 37 in the UK. Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service ran a website story on 8 July at 17.19 (8.19 UK time) comparing the Australian prime minister John Howard’s statement that 52 had died, to the official British toll of 37 (6).

By lunchtime on 8 July, most leading British media organisations had raised their estimations of the death toll to 50. The BBC News website ran a story at 12.30 UK time quoting the head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, that the death toll would reach at least 50 (7). The latest total number of deaths is 52 (8).

Up until 3pm on 7 July, it seems that reports of large numbers of deaths could only be accessed through foreign news media. The 50 deaths quoted by the Italian interior minister on the morning of 7 July were close to the truth and considerably different from the unconfirmed reports of two deaths by the British police at lunchtime. The delay by the British media in reporting the deaths has been questioned in an article by Eric Pfanner in the New York Times (9), which also pointed out that the delay was not caused by the British government exerting pressure on media organisations: ‘The first confirmation that there had been deaths in the attacks did not come until after 3 pm. Though some British reporters have complained at news conferences with police officials that the authorities had been slow to share details about the bombings and the investigation into them, officials of ITV, the BBC and Sky said the government had not asked them to withhold any information.’

However, the Guardian’s Jason Deans described how the British government did try to prevent some reporting of deaths (10): ‘The ITV News editor-in-chief, David Mannion, said he had been called yesterday by a Home Office PR demanding that a newsflash saying that at least 20 people had died be taken down.’ The article also quotes Mannion’s response to this request: ‘I said we wouldn’t take it down, because we’d got the figure from an authoritative government source’.

So if government pressure isn’t the explanation, what happened? We now know that the three underground explosions occurred within 50 seconds of each other at 8.50am. Of course, it took time for the emergency services to recover bodies, which is work that is still continuing. But witness reports by survivors gave clear indications of deaths from an early stage (11). Furthermore, there were accounts of deaths from the bus bomb as early as 10.41 (UK time) on 7 July (12), where bodies were easier to recover. The first estimates of the deaths on the bus were reported as two dead (13), but later reports said the death toll was 13 (14). It must have been clear that there were a significant number of deaths before 3pm on 7 July, when they were first confirmed in the UK. If 50 deaths were being reported and debated by lunchtime in Italy, why were large numbers of deaths not reported in the UK until mid-afternoon?

Some have suggested that the British government and security services knew that about 50 people had died, and shared this information with their counterparts in other countries. An article by the Associated Press published at 18.31 (UK time) on 7 July on the Guardian website suggests that US officials gained information of a minimum of 40 deaths from British colleagues (15): ‘Three US law enforcement officials said at least 40 people were killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity and said they learned of the number from their British counterparts.’ This sharing of information is also covered in a timeline of events on CNN (16). It noted that at 14.38 British time on 7 July, ‘US law enforcement sources say the British government has said that at least 40 people have been killed’. If this is true, why wasn’t the information made available for the British public?

In an address to the nation on the evening of 7 July, UK prime minister Tony Blair praised the ‘stoicism and resilience’ of Londoners (17). But it could be that his government didn’t trust Londoners with information about the scale of the tragedy on 7 July. Did the government fear that Londoners would panic, as might be indicated by the lunchtime police news conference on 7 July that stressed the need to stay calm while refusing to confirm deaths? Or was it because the authorities feared that there would be a reaction against London’s Muslims? Questions about the failure of the British government to provide the media and Londoners with an accurate picture of events on 7 July remain unanswered.

Dominic Standish writes for numerous media organisations, including the Italian National Press Agency, ANSA (email dstandish@europe.com).

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) Londra: Pisanu, almeno 50 morti,’ ANSA website, 7 July 2005, 12.38 (Italian time)

(2) Up to 50 dead, 1000 hurt, News 24.com website, 7 July 2005, 17.46 (South African time)

(3) London bombings toll rises to 37, BBC News, 7 July 2005, 21.50 (UK time)

(4) Media frustrated by official death figures, Jason Deans, Guardian, 8 July 2005

(5) Britain ‘defiant’ as bombers kill 52 in attack on the heart of London, The Times (London), 8 July 2005

(6) Toll climbs in London bombs, SBS World News website, 8 July 2005, 17.19 (Australian time)

(7) London bombs killed ‘at least 50’, BBC News website, 8 July 2005, 12.30 (UK time)

(8) Police search homes in bomb probe, CNN website, 12 July 2005, 12.44 (GMT)

(9) British News Media Reacted to Bombings With a Measure of Caution, Eric Pfanner, New York Times, 11 July 2005

(10) Media frustrated by official death figures, Jason Deans, Guardian, 8 July 2005

(11) A flash and then burning, Sky News website, 7 July 2005, 21.21 (UK time)

(12) Bus ‘Ripped in two’ by blast, Sky News website, 7 July 2005, 10.41 (UK time)

(13) London bombings toll rises to 37, BBC News website, 7 July 2005, 21.50 (UK time)

(14) Tube bombs almost simultaneous, BBC News website, 9 July 2005

(15) Four London blasts kill 40, Injure 700, Jane Wardell, Associated Press, 7 July 2005, 18.31 (UK time)

(16) Minute-by-minute account, CNN, 7July 2005, 3.48 pm (EDT)

(17) Terror in London, Scotland on Sunday, 10July 2005

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