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My terrorist buddies

So we have just seen two examples, one each of the two modes whereby the press enabled George W Bush to make such an enormous mess of things and get away with it. First, by sensationalising dangers and exaggerating threats, thereby frightening people and encouraging them to acquiesce to outrageous government intrusions and burdens on human rights and civil liberties without question. And second, by neglecting to check the statements of government officials for accuracy before passing them along for public consumption.

Before 9/11, there were occasions when I would be ashamed to say that I'm a journalist. At that time I covered Infosec primarily, and would occasionally wince with embarrassment when some dupe journo would inevitably believe that "hackers" posed a threat to life and limb. The press is always sowing fear to sell papers.

Since 9/11, I've needed to keep a supply of sick bags handy at all times. The fear mongering related to Islamic terrorists has now reached the level of terrorism itself. Wild exaggeration is the norm: every incident is a potential catastrophe; every wannabe clown is a battle-hardened jihadi; al Qaeda is everywhere and stronger than ever; Osama is ready to pounce at any moment.

What do we call people who sow fear, hoping to intimidate the public with threats of violence to advance their own interests? What's the word I'm looking for?

Yes, that's right; we call them terrorists. The Bush Administration certainly qualifies as a terrorist organisation: it has played the fear card for political advantage so many times, it's virtually impossible to cite an instance when they didn't exaggerate the threats facing Americans today.

But what about organisations with an economic rather than a political motive? News organisations want to sell papers and attract viewers - and fear sells. If public anxiety is encouraged through deliberate distortions and exaggerations, as the mainstream media have been doing shamelessly since 9/11, is that not pushing the envelope?

When the UK media inflates the nitwits behind the recent car "bomb" fiasco into al-Qaeda operatives, and this in turn gives Gordon Brown the confidence he needs to call for the detention-without-charge limit to be increased to 56 days, have we not just been manipulated by fear in the political realm? And is that not pretty much the standard definition of terrorism?

I'll confess it; I go down the pub and drink with colleagues in the press. So, yeah, I party with terrorists a few times a week, and I breakfast with bin Laden almost every day. It's a wonder I'm not in a cell down at Gitmo. ®

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