There was an element of bafflement in the early BBC coverage this morning of the welcome news that police have identified and surrounded the suspected killer of seven people, including Jewish children, in Toulouse. To some people's surprise, the BBC correspondent remarked in the early reports, the suspect turned out to be a Muslim, Mohammed Merah. So the entire tone of the Corporation's coverage of the killings turns out to have been misplaced. Ever since the dreadful news that a gunman had attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse after killing three French soldiers, the overriding assumption on the part of the Corporation was that, unless the killer was merely unhinged, the suspect must be a far-right extremist, animated by a hatred of minorities. So every spokesman for the governing party hauled onto the news programmes on Radio 4 was interrogated as to whether President Sarkozy had somehow added fuel to the flames by talking about there being ‘too many’ immigrants in France and complaining about the alleged provision of halal meat to unsuspecting consumers. The possibility of an Islamist assassin was, by contrast, mentioned only in passing. In fairness, those lazy assumptions, based on what we wanted to be true, were voiced in France too.
As it turns out, the suspect, Mohammed Merah, apparently claims to have been motivated by the desire for revenge for the treatment of Palestinian children and for France's operations abroad. But for a disinterested observer, an Islamist suspect was likely from the outset. The French soldiers killed by the gunman were of North African origin; ergo, went the argument, he was animated by hatred of Muslims. But the critical thing about the soldiers was precisely that they were soldiers, and, as it happened, from a unit that had served in Afghanistan. That should have been the element that raised suspicions of Islamist motivation.
As for the attack on a Jewish school, the unpleasant reality is that anti-Semitism in Europe is now predominantly territory occupied by Islamists, not by old-fashioned fascists. And the reporting should have taken that fact into account. The BBC is not unique in its instinctive antipathy to the National Front in France — indeed, its recent Radio 4 series Driving on the Right suggests an aversion to all the European parties hostile to mass immigration — but it should not have allowed that antipathy to colour its coverage. Of course mass killers also come from the extremist right end of the political spectrum as well as from the squarely deranged — or, in the case of Norway's Anders Breivik, both. But when the probabilities conflict with our instinctive prejudices, we know how the reporting is going to turn out.
The good news is that President Sarkozy has appealed to the better instincts of the nation by insisting that terrorism should not be allowed to divide France. The reaction of the National Front, too, has been relatively restrained, though it seems likely to be the chief electoral beneficiary of the tragedy. It would be all to the good if our own coverage of the election could be, in future, a little more nuanced too.