Fitting the Narrative: The Perils of Jumping to Conclusions

23rd June 2020

In the aftermath of an attack, I have argued, there is often a virtue in saying nothing until the facts emerge. Within the hours, days, and sometimes weeks following a killing, what we know about the case is often uncertain, and may well change radically.

That will not always be the case. We knew a great deal about both London Bridge attackers, for example. Once their identities were established, it was possible to talk in an informed manner about potential motive.

However, it is the police and the prosecuting authorities who tend to know most about what has actually taken place. Their primary function is to get those facts before a court, where they are examined and weighed. Accordingly, it is often necessary to wait until a trial before a clear picture emerges.

Sometimes, in the immediate aftermath of such a crime, a particular understanding of the significance of a murder takes on a life of its own. It may become emblematic of a particular political moment. It can fuel demonstrations and other forms of political action. And it may do all these things, notwithstanding that the dominant narrative is untrue.

Do you remember the killing of Arkadiusz Jozwik: a Polish man living in Harlow, beaten to death in 2016 by a gang of teenage boys  “after he was heard speaking Polish”. In that year, political life was substantially focused upon the issue of Brexit. His murder was seen as emblematic of the hatred of foreigners, and Poles in particular, which some believed was the impulse behind the Leave campaign.

The reaction to Mr Jozwik’s death was immediate and dramatic. Hundreds of people marched through Harlow “in silent defiance“. Human Rights Watch joined the fray, with a broadside against “Britain’s Brexit Hate Crime Problem“. James O’Brien of LBC declared that the then UKIP leader’s rhetoric had lead “inexorably to young people thinking they have the right to object to people speaking foreign in public”. The issue resonated internationally: not only in Poland, where the story captured the headlines for days, but in the United States, where the New York Times noted that the “Fatal Beating of Polish Man Fuels Debate Over Xenophobia in Britain“. The President of the EU Commission, Jean Claude Juncker focused on the killing in his State of the EU address:

“We Europeans can never accept, never, Polish workers being harassed, beaten up or even murdered in the streets of Essex.”

The killing of Arkadiusz Jozwik was not, however, a hate crime. At trial, in 2017, the story of his fatal encounter with the teenagers emerged. Mr Jozwik and his drinking companion had been staggering with intoxication. They had made racist remarks to a teenage boy, who was black. Mr Jozwik had then shoved one of the group, who then punched him. He subsequently fell, hit his head on the pavement, and died. The defendant was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in a young offenders institution, following his conviction for manslaughter.

Why did a false understanding of the “meaning” of the killing of Mr Jozwik emerge, so quickly after his death, travel across the Atlantic, excite the concern of a human rights campaign group, and inspire a solidarity march?

There are two factors for the success of such a campaign: timing and organisational impetus. Many people sincerely believed that murderous racism was likely to be engendered by the Brexit campaign. That issue was the subject of widespread speculation in late 2016. The initial report that the trigger for the attack was that the teenagers had heard Mr Jozwik speaking Polish, played to that perspective. The Polish diaspora in the United Kingdom had the capacity to organise a solidarity march. Jean Claude Juncker had the pulpit of the EU Commission. The press, who were on the look out for stories about Brexit and xenophobia, eagerly repeated and amplified the story.

On Sunday, three gay men were murdered by a Libyan man, who had been granted asylum in the United Kingdom. It is quite possible that James Furlong, David Wails and Joe Ritchie-Bennett were murdered by Khairi Saadallah because he suspected that they were gay. But that might not have been his motivation at all.

Stonewall could have marked this murder with a call to action to protect gay men from homophobic violence. However, they properly concluded that there was no certainty that the men had been attacked because they were gay. Instead, Stonewall counselled against Islamophobic, racist and xenophobic rhetoric.

They followed up with a second tweet, calling for solidarity between communities.

It should not be surprising that a story that appeared at its inception to illustrate the concern that the Brexit vote may have exacerbated racist violence gained domestic and international traction in late 2016. There is no corresponding national focus on ending homophobic violence against gay men in 2020. Stories about asylum seekers who kill gay men do not fit easily into the campaigning narratives surrounding anti-gay hatred. Moreover, whereas the original report on the killing of Mr Jozwik had incorrectly indicated that he was targeted for speaking Polish, the first day of the reporting of the Reading attack provided no apparent evidence of specific motive.

What can we learn from the difference between these two cases?

First, we should not presume that we know all the facts, at the inception of an emerging news story. We must always bear in mind that what we believe we know for certain today may look very different in a few weeks’ time.

Secondly, whether or not a story becomes emblematic of a political moment turns on a range of factors, including the use to which it is put by politicians.

Thirdly, although criminal trials are not flawless vehicles for uncovering the truth, they are better at it than newspaper commentators and campaigners.

Finally, we should be aware of our own confirmation bias. We gravitate towards news stories which appear to tell “fundamental truths”.  But reality is often messy, and can not always be shoehorned into our most cherished narratives.