I’ve just been listening to a radio news bulletin. Nothing novel about that. The male presenter’s American-accented English rang out clearly, imparting the day’s news in a sing-song professional manner. If I hadn’t been properly tuned in to the words, I could be forgiven for thinking I was listening to the BBC World Service, or America’s NPR.
Except I wasn’t. Not even close. Al Bayan Radio is about as far as you can get from the glorious World Service. Instead it is the official mouthpiece of Isis.
Yes that’s right. Isis, in the midst of trying to destroy the world, has found the time to create a radio station. And an oddly slick one at that, now broadcasting information in English both on FM networks across Syria, Iraq and Libya and, of course, online, which is where I found a snippet. Even its name, Al Bayan, also the title of a popular Arabic language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, gives the impression of dispassionate enlightenment. It simply means: “The Dispatch”.
I bring this up because in all the pandemonium surrounding the horrendous homophobic attack by Omar Mateen in a gay nightclub in Orlando on 12th June, it was to radio that Isis turned to try to own this murderous rampage.
“God allowed Omar Mateen, one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America, to carry out an attack, entering a Crusader gathering in a nightclub… in Orlando, Florida… killing and wounding more than 100 of them,” an Al Bayan “newsreader” boasted, 24 hours after the rampage, according to the news agency AFP.
Isis is, of course, no media novice. The group has displayed its gruesome intent online for years, posting horrific beheading videos and shouty threats to the West. Its burgeoning media propaganda portfolio also includes a monthly online English-language magazine, Dabiq, which contains news and religious lessons.
Somehow I expected print and digital videos from this increasingly savvy regime. But radio? Somehow radio just seemed too analogue. Too thoughtful. Too civilised.
In fact, Isis has been honing its English-language radio offering for just over a year, and reportedly even went to the effort of capturing a radio station in Libya last February. Can you imagine?
Now you may say that as a radio presenter I am slightly biased towards my favoured medium. And yet it was almost more shocking hearing news of murders by “Islamic State snipers” read aloud in a calm, BBC voice on the wireless. (Of course the self-styled Al Bayan newsreader didn’t refer to these acts as murders, simply as “killings”, in a chillingly nonchalant way.) Without the usual mad, bearded men screaming as they brandish their AK47s, declaring allegiance to some made-up caliphate and phony idea of God, it almost sounded, whisper it, OK. Like a proper military force defending a proper country.
And that’s the power of radio. It’s a heartbeat we all trust. Adopt the same tone and almost anything can have the varnish of respectability on the airwaves. The listener creates the images that accompany the words. All we can do, as presenters, is create the dots. The connection is up to you – as is the reaction.
Isis’s Al Bayan Radio is a sobering reminder of how lucky we are in the “dreaded West” to have radio we not only trust, but love as dearly as our own family.
The days of needing to gather anxiously around the wireless for news of war may be over, thankfully, for those of us living freely. But in other parts of world they’re only just beginning.
Emma Barnett presents The 5 Live Hit List at 10am Wednesday-Friday on Radio 5