Brendan O’Neill Brendan O’Neill

The troubling reaction to the shooting of Robert Fico

The moment Slovakia's prime minister Robert Fico was gunned down (Getty images)

Just imagine if, following the killing of Jo Cox, some right-wing media outlet had said: ‘Well, she was a divisive figure, and very pro-Remain, so it’s not surprising something like this happened.’ We’d be horrified, right? We would have looked upon such low commentary as excuse-making for murder, as a borderline justification for an utterly unjust act of violence against an MP, a mother and democracy itself.

It is hands down the most disturbing thing I’ve heard on a news channel

Well, something not dissimilar to this imagined scenario happened for real yesterday – and we need to talk about it. It was on Sky News. They were discussing the attempted assassination of the Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico. A guest commentator said Fico’s views are ‘very divisive in Slovakia’ and ‘very divisive in the EU’. And therefore – wait for it – ‘it’s not surprising that this sort of event might take place’. 

Got that? Because Fico is a controversial figure, according to the EU anyway, it shouldn’t be a great shock that someone decided to shoot him. It is hands down the most disturbing thing I’ve heard on a mainstream news channel in some time. A democratically elected leader is riddled with bullets, Slovakian democracy itself is horrifically assaulted, and you’re not surprised?

The commentator on Sky listed Fico’s supposedly problematic views. He’s a populist and a nationalist, we were informed. Worse, he opposes military aid for Ukraine. What are we saying here? That it is ‘not surprising’ if public figures who hold such views – that nationhood is important, that the EU can be a pain in the backside, that aid to Ukraine should stop – are set upon by maniacs? This strikes me as a very dangerous message.

It’s not just Sky. Across the broadcast media there was a palpable coldness in the coverage of the Fico shooting. The BBC has been at pains to remind us that Fico is ‘divisive’. Aren’t all politicians, by their nature, divisive? In that they divide public opinion? Even the ‘nice’ anti-populist politicos no doubt preferred by BBC and Sky types get some people’s backs up. I would still be surprised – and horrified – if any of them were to be attacked. 

I can’t have been the only person who texted a friend during Newsnight last night and asked: ‘Does the coverage of the Fico shooting feel a little off?’ There, too, it all felt a little too unmoved, even cavalier at points. Did that guy on Sky just say out loud what too many others were thinking: that it’s not surprising when nasty populists come a cropper?

It seems to me that some are allowing their ideological disdain for Fico to cloud their commentary on his shooting. Perhaps their dislike for Euroscepticism and Ukraine-scepticism and populism in general is even more unhinged than some of us suspected. It is a shocking abdication of both journalistic objectivity and basic morality to see the attempted murder of a PM and think: ‘Well….’

We’ve seen this kind of ideological muddying before. It is undeniable, in my view, that some in the liberal media expressed greater angst over the killing of Jo Cox than they did over the later murder of the Conservative MP, Sir David Amess. Both were terrible crimes. Yet some are clearly more comfortable with condemning far-right terrorism than they are with confronting radical Islam. And so Cox’s murder became a story about the moral rot in modern Britain, but Amess’s did not. 

It really is not complicated: the murder of Cox, the murder of Amess and the attempted murder of Fico were all horrendous attacks on the individual and on society itself. They were attacks on the right of every one of us to choose our representatives without fear or dread. It matters not one jot that you dislike Fico – he won the popular vote in Slovakia which makes yesterday’s shooting a crime against democracy in that nation. Europe should be reeling from this horror, not rubbing its chin and moaning about populism.