By Ros Coward
Jul 6, 2015
On Tuesday 8 November 2005 the Sun's front page evoked memories of the July 7 London bombings in a shocking way. A huge picture of a blood-soaked victim dominated the page. Under the banner "Terror laws" was a large picture of the victim with the words: "Tell Tony He's Right." The implication was clear: this victim had spoken to the Sun and was calling on the public to back Blair's tough terror bill, which was defeated in the Commons. The Sun's strong and emotive front page was mentioned several times on other media including BBC Radio 4's Today programme and the World at One. It was widely recognised as a key element in sending a message to Labour waverers that those whose opinion on the bombings is unimpeachable - the victims - were strongly in favour of the government's hardline stance.
There could be no more inappropriate image for the Sun to have chosen. The bloodied victim, John Tulloch, feels deep anger with Tony Blair and politicians for the role they played in stirring up the violence that came to London on July 7. But Tulloch also happens to be a university professor in media studies. As the Sun's editors were putting together their front page on Monday night, Tulloch, slowly recovering from his injuries, was hard at work on a book he has just started. The subject? What happens when a professor of media studies, habituated to deconstructing news stories, becomes the subject of the story.
Tulloch, who has professorships at both Brunel and Cardiff universities, is appalled by the way the photograph was used. "This is using my image to push through draconian and utterly unnecessary terrorism legislation. Its incredibly ironic that the Sun's rhetoric is as the voice of the people yet they don't actually ask the people involved, the victims, what they think. If you want to use my image, the words coming out of my mouth would be, 'Not in my name, Tony'. I haven't read anything or seen anything in the past few months to convince me these laws are necessary."
While he may be "cross" and "appalled", Tulloch is not surprised. "This is a classic piece of media manipulation demonstrating the cronyism of New Labour and the Murdoch press. You don't even have to be a sophisticated analyst to see what they are doing with the visual rhetoric and verbal anchorage. The words are tying down my image to a particular political interpretation of that event, making it seem as if they come from my mouth. I'm reminded of the famous essay by the semiotician Roland Barthes, who analysed an image of a black soldier saluting the French flag. What we've got here is: I am being made to salute the Blair flag."
Tulloch's image became one of the iconic images of July 7. His face soaked in blood, a purple blanket draped over his business suit, and a green tag classifying him as "walking wounded", it somehow seemed to capture the particular horror of a very banal everyday life interrupted in the most shocking way imaginable.
He didn't look it at the time, but Tulloch had been lucky. The police now think he was sitting very close to, and possibly directly opposite, Mohammed Siddique Khan, believed to be the bombers' ringleader, when he blew himself up on the Circle line train, just after it entered the tunnel at Edgware Road station. "When we pulled out of Edgware Road, I was pleased because it didn't stop for long in the station. I began to push myself up ready to move into the doorway. Fortunately, I didn't do it because I would have been blown to pieces. When I sat back down I pulled my case near to my legs. I now think that's what saved my legs. Suddenly there was this gruesome, bright yellow colour. It was like there was a sudden yellow snapshot of the carriage, except everything was stretched and distorted."
The first thing Tulloch remembers was lying on the floor, and noticing that everything was wet around his face. It was his own blood. "I thought it was something dreadful that had happened to me alone - apparently, that's a very normal reaction in disasters. But I remember thinking, my legs are all right. I think I called out to two young women I'd noticed, 'Can you help me find my glasses?' I couldn't really see properly with the dust and my eyesight. I think they were in a worse state than myself." He managed to cross over to what was left of the seats opposite: "The floor was all buckled, there was a crater and someone was in it. I didn't want to look and I couldn't see properly, fortunately. I looked back across the carriage. There were bodies and beyond I could see the other train [which had stopped alongside as a result of the blast]. It was surreal."
Shortly afterwards Craig Stainforth, an RAF commander and head of an air force medical team, climbed into the carriage from the second train on which he had been travelling. "I had all the luck that day," says Tulloch. "He found out I was an academic and started talking to me about his daughter and her choices for university. I can still remember all the details. Just recently he's told me he couldn't get my attention at first. I was saying I wanted to lie down, and then, 'Can you find my bag, can you find my bag?' I had my memory stick [for his computer] in it. He knew I wouldn't focus on him until I had the bag so he fished it out from under a body. I remember I was really worried about a report I'd done as an external examiner for a PhD on risk and violence in a Colombian town."
It was some time before Tulloch became aware that he had not only been involved in a traumatic event but had become an important part of the media's representation of the event. He has no memory of those first iconic photos being taken. "I was in much too desperate a state," he says. His friends didn't bring the papers into St Mary's Paddington, the hospital to which he had been taken, and it wasn't until colleagues of his former wife in Australia spotted the pictures on the internet that he became aware of them. Having heard Australians were involved (Tulloch is Australian by birth), journalists from there traced him to the hospital. Neither they nor the British press, however, made the links to the previous bloodied figure in the photographs. Shortly after the bombing, Charles and Camilla visited the hospital and Tulloch was photographed, looking almost deliriously happy, clasping Prince Charles. "I'd just finished the four major tests. I realised I hadn't lost my limbs, my lungs had not been damaged, I hadn't lost my sight and ... there were no major head injuries. I was euphoric; I just grabbed him. I'm all right about those pictures. Prince Charles was quite decent to me that day." It wasn't until a week later that the Evening Standard put together the two images.
While it took some time for him to realise his own image was becoming one of the iconic images of the bombings, Tulloch had already begun to pore over the coverage of the event. "When I was in hospital I couldn't read but I could see pictures, so I spent more time looking at photos of what happened to other people, the evolving stories. I was following the developing iconography, how the images were being used at different moments in the story." Two photographs, he says, struck him particularly forcefully: "One of the suicide bombers, Germaine [Lindsay], with his wife and babies. Here was this loving woman with her children, their faces pixillated out to protect them. It brought tears to my eyes. I just felt sad for her and what's going to happen to her." The second image, however, made him furious. "I saw those photos of Blair at Gleneagles. I saw his performative act, the way he put his head down and held his hands. Of course he was ready for it. Of course he had his performance all ready for it. I was very angry about that."
Although Tulloch regards himself as lucky, his injuries were serious. He had head wounds, his ear drums were shattered, his face was lacerated and he developed severe vertigo. When he came out of hospital he needed help walking again, first just to cross the friend's flat where he was staying, then to go outside. Now he's travelling again, most recently back to his native Australia, where his sons live. But he still suffers from badly disrupted sleep and from a pounding in his head, the after-effects of concussion; he faces a six-month waiting list on the NHS before he can have an operation to try to restore his eardrums.
It was three months after the bombing that Tulloch realised he had a book to write. He had become aware that the story of the bombing was already crystallising into certain narratives: of heroes, victims and survivors. More seriously, certain images were being used to advance particular agendas. 'I was aware of how some of the coverage was closing down debate about Iraq and Iran.'
Tulloch does not criticise all the media coverage of the event. "There's good and bad journalism. Up to now I have been fairly sympathetic to most of the ways the media have used me. For example, Channel 4 did a documentary about a day in the life of London. I was concerned about aspects of the final programme: it was a documentary which became a drama, starting with the bad guys coming to town and ending on images of 'victims'. I've had a slight twitch on my face for many years but the last image was of my face with a twitch, which made me out to be the victim I didn't want to appear. But I have a lot of respect for that team and their programme. It deprived me of a voice but they handled me sensitively and, as a media academic, I understood the production values and the constraints of the genre they were working in.
"But I am totally offended by what the Sun has done. Rather than just depriving me of a voice, they have given me somebody else's voice. Blair's voice."
Perhaps the greatest irony of Tulloch's situation is that shortly before the bombing, he had been working on what he calls "the new wars", specialising in "risk in everyday life": he's the joint author of a book of the same name and a leading thinker in this growing, cross-disciplinary academic field. By what he now sees as a strange twist of fate, Cardiff university had sent him to Kosovo to develop student recruitment from former communist bloc countries. He became fascinated by how Kosovo's detailed political reality was often reduced by facile images, particularly images of violence which represented political conflict as just a continuation of ancient tribal wars. "A couple of months before the bomb blast I had presented a paper at Kent University arguing that risk theory had failed to take on board new wars and terrorism. Up until very recently, all the writing has been about science and medicine. I thought it was crazy not to talk about terrorism and Iraq." Tulloch's proposal for a new research centre was on the laptop that he was carrying on the day of the bombing, utterly destroyed in the blast.
Tulloch remains not a passive, voiceless victim, but one almost less inclined to blame the bombers than the politicians. "The invasion of Iraq may not have caused the bombings in any simple linear causality but when they chose to attack the US, London, Madrid, Australia - the allies - it's symbolic. These are not the acts of mindless murderers but strategic, symbolic acts. It is absolutely no coincidence that what happened in London happened at the time of G8. Far more than feeling angry with the bombers or angry about what has happened to me, I feel angry with the political leaders. People are surprised when I say I see the bombers as victims, but I do. They are victims of greater forces, of people higher up who use them as rhetoric."
Did the professor of media studies ever expect to be part of a major story like this? "Of course, after the invasion of Iraq I always knew it was possible [such an attack] could happen. But personally? No," he says. "I was looking elsewhere, I guess"