Updated: May 10, 2020
On Saturday I spent 10 hours on the March for the Alternative. I was there as an activist to support the political point that there is an alternative to the current government’s policies. I was there as a freelance journalist to report on the march and on the UK Uncut actions planned for later in the day. That’s the disclosure bit done. What follows is the story of my day, with some reflections thrown in. I posted the first part of this last night, and my colleague Chris Wheal has also recorded his impressions.
At Oxford Circus I tried to talk to a couple of the legal observers to get their view of what had been happening. I got some suspicious looks when I identified myself as a journalist and was told “We don’t speak to the media, we’re just here to observe”. They had a point. They needed to focus on their job and so chatting to a journalist would be a distraction. But they’d been happily chatting to a couple of other protestors as I waited for a break in the conversation, and I felt the chill when I mentioned the word “journalist”. I can understand suspicion of the media – especially after some of the coverage I’ve seen this weekend – but I was keen to report a very different story. Of course, they weren’t to know that but cutting off from the press doesn’t help get the other side of the story across.
By now I was also having to confront the conundrum of whether to act as a participant or an observer and where the lines were drawn. And my battery was starting to run low after I’d put up five film clips and published a stream of Tweets. I buttoned my phone into a pocket and decided to just use my eyes and ears. A card was pressed into my hand which read “This is your colour, follow it”. It had a green dot in the middle. Trickles of the crowd were beginning to move south down Regent Street and there were some green banners and umbrellas up ahead moving at pace. The crowd was still young, good humoured, a smattering of fancy dress. We broke into a run as it looked as if a line of police vans were about to block us off and they stopped. There was cheering as several hundred of us reached Piccadilly and joined the march that was still coming up from the Embankment.
Heading up Piccadilly we could see evidence of earlier paint attacks and some broken windows. A couple of Scouse women with Unison stickers complained that “this means what we’re marching for will get ignored”. As we neared Fortnam & Mason it became obvious there was a bit of a blockage and something happening at the store. I got as close as I could and started to film.
There were already a gaggle of people filming and photographing near the front doors. It’s hard to tell who is press and who just has a decent camera these days, but there was plenty of film being shot. What’s clear from my pretty rough clip is that people, some of whom were clearly protestors, were being allowed in and out of the store by the police line. The mood is noisy but humour is good. The appearance of a UK Uncut banner at an upstairs window provokes cheers and the mood among people on the TUC march seemed to change as it became clear that what was happening was peaceful and good humoured. I heard people saying “Good for them”.
Let’s be clear. I had seen evidence of damage to property. But I couldn’t see any here. The crowd was big enough to have rushed the police lines or to put the stores windows in. But no one tried to. Again, even from my perspective right in the midst of events it was clear to distinguish peaceful from non-peaceful direct action. The crowd was very mixed, trade unionists and other ‘official’ marchers, lots of younger people with rucksacks, a few black and red syndicalist flags. No Black Bloc, no aggression.
By now I clearly wasn’t going to get inside the store. Plus my phone was down to 20% and going down fast as the latest film uploaded. I got a text from Lizzie saying she was in Cafe Nero in Jermyn Street with Chris uploading and another from my wife asking if I was at Fortnums and OK “because the BBC coverage says it’s getting ugly”. At that stage, it wasn’t. I made for Jermyn Street.
Chris was desperately trying to get a story up with about 10% of laptop battery remaining. There were no power points to access. We were starting to run on empty. Having just got our second story up, we went back to see how things were shaping up outside Fortnums. The crowd was more static and the occupation of the store was still going on. I couldn’t see any movement in or out of the store but we were now quite a way down the street. Then we witnessed a column of riot police move rapidly into Piccadilly from a side road. The crowd’s noise level rose and there were ripples as people began running – some away from the column and others to stop it getting across the road.
There’s some film of the scenes embedded in one of the Daily Finance reports we filed here. It’s all very excitable but I’ve seen much worse violence at football matches and on other demonstrations. There’s evidence of more Black Bloc types about, but you can also see police in ordinary gear moving freely and easily in the crowd. The appearance of the riot police and there swift movement into the street seemed to have raised the temperature. While there look to be a few people up for a row, the mood seems to be more one of refusal to be pushed out that wanting to attack the police. And again, with plenty of opportunity to put windows in, we hear or see no glass being broken.
The cameras were right down on power so we couldn’t film more but we stayed for a while to see what was happening. The riot police did not seem to be forming a line or clearing an area, but their presence seems to have raised tensions. The people around us, still a mix, were aware of the possibility of being kettled and we were beginning to gather at the top of a side street that led down onto Jermyn Street. Chirs, Lizzie and I had a quick conflab. Our ability to report was pretty much done, and we had to consider whether we wanted to be caught up in a potential kettle. We couldn’t get close to or inside Fortnums. So we decided to head off.
Back in South East London we found a bar with access to power, had a couple of drinks and posted the last story.
We were a small team who decided quite late on to do something for a platform which is still developing its approach. We clearly needed to have planned better, and we’d found the limitations of technology. But we got three substantial pieces, with video, up on a site that is traditionally quiet at the weekends and which has not, as far as I know, attempted any type of live reporting before. When I checked just now those three stories had generated over 50 comments from 6,500 page hits. Not spectacular, but still new ground for a site whose chief executive encouragingly said would be rebuilt around quality journalism last week.
For me, the most valuable part of the day – aside from the teamwork with two great colleagues – was testing out the options now available to us to report and cover events. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years examining, discussing and writing about new platforms and techniques and nothing beats getting out there and trying stuff. There are still lots of questions I need to resolve about how valuable it is just to live report, whether it’s possible to provide context when doing so, what the lines between observation and participation are and how to apply them, and how to deal with the sheer scale of information while also adding to it.
Late on Saturday I found myself getting drawn into political debate on Twitter, and I also phoned the BBC to complain about some of the coverage I was seeing. And this has made me think more about the challenges you face if you are a reporter with opinions and the fact that people are not one job or one function but instead operate on a number of levels, often simultaneously.
And I’m conscious that I have essentially just poured quite a lot from my brain into two very long posts. I thought it was worth just getting this stuff up. When I have time to reflect, and to process the blizzard of information that is still coming at me from every direction, I’ll put something more considered up. That may well recognise that what I did on Saturday and have done in these posts has limited value. At the moment, I’m hoping that the transparent and instant approach I’ve opted for eventually contributes to some greater body of knowledge. We’re all still, in so many ways, finding our direction.