Media, politics and protest

Updated: May 10, 2020

It’s almost a week after the 26 March events and there’s still quite a media storm raging, although that storm has gone further down the agenda. I blogged in the immediate aftermath of spending the day on the streets live covering the march and the activity around Oxford Street and Piccadilly. Having had time to think, and having followed much of the fallout closely, here are some more thoughts – mostly about the media and how it covers politics and protest.

My colleagues and I decided to start the day filming and interviewing on the Embankment as the march assembled. What was pretty clear was that this was a pretty wide cross section turning out on the streets – the Big Society if you want to call it that. There were plenty of ‘stories’ – good human interest ones – to be gathered here. And we got some. But I didn’t notice the numbers of media here that I noticed later when the atmosphere was very different. I take the argument on board that someone in a balaclava throwing a flare or smashing a cash point makes a more immediately exciting picture than someone explaining why their speech therapy project should not be shut down. But when those of us who work in the media say one thing’s a story and something else is not, do we really mean one thing is easier to report and requires less thought?

There are a lot of things about this that make me uneasy. Violence puts a lot of people off, but without the violence, would the conversations still be going on now? There’s an interesting discussion going on about this, instigated by the Solidarity Federation. I don’t agree with everything that’s said, and while I understand the argument that violence against property is nothing compared to the violence inflicted on people’s lives by cuts and some of the activities of multinationals, I also find the comparison occasionally inappropriate and sometimes glib. Already on the morning of the march, it was being said in the press that the aims were too woolly and that the Government would take no notice however many people marched. The scar on the body politic left after Labour ignored one million people on the streets who opposed intervention in Iraq will take a long time to heal. I have no way of saying for sure that the issues the march was organised to raise would not have been debated with a high profile in the press after the event, but experience indicates they wouldn’t have been. So for all the press obsession or focus, depending on your point of view, with violence it seems pretty clear that violence has keep the issues in focus. Which leads me to…

The media and reporting protest. The media, particularly visual media, has decided that violence has impact. So it focuses on violence, thereby making violence seem a bigger issue than it may be, and giving credence to the argument that only violence gets attention. The obsession with violence is then ramped up when people not involved in violence are asked, almost required, to take a position on something they may have nothing to do with. The debate then becomes ‘are you for or against violence’ and the substantive issues are forgotten.

This combines with a certain amount of, well, call it bad research, lazy reporting or political illiteracy, which results in the media failing to acknowledge the difference between non-violent and violent direct action and between different groups of protesters and their aims. So the media, driven by its need to simplify all issues into ‘good v bad’ or ‘right v wrong’ and its focus on heroes and villains around which to characterise issues, seizes on violence, defines everything around violence, but simultaneously laments violence.

The growth of channels through which people can create their own media and a general growing sophistication among consumers means people are getting wise to the mainstream media’s dead end agenda and rejecting the parameters which it attempts to impose on debate. Charlie Beckett’s Polis post ‘Don’t blame the media if your demo doesn’t work’ illustrates much of the disconnect, and is unusually poorly argued. Charlie’s initial argument seems to be that it’s difficult to report complex issues, so therefore the media can’t be blamed for reporting complex issues badly. I recognise those dilemmas, but it’s our job to resolve them, not use them to deflect criticism. As Charlie’s post goes on, his use of language indicates to me where his sympathies are. Mine probably does the same. I don’t believe in the myth of individual journalistic impartiality so I don’t have a problem with people expressing an opinion. But we’ve got to realise our opinions are shaped by our perspectives rather than pose them as some kind of consensus media approach.

That’s why an increasing number of people are refusing to engage with the mainstream media’s agenda – which is annoying the mainstream media no end. So now the story is the hero media against the villains who don’t accept its framework.

I accept the point, made well by Charlie Beckett, that “it’s difficult to combine the kind of ‘match report’ journalism that tells you what happened at a demo with a proper debate about the issues”. But that doesn’t explain why the “issues” are not examined in the aftermath of an event – other than around the framework of ‘violence, good or bad’. Complaints about the media coverage of the weekend’s events are being characterised in some quarters as ‘We’re annoyed because the media didn’t cover the march in the way we wanted them to.’

There may be some truth in that, but there is also legitimate criticism of the media’s readiness to swing into applying a particular framework to events and we would be foolish to ignore it. And, if we work in the media, foolish not to try and address the problem of how to more effectively cover political debate.

There have also been complaints that one group’s action was ‘hijacked’ by another. This, to me, seems especially muddle-headed. People attended the 26 March event for many different reasons, with many different points to make. You either accept that or you don’t. No one owns an idea or public protest. This ‘hijacking’ is defined by the media as elevating one issue above another. But it is the media that decides what issue has what profile. So if the media decides to emphasise an issue an event organiser doesn’t want emphasised, is that ‘hijacking’ too? The argument does not stand up, and coming from some quarters seems to amount to little more than a plea to leave politics to the professionals who, of course, have made such a good job of it so far.

Think on this. In less than 12 months a group of mainly young activists previously uninvolved in any organised political movement have effectively set out arguments on the complex issue of corporate tax evasion. They have done so by taking peaceful direct action, and by linking identifiable companies and individuals with complex practices in such a way as to popularise protest. These practices have been going on for years. Some media reported them, but failed to draw much popular attention to them. Labour spent 13 years in power running scared of any debate on tax because it forgot the job of a political party is to challenge ideas, not to fall in with the ones it was told it should have. The success of UK Uncut shows direct action works, and is also giving hope to people confronted until now with no real choice in politics.

The media, of course, is under no obligation to support UK Uncut. But neither is it under an obligation to dismiss it or lump it in with other opposition movements in the name of ‘balance’. The media chooses how it covers a story, and it is those choices that are being questioned. Just because the media takes a view, that doesn’t mean it’s a consensus. The tone of most coverage of UK Uncut since the weekend has been that they may be well-intentioned but are a bit naïve and are more than bit responsible for things other people did. And that’s a charitable summation. Some of the worst coverage has either ignorantly or deliberately interchanged ‘occupation’ and ‘assault’ and pushed the dangerous view that because some people may do some things on a protest that go beyond the pale, therefore all protest should be curtailed.

There’s also been a bit of an obsession with class, especially in the good old Daily Mail. Again, we return to the manufacture of consensus, and the consensus here seems to be that while it is entirely wrong to attack the Government as a group of upper-crust millionaires, because this would be the politics of envy, it is entirely right to attack people demonstrating against the government for being ‘a bunch of rich kids’. A section of the media has decided that UK Uncut are primarily a bunch of ‘Tarquins and Jocasta’s’ making the lives of poor working class shop staff – whose interests big media has a long record of backing of course – a misery. Again, that’s how much of the media is choosing to cover the story, while arguing that that is the only way it can.

There’s been quite a bit written on the practicalities of live Tweeting events, and Tom Davies made some good points on my previous blog posts. What’s also becoming clearer is the need to be careful about verifying information and assessing sources – another ‘old media’ skill that’s still essential. I’ve been following the UK Uncut and 26 March hashtags for a while now. At first they were good sources of news and debate, with the odd rogue contribution. What I noticed on Saturday afternoon was what seemed like an organised attempt to flood those tags with opposition and disinformation, and as the week has gone on both streams have degenerated.

Now they are next to useless – with the nuggets from before almost lost in a stream of abuse, poorly-disguised provocation and ranting. It’s been alleged that paid “astroturfers” have been employed to do this. I don’t think there is any way of proving this, but it does seem likely that there is some degree of co-ordination if only on an informal level.  What does stand out is the sheer nastiness and vitriol of much of what comes, particularly from the right. I’m conscious that I may be more likely to pick up on that because of where I stand, but I can honestly say 90% of the vile stuff I’ve seen has come from this side. Then there’s the hashtagging of the English Defence League into the debate, which takes things onto another level. At one stage, this seemed to provoke some differences of opinion among those using EDL-linked social media. There are some dark undercurrents.

I could go on and on [“You already have, shut-up,” shouts my reader]. There is so much to assess and discuss. I hope that what I’ve done goes some way towards resolving the issue that runs through all of this. That is that there must be a better way for the media to cover politics and protest, and that we have to start constructing that rather than falling back on the argument that says we do what we do because that’s the way it’s done.

#26March #protest #violence #politicaldebate #Politics #Media #Reporting #UKUncut

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