Like an impressively large number of people, I went down to London last Saturday for the trade union organised demonstration against the cuts. We travelled in comfort (hitching a lift on a train hired by the RMT, to whom warm thanks) and joined the march near the back, a little before it set off, coming up through it once it started to move, in a vain attempt to find some friends from UCU, my own union. We went for a coffee in the ICA gallery and, on re-joining the march found ourselves just behind the anarchists, just as they came level with the Ritz and a number of luxury shops, and some windows got smashed and some paint thrown, with quick small surges of anarchists and police in different directions, enough to make you nervous but not terrifying. We stepped around the anarchists as soon as space opened up and went on into the park to listen to some of the speeches before heading back. A great atmosphere and a heart-warming day when solidarity took on flesh and became eminently tangible. The day was spoiled, however, when I got home and put on BBC news 24, first at 11 p.m. and then at 12 midnight. The coverage was dismaying to say the least. The whole of the 11 p.m. broadcast focussed on the attempted occupation of Trafalgar Square with almost nothing said about the main demonstration. The broadcast’s main line seemed to be that it was a shame that the behaviour of a ‘lawless’ minority had been allowed to overshadow the 250-500 000 peaceful protestors. This was breathtaking in more than one way: firstly, in how the BBC passed its own knee-jerk editorial decision to highlight the lawbreaking of a tiny minority onto others (just who was responsible for the overshadowing here, one might ask); secondly, in its failure to provide any meaningful sense of the massive demonstration, who’d been on it, why they’d been there, what speeches they’d heard and so on, a manifest and radical failure to inform, despite that being one of the corporation’s main vocations; thirdly, in the determination to run with live pictures of Trafalgar Square that told us precisely nothing (except that it was awfully hard to see any of the lawbreaking that was being mentioned – perhaps it was the bad light!). I imagine we are aware of television’s cult of the live picture as a substitute for any serious investigative reporting but, even given this, this was a particularly striking example: ‘we don’t know much’ the images seemed to say, ‘but we’re giving you the not much we know live’. I gave up on the 12 o’clock broadcast after about twenty minutes and didn’t re-engage with the BBC till breakfast time, just in time to hear a report that Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC (Trade Union Congress), had disowned the few, violent protestors, as if that were the only or most important thing that he’d had to say about the day.
For the sake of convenience, one might say that the demonstration had had four components, one enormous, the others all relatively small. There was the union organised march and the Hyde park rally that followed with its 250 – 400 000 participants (half a million by some accounts): there was the occupation of Fortnum and Mason’s and other shops by UK Uncut : there were the anarchists who’d attacked some shops and banks; there were those who’d tried to organise a Tahrir style occupation in Trafalgar Square but found themselves kettled by the police. The day had given rise to about 200 arrests, most of which were from the entirely peaceful and creative UK Uncut activists. Subsequent reporting from the BBC and others worked a far from anodyne blurring: different instances of direct action all tended to get rolled together and were presented as lawbreaking and implicitly or explicitly connected to violence. Then, the ‘peaceful protestors overshadowed by lawless minority’ line was repeatedly rolled out to avoid any serious engagement with the protests and what they were about. A silencing added to a blurring. What made it worse, of course, was the repeated failure of journalists and broadcasters to engage with the civil liberties issues raised by the Trafalgar Square kettling and the shameful mass arrest of the entirely peaceful Fortnum’s protestors.
One piece that seemed to condense many of the issues was the interview carried out by presenter Emily Maitlis with UK Uncut’s Lucy Annson on BBC’s flagship news show Newsnight on March 28th (see here). Although UK Uncut’s commitment to non-violent direct action is well known, Maitlis repeatedly asked Annson whether she would condemn the violence rather than probing her on Uncut’s action, its motivation and its effectiveness, something that would surely have been more informative, given Uncut’s unfamiliarity for most of the public. Maitlis’s aggressive interview style seemed to be a robotic imitation of the style honed by lead Newsnight presenter, Jeremy Paxman. The hostile, repeated question undoubtedly has its place in the presenter’s armoury, notably as a tool to disrupt a politician’s prepared script, but, used mechanically, and in the absence of proper reporting, it becomes a performance of the pursuit of truth, a substitute for real journalism. The interview took place in front of an image of a fire, helmeted riot police and serried ranks of demonstrators, all of which connected to earlier elements of the programme but had nothing whatever to do with UK Uncut’s actions. Annson found herself trying to explain Uncut’s peaceful methods against a threatening backdrop that implicitly undercut her message. The BBC seemed determined to corral reporting of the demonstration into the violence v. non-violence debate in a way which tended to downplay all other issues while stigmatising direct action. There is a kind of mental kettling at work here. Meanwhile the real kettle continues to have a physical and symbolic role. As pointed out here, the kettle doesn’t simply serve to contain protesters and deter them from future action, it also works to concetrate media attention on an essentially negative image of protest. The Trafalgar square kettling and its capacity to occupy our television screens was one more example of this.
For an alternative and rather more informative take on the demonstration , see here.
For an analysis of the reporting of the big anti-fees demonstration, see here .