Reporting The Protest

That old saw that yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper has never seemed more accurate. After a days worth of opinion and outrage, the papers have moved on.

Let’s reflect on how the events of March 26th were reported. Up until the breakaway direct action groups rolled out their plans, there had been little to report. You know, just half a million people descending on the capital to express their outrage at brutal and un-necessary cuts to the welfare state.

It was only when paint started to be flung (the uncorroborated claims of light bulbs filled with ammonia also being lobbed at police is now being treated with scepticism. How do you fill a lightbulb with ammonia, anyway?) that the news feeds sparked into proper life.

Footage of Ed Milliband’s speech at the Hyde Park rally was split screened with police scuffles with protesters. A sure sign that although they wanted to be seen as even handed, the network’s interests were elsewhere.

Meanwhile, retail pranksters UKUncut kicked off their own action, and occupied Fortnam and Mason. As ever, the invasion was peaceful and cheerful. The reports of damage taking place were quickly and thoroughly shut down, as video and photos taken inside the building showed singsongs and campouts. The police would later arrest every protester inside, and charge them with aggravated criminal damage. The sum total of said damage – a knocked over display of chocolate bunnies.

The reportage of the day was becoming confused. Commentators like Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy initially accused UKUncut of diluting the original message by acting as the main speeches were going out. But he was also careful to note that they had nothing to do with the actions of the “Black Bloc” outside. Other reporters had no problem with merging the peaceful demonstration inside Fortnums with the paint-throwing activists on Piccadilly. Meanwhile, a rumour began to circulate that a member of the Sky News crew had offered someone £25 to throw a brick. This sounded suspiciously like a plot line from an old episode of Drop The Dead Donkey.

At Trafalgar Square, a group of about 200 had gathered. Violence was sparked off as police squads rushed into the crowd. The reasons for this remain unclear. The official police line is that they were acting to prevent damage to the Olympic clock. Eye witnesses, including the New Statesman’s Laurie Penney, maintain that the squads were trying to pick up individuals that had been earlier spotted causing trouble. Regardless, police lines closed, the kettle was lit, and a tense standoff began that effectively shut off the West End for most of the night. For just about all of the major news outlets, this would be the story. Penny Red’s view is here. And here’s another, slightly less purple version, from Liberal Conspiracy’s Dave Osler.

There’s a jarring disparity at work when you look at the footage and reports of the day. The even-handed claims of a huge and peaceful rally being marred by the action of a violent minority is illustrated almost exclusively with pictures and footage of the disorder. The protestors at Trafalgar Square and the Uncutters have been stigmatised by both the press and Police Commissioner Bob Broadstreet as criminals and anarchists. But as yet, there’s little proof that anyone arrested had anything to do with the window smashing on Piccadilly. And let’s not forget, they may not have been part of the main march, but they still have a perfectly legitimate right to protest. Tying UKUncut in with the brick-lobbers is an act of base dishonesty.

Let’s also note that the crowd was quiet up until they were rushed by riot squads. Even if the police were hurrying to protect the Olympic clock, their actions were certain to spark an already volatile situation. You’d be naive not to expect any trouble at a mass gathering like March 26th. A police charge into a bunch of over-excited kids is the surest way I know of to start some.

The picture that is emerging is muddled and unclear. Both sides are flinging accusations of bias, and of an opportunity lost.  We know that there are concerns about thuggish behaviour from both the police and protesters. It was ever thus, and for every picture of a kid in a hoodie heaving a brick through a window, there’s another of a copper in stormtrooper gear batoning a girl in the face. There’s no argument to justify either. But both seem to be a more valid illustration of the day than the big story.

I’d say the number of arrests speaks volumes, and points you at the bias of the reportage. 201 arrests. 149 people charged, of which 138 were the entirely peaceful UKUncut crowd. If Fortnums want to press charges, I’d say they’ll end up looking very silly making a stand over a few chocolate bunnies. Which leaves us with 11 people charged with criminal damage. Out of, let us remind ourselves, a crowd of five hundred thousand people. Do the maths on that, and then ask yourself why the scuffles on the periphery were the leading story.


+++UPDATE reflecting slightly changed numbers of arrestees.


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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