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.

We Went On A March By Accident

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TLC and I went into that London yesterday for art, theatre and general silliness to celebrate her birthday. I was aware, of course, that today was the date for the huge anti-cut march organised by the TUC, but I hadn’t figured that we’d see it.

It went down Piccadilly, and right past our hotel, of course. And that was a good thing, because we got the chance to see what was going on, and for a little while at least, join in and document.

The sheer scale of the undertaking was mindboggling. The march started from Victoria Embankment, and went all the way to a huge rally at Hyde Park. We were with it for a half hour or so, following it from Trafalgar Square to Half Moon Street. We passed thousands of people. Kids, adults, students, grandparents, mums, dads, nurses, teachers, public servants of every kind, all united under banners of every type, colour and material, and one message. The cuts that start to kick in next week are wrong.

I refuse to be objective about the issues at hand. I agree wholeheartedly with everyone on the march. It was amazing to see Piccadilly filled with people from end to end. I was cheered and moved by the good humour and determination of the protestors. I’d say quiet determination, except it wasn’t.

The vuvuzelas, hated noisemakers of the World Cup, has been retasked, and along with the drums, whistles and cheers means that the March has it’s own musicality, it’s own drive. It’s a drone that you can lose yourself in, a beat that matches your pulse. I hadn’t realised before, but marches are fun.

I really hope that the peaceful, joyous racket made today resonates through Parliament. The Government climbdown over the sale of the forests shows that if enough people make their opinion known, we can reverse poorly thought out and rushed policies. We should be proud and supportive of everyone out on the streets today. I’m glad I was there.

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+++UPDATE+++

TLC’s posted some of her rather excellent photos of the march as a Flickr set. Check ’em out here!

A Response To The Chancellor

(I didn’t watch the live Budget broadcast yesterday, for fear that I might throw something at the telly. This is a fairly common occurrence whenever George Osborne is on screen, so I figured probably best not. However, I was following the Twitters, with particular interest shown to tax expert and strident reformist Richard Murphy. He was not impressed. I’ve had a chance to see what was in young Osborne’s little red satchel, and I would like to respond as if I was the Shadow Chancellor (incidentally, isn’t that a great name for a fantasy villain?) – admittedly, with the benefit of hindsight that I don’t think Ed Balls gets.)

The Shadow Chancellor rises, and waits for the applause and jeering to die down. He fixes his opposite number with a hooded glare, and taps impatiently on his lecturn with the eraser end of a pencil.

The House of Commons is, unusually, completely silent as he speaks.

“Is that it? Really? Is that the best you can do? Have you given up so early in the game, George? I mean, this is just derisory. There’s hardly anything here! Alright, let’s see what you’ve managed to do, shall we?

A penny off fuel duty. When you’d raised it by two in the last budget, and a postponement of the next hike until January. Which means you’ve just promised the drivers of the nation two price rises on fuel in 2012. 50p on a packet of fags. Fine, I’m with you on the coffin nails. A sneaky play on alcohol duty though. No rise doesn’t mean you’ve abolished the duty escalator. So that’s a 2% rise above the rate of inflation. 10p on a pint over the next year. You’ve just doomed the rural pub market. Not that people can afford to drive to them in the first place, but that on top of the VAT hike is going to grease the slide on which a lot of these local community businesses are already teetering. Nice work.

“That’s a sweet little drop in corporation tax rates there. And I see you’ve made an attempt to address tax avoidance. Sort of. A bit. A fifty grand payment if you’ve lived in the UK for twelve years. I can see Philip Green quaking in his boots over that one. And you’ve not put a limit on the tax assets that banks are sitting on from the losses they incurred in the 2008 banking crisis. That’s what kept Barclay’s tax bill down to a 1% payment. Nicely done. Keeping your paymasters sweet.

“If you were serious about tax avoidance, you’d give HMRC the cash and staffing it needed to get to grips with the staggering amount of revenue we lose to corporate shenanigans every year. Instead, you’ve provided loopholes in inheritance tax and charitable contributions that will turn this country into a haven for tax abusers. Nicely considered.

And after that, we can still see that growth has slowed for the third successive quarter that you’ve been in charge of the accounts. That’s not the best record, really, is it?

“I suppose we should be grateful that you haven’t done more. After all, the cuts that will begin to bite in the next couple of weeks will be bad enough without you turning the screws any further. Unfortunately, you’ll probably find that your lame duck budget hasn’t fooled any one. I suggest you have a look at the people who will be filling the streets of London this Saturday. The people who will be clearly and directly affected by your politically motivated financial agenda. Is it a coincidence that you’re rushing through your attempt to clear the deficit in time for the elections of 2015, when most economic experts consider that there’s no problem with taking 12 years to do it? And in fact that this country is in significantly better financial shape than you’d have us believe?

“It’s becoming pretty clear to everyone with two brain cells to bang together and a fast internet connection that your policies aren’t working, that your interests are not those of the people you claim to represent, that you’re lying to the electorate in order to push through policies that are based on discredited economic theories dragging us back to the worst excesses of the Thatcher years, that your arrogance and hubris will not allow you to admit that the gamble you’re taking with this country’s future is putting us on a path to disaster. This Budget is pointless, because the damage is already done.

“I’d say thanks for nothing, George, but the sad fact is that you’re going to leave us with less than that.”

The Shadow Chancellor sits, and waits for the inevitable tumult.

Follow The Money: X&HT watched Inside Job


It’s telling that Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job hits UK screens in a week when no less a figure than the head of the Bank Of England has made it clear that the blame for our financial woes should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the banks. Telling, and in some ways heartening, although the conclusion Ferguson reaches in his film isn’t at all comforting.

Like a financial version of An Inconvenient Truth, or a less schmaltzy Michael Moore, Inside Job makes no attempt to be objective. It’s a film that has no interest in painting the leading monetary figures behind the 2008 bust as anything but ogres or incompetents. Ordinarily, I’d be bothered about the fact that so many of the key players declined to be interviewed. But in these arena that doesn’t really matter. It’s the numbers that count, and Ferguson does a good job of showing how the venality of the banking sector tried and failed to skew those numbers in the interest of quick and massive profit.

It’s a film that demands your full attention. One point that the bankers who are seen in Congress sessions make time and again is that the situation is and remains way too complex for we mere mortals to understand. Ferguson uses graphics and a measured, careful narration from Matt Damon to ensure that we can.

We are taken though a history of financial deregulation since the Reagan era that led to investment banks packaging loans that were designed to fail, and betting that they would in the quest for spiralling short term profits and bonuses. It is complicated, I’ll admit. I’m a complete doofus when it comes to money, and I found myself squinting more than once at the screen to make sure I got it. But it’s worth the effort.

The end picture is clear. The banking industry in the US (and although it’s not mentioned, I realised there was a direct correlation to the UK bailouts of Lloyds and Northern Rock) has systematically engineered a structure in which it can operate without regulation or any real restraint, and with the clear understanding that they will be bailed out by government funds if they should screw up.

The failure to appear by most of the big noises in this perfect storm begins to look less like a flaw, and more like an admission of guilt. It’s a dirty journalistic trick, to be sure, and Ferguson doesn’t come across as a sympathetic interviewer. But the silence at the heart of the film speaks volumes, and you get the feeling that these guys very definitely have something to hide. Something that Ferguson’s simple, clear graphs and extensive research winkle out with mathematical precision.

In short, no-one in this story gets away clean. When the rot even extends to the compromised state of the educators at Harvard and the Columbia Business School (who, while they should have taken the Fifth that their smarter colleagues invoked, also provide some wonderfully squirm-inducing moments) you have to wonder if there’s anyone you can trust with your money anymore.

Inside Job is a brutal indictment of an awful situation that has been allowed to fester for years. Sadly, as Ferguson points out, not only are the banks in question unlikely to be punished for their misdeeds, many of the key players are still in power, and in many cases in central roles that will enable them to dictate US and hence world financial policy under the Obama administration. It’s not an easy or fun watch, but I think it’s essential, and left me wanting to know more. There’s a lot of cant and waffle about the state we’re in, and we need more work like Ferguson’s to at least begin to answer the unasked questions.

I wonder if George Osborne’s seen it.

The Accidental Shareholder

I was pleased to see that the Lloyds Banking Group has posted pretax profits of £2.2 billion. It’s cheering to see a publicly owned company announcing healthy returns on our investment.

However behind the headlines, the news isn’t all so rosy. Despite the increase, shares in Lloyds have dropped sharply, and their profit forecasts for 2011 have been downgraded. The group as a whole has also dropped over 26,000 jobs in it’s quest to cut costs – in a week when it’s departing chief executive, Eric Daniels, pockets a £1.45m bonus, and is in line for another £6m payout based on shares he already owns.

Let’s not forget, this is the guy who railroaded through a toxic merger with HBOS at the height of the banking crisis. This is the guy that saddled the group with billions of pounds of bad debts, and still seems to think it’s a good investment. It’s thanks to Daniels that the UK taxpayer is a major shareholder in Lloyds. We should all be worried about his financial acumen, and loudly question his bonus.

The profit announcement also serves as a reminder not to swallow the Coalition Koolaid, and believe the line that our current financial difficulties are due to overspending in the public sector. It was the bailouts of banks like Lloyds and Northern Rock that did for the deficit, not the NHS. If the Tories were in power at the time, they’d have had to do exactly the same thing.

Bail-in protests are going on this Saturday, turning HBOS banks across the country back into publicly owned and run spaces. These actions are great at pointing out the wild disparity between the profits that huge financial institutions make and the bonuses they pay, while vital services are being cut to the bone. Check out the UK Uncut site for more info, or follow @ukuncut on Twitter for the news on the ground as it happens.

Meanwhile, I’m going to find someone to help me dump these toxic shares I’ve been saddled with.