Journalist Alex Thomson responded via twitter to our analysis of Channel 4’s live blogging of the recent protests against substantial university fee hikes, ‘‘Embedded’ with the police, Channel 4 and the UK student protests‘ (cross-posted at the Irish Left Review):
I thought it would be worthwhile drawing attention to a blog entry relating to the recent student protests in the UK by a senior journalist in a mainstream news outlet in order to highlight prevailing media attitudes towards protest and, in particular, civil disobedience. It’s important to make a distinction here, as the right to protest, while perhaps not the importance or effectiveness of it, is generally supported by the mainstream press. ‘Protest’ in this approved sense could be characterised quite simply as the congregation of a large group of people, meeting at a designated location, followed by a procession down a designated route, with a number of speeches at the end point and then quiet dispersal homeward. Anything that deviates from this formula is not typically welcomed in the press.
Civil disobedience on the other hand involves protesters not only voicing their opposition, opinions, etc, but voicing them in a manner they see fit (it is therefore unlikely to be collectively agreed), not that prescribed by or mediated with the coercive powers of the state. This type of protest is therefore much more likely to be dominated by police physical enforcement, as well as more indirect methods, such as intimidation, whereby, for example, photographs and video footage of protesters are recorded to discourage attendance.
Anyway, the blog entry in question was posted by Channel 4 News correspondent Alex Thomson, who, it appears, posted the entry live from the scene of the last major demonstration on Thursday last week (9/12/10). Thomson has been covering the ongoing protests for some weeks now and has been on the ground with protesters and police on more than one occasion.
In this report Thomson begins:
“My earlier predictions that today’s protest would absolutely lead to violence on a wider scale then we have seen have, it seems, been entirely borne out by events. We witnessed a police officer knocked to the ground and injured before the protest had moved a mile from London University early this afternoon.”
Thomson is clearly not talking about police violence when he says “today’s protest would absolutely lead to violence on a wider scale“. Despite what we know now about the level of violence perpetrated by the police, a fact that went mostly unreported and presumably unseen by reporters on the day of the protest. Thomson writes “We witnessed a police officer knocked to the ground and injured“, reaffirming, presumably, either that the media had broadcast images or had shown footage of a police officer knocked to the ground or that Thomson and his colleagues had seen the officer struck. Either way, he is attempting to draw an affinity with the reader and the victim of violence, seeking empathy for the injured policeman. At this stage, we might also presume at least one protester had been struck or injured, but Thomson chooses not to mention that possibility.
“From the outset the mood today was different. Radically different. There were scores turning up already masked up and the mood was louder, angrier, than before. There were hundreds here who were plainly out for a ruck with the police and they were going to have it wherever the police decided.”
Here Thomson evokes a picture of protesters as a wild, unpredictable gang moving in packs. Speaking very generally about all protesters, he says, the mood (which he reveals later in the piece he derived from what he overheard or saw, in fact there is no reference to actual interaction with protesters in any of his blog entries) was “[r]adically different” and protesters were “masked up” as opposed to wearing scarves etc. Thomson is adamant this indicated protesters were “plainly out for a ruck“. This use of language, masked up* and out for a ruck sounds slightly like that which might be used in gang discourse, with Thomson, in one sense, identifying the perceived source of the potential violence, and in another, identifying himself with an opposing side, the police. This closely chimes with the type of identification typical of correspondents embedded with the military in war zones.
These observations, paired with an earlier account that “speakers [had] invited protesters to “bring down the government” and ” bring this country to a halt”“, suggested only one thing to Thomson, the protesters were intent on violence. On the other hand, statements by the police prior to the march that they would implement kettling tactics etc were not, as far as he was concerned, deemed provocations.
“The place where the police stop the protest is the battleground for these things. Today many hundreds of marchers peeled off at various points along the route to Parliament Square. But when they entered the Square it was clear they were going no further at this stage.
That did it. Hundreds burst across police lines. The half dozen mounted officers simply fled from the Square to be reinforced much later. Barriers around the lawns of the Square itself were soon torn up and the crowds spilled across what is a traditional protest area for the British people. So they have certainly reclaimed that today, if nothing else.”
Here Thomson refers to an issue he revisited in a later post the next day, that of the location where students planned to stage the eventual demonstration at the end of the march, Parliament Square. An iconic location Thomson notes, “a traditional protest area for the British people“. The police did not want the “battleground” to be Parliament Square, but failed to direct the marchers towards the designated point. After reaching the rally point the protesters concerned themselves solely with “[tearing] up” barriers. This constant, and it could be reasonably argued unbalanced, focus on the ‘troublemakers’ within the protest is tempered only by fleeting, throw away, formulaic references in the closing paragraphs to what you might consider important contextual information – “most of those in Parliament Square and on this protest were peaceful“.
“From then on, hour after hour there was mass shoving at lines of riot police whilst anything that could be thrown at the police was thrown.
The police tactics are basically to stand there and take it, it seems. No water cannon or tear gas for these officers. True they had batons and used them when necessary with considerable gusto but in truth the police that I saw acted with a restraint you would not see in many other countries
It got worse. It got dark. There were a series of police mounted charges as it grew dark next to Westminster Abbey. Police came under a hail of paint bombs – but in truth the protesters were not particularly tooled up.”
Clearly there was was physical violence directed towards police during the protest, however it is virtually impossible to say with any certainty (although that doesn’t stop Thomson) whether this violence was a result of the violent nature of a section of the protesters, or whether this was a reaction to police tactics on this and previous marches, which, while designed to discourage future participation (e.g. kettling, or ‘detaining’ as Sky News preferred to refer to it) may have actually incited aggressive behaviour.
However, even accepting that there was violence on the part of protesters, most, if not all of it documented and transmitted incessantly on the 24 hour news channels (in contrast to those acts of violence committed by police, which are either not shown, or shown to much lesser degree), Thomson here frames that violence as entirely unprovoked and in turn shows complete ambivalence to the ‘response’ to that violence. He writes that police used “batons…with considerable gusto“, but only “when necessary“. Again, with reference to police cavalry charges, Thomson merely notes that they happened – “There were a series of police mounted charges” – without even commenting on the very real dangers of such actions. Clearly legimitising the use of force, and in fact, suggesting too little force was used: “The police tactics are basically to stand there and take it, it seems. No water cannon or tear gas for these officers.” While also presupposing police pacifism, declaring they simply just “[stood] there and [took] it“, before contradicting himself with the “gusto” “baton” observation. What Thomson could not have known at this time was that one student struck by a police baton would later fall unconscious and have to undergo brain surgery.
Thomson elaborates on every act that could potentially be deemed ‘violent’, he writes “It got worse…Police came under a hail of paint bombs“, painting (excuse the pun) what seems to be a unnecessarily exaggerated picture of the scene. Paint ‘bombs’ are hardly dangerous weapons, a ‘hail’ of which would be unlikely to do significant damage to vehicle or person. A point he is forced to concede in the next sentence: “in truth the protesters were not particularly tooled up.”
“Inevitably as afternoon turned to night there were injuries and currently the police say three of their officers are seriously injured and I saw several protesters with various kinds of head injuries – all of them dramatic and colourful, though I sense few were particularly serious.
There was fighting on at least three sides of Parliament Square and you can only witness one small part of a wider disturbance. It may well be that the numbers of people injured grow into the night where various bonfires have now been lit across Parliament Square.
It remains the case that most of those in Parliament Square and on this protest were peaceful. Some broke into a spontaneous and just a little bit ironic rendition of “Silent Night” as we filmed other protesters bash the police and get bashed in return over the crush barriers not ten feet away.”
In this last section, Thomson concedes again that his perception of the protest is only one possible vantage point, although the scene, he writes, was not one of ‘protest’ but of ‘disturbance’: “you can only witness one small part of a wider disturbance.” At this point the purpose of the protest, to object to what for many people will be an intolerable burden of debt in exchange for a third level education, has been entirely subjugated by Thomson’s narrative of barbarity.
The sense that Thomson has identified with the police is reinforced when it comes to detailing the injuries incurred during the protest. He writes “police say three of their officers are seriously injured“, where it could be inferred Thomson had sought information from the police on numbers injured or treated. At the same time, he refers only to seeing protesters injured, suggesting he made no attempt to find out how many were hurt or how seriously (ambulance and hospital services could have no doubt furnished him with this information if it was sought): “I saw several protesters with various kinds of head injuries“. But he not only shows a lack of interest in those injuries incurred by protesters, he actually seeks to undermine their severity and intimate that they were put-on or played-up: “[protester head injuries were] dramatic and colourful, though I sense few were particularly serious.” This seeming indifference is reiterated in a post later that evening when he writes: “Nine police injured – three seriously. And the protesters? Well, there will be scores of injuries.” Thomson relies heavily, it seems, on information supplied by the police: “at least 22 offences, mostly for violent disorder.”
Only in the closing paragraph does Thomson acknowledge, with some reluctance, “that most of those in Parliament Square and on this protest were peaceful.” A fact he repeatedly mentions in an earlier post, reinforcing it with the introductory phrase “But in truth…“, suggesting perhaps that he is conscious his focus on the violent element is inherently misleading. Or perhaps he is cognisant that what he witnessed, while mediated, he feels, faithfully by his reporting, tends to feed into and reinforce a general prevailing media discourse on the subject of student protest – one which values imagery of violence, predominantly against inanimate objects (such as the lone police van left within a kettle at an earlier protest). This preoccupation with violent imagery had Channel 4, at an earlier protest, soliciting photos of violence from protesters via social network mediums, under the guise of supporting ‘citizen journalism’.
The fact that Thomson is forced to admit “protesters were [for the most part] peaceful” stands in sharp contrast with the preceding nine paragraphs of the report, and it is these dominant sections that will no doubt define readers memory of the report and the protest itself. Thomson, by the way he has structured his report, must be entirely aware of this, and could only have set out to portray the protests, the protesters and the police in this manner. This must be infuriating for those protesters who, by many accounts, managed, by some fluke it would seem (or perhaps just the avoidance of media coverage), to witness no violence during their particular experience of the protest.
* John S, writing on the Media Lens Message Board, suggests the peculiar phrase ‘masked up’ is invoked to draw the allusion with ‘tooled up’