Nov 2010

How the media encourage violent protests

A couple of days ago, over in the UK, there was a large student demonstration against government policy. A group of protesters split from the main march and occupied the Tory Party headquarters in Millbank. There were clashes between this group and the police resulting in some minor injuries and property damage. An estimated 50,000 students took part in the main demonstration and somewhere in the region of 50 of them were arrested for the building occupation. Yet almost without exception, the reports in the media have focussed on those 50 rather than the other 49,950. The actions of 50 people have apparently “overshadowed” the entire event.

One week earlier, a similar protest took place on the streets of Dublin. Somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 (estimates vary wildly as they always do with such things) students took part. Once again the march splintered, and in this case the Department of Finance building on Merrion Row was occupied. As with the subsequent London action, around 50 people were blamed for this occupation. Or, in the words of the Garda (repeated over-and-over in the media coverage), the protest was hijacked by “a hardcore of around 50 protestors intent on trouble“.

In both cases, the respective national student unions loudly condemned the actions of the “hardcore” minority, acknowledging that while they do indeed oppose government policy, they do so only in a “softcore” fashion. Heaven forbid anyone get the impression they took the matter seriously.

Now, I happen to think that the occupation of government buildings is a perfectly proportional response to the policies being implemented on both sides of the Irish Sea — which is not to say I condone every individual act carried out during those occupations; the chucking of a fire-extinguisher off the roof of the Tory headquarters was reckless and counter-productive (in my opinion). But let’s ignore the rights and wrongs of the occupations for now… that’s not the focus of this particular piece.

Instead let’s talk about how the protests have been covered in the media. Because, while the media’s tendency to give massive coverage to confrontation at the expense of covering the actual issues is a well-known phenomenon, I don’t think enough has been said about their complicity in that confrontation.

Let’s examine again how the demonstrations are described by the media. We’re told that the violence “overshadowed” the peaceful march. That a group of 50 people “hijacked” the protest. But let’s not mince words… those are just lies. Shameful lies disseminated by almost every single journalist who covered the events. The Irish protest wasn’t “hijacked”. It went off exactly as planned, with a mass gathering featuring tens of thousands of people who felt they had legitimate grievances that deserved an airing. Large numbers of people voiced their discontent and (though I wasn’t at either of these demos, I’ve been at enough such occasions to say this confidently) speeches were made that articulately dealt with the policy issues at hand. And the people who occupied Tory headquarters didn’t “overshadow” the main march, the media decided that their actions deserved more prominence. So it was the reporting that obscured the main march, not those who occupied the building.

How the media covers dissent

Now, the media’s justification for this is that a few scuffles, some (minor) property damage and a short-lived group-trespass are somehow more worthy of airtime than the main protest. But that’s nonsense of the highest order. Palpable nonsense.

Visit the centre of any city or large town on these islands at pub-kicking-out time on a Saturday night and I guarantee you’ll be in with a decent chance of finding more scuffles and property damage than occurred at both student protests combined. And it’s not national news. A few bruises, one broken nose and a handful of smashed windows is not important in the sense that 50,000 people taking to the streets to condemn the actions of their own government is important. To suggest otherwise is, as I say, a lie.

The truth is, it’s just easier to make the confrontation the main story. The photographs or film footage is more dramatic, and the journalists get to use action verbs like “smashed” and “charged”. It takes a reporter with genuine talent to turn a peaceful mass-opposition to government policy into a good story. They need to do far more research and to genuinely understand the issues involved. Plus they need to be good enough writers to hold a reader’s attention without the use of action verbs and dramatic photographs.

If the media actually covered the protest in terms of what was important about it, rather than in terms of what was easiest; it would be a full page article about government plans to shred the principle of universal access to education. It would cover issues like the subordination of the education system to the profit-motive… like the gutting of the arts and humanities, not because they aren’t important, but because the free-market places less financial value upon them… like the social engineering programme being implemented by capitalist governments to exclude whole classes of people from higher education on the grounds that their parents aren’t wealthy enough.

In that full page article there would be a couple of lines about how roughly one tenth of one per cent of those who demonstrated ended up smashing a few windows.

And what’s worst of all, damn near every person on those marches is smart enough and educated enough to realise that without that one tenth of one per cent, the entire mass demonstration will hardly get mentioned at all. In the eyes of the media, it will be considered largely unimportant. So, Caught-22 as they are, it is almost inevitable that demonstrations now include a confrontational element. The media demand it.

Posted in: Opinion