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Getting to grips with the news after G20

April 21, 2009

Most of my life I have taken for granted the wisdom of the opening lines of two classic books. The first is that: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ The second: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Now I have a third: ‘The first born of the modern media began life not as an instrument of government but as a rebel ‘. It’s from Stanley Harrison’s Poor Men’s Guardians (1974), a history of the struggle for a democratic press in England. I recall this line forlornly every time I see an example of press or media timidity in the face of government and power. And I have been thinking about it recently while watching the coverage of the G20 demonstrations and their aftermath.

It seems incredible that with all the mainstream media hardware and personnel that was in attendance on 1st April none captured the moments that either Ian Tomlinson or a female demonstrator were assaulted. It may seem incredible but actually, it’s not incredible at all. Rather it is indicative of the mainstream media’s comfortable relationship with power.

That relationship has been thoroughly researched and the findings are consistently damning. Some argue that in the pressurised atmosphere of the modern news corporation it is simply expedient to allow governments and powerful interest groups to set the agenda. Others show how the powerful have the resources and skills to manage and manipulate the news. And there is another perspective that sees the media, government and business as being ideologically predisposed to compliment each other in their defence of power.

And so, if it wasn’t for amateur footage of the G20 demos we might never have learnt the truth about what happened to Ian Tomlinson. Now there will be an investigation into the behaviour of the police. But you can be sure that there will be another enquiry in the background carried out by shadowy figures who will be thinking about how news institutions can ‘filter’ and ‘contextualise’ the sort of damning video evidence that has put the authorities in the frame after G20.

In some respects precedents have already been set. There have been reports of photographers and tourists being harassed by police who cited section 76 of the Counter-terrorism Act, while demanding the deletion of pictures from cameras. If on-the-spot censorship fails then I suspect that ways will be found to leave significant question marks over the integrity and credibility of any troublesome images. Harpymarx has already noticed how footage from the G20 protests of a huge policeman striking a much smaller woman across the face and then beating her with a batten was contextualised on the BBC by suggesting that she was ‘taunting’ the policeman. How would the BBC know what she was doing? Its correspondents were conspicuous by their absence from the scene of this act of police brutality, and the others.

After the event, news and media institutions couldn’t ignore the footage of police brutality, not once such material was in the public domain. To censor such images would expose the mainstream news’s spurious commitment to impartiality and objectivity, so undermining further its apparent integrity and credibility. So how will governments reclaim the news agenda?

Historically they have  been rather adept at this, undermining and destroying the media’s radical and democratic potential. The infant mass media may have challenged the supremacy of church and state, as Stanley Harrison recalls, but these powerful forces learnt to first smash radical presses, then tax and censor them. And when this was ineffective, they suppressed radical ideas by turning to the free-market, undermining the democratic potential of the media by reducing news to a mere commodity, its main aim to deliver readers and audiences to advertisers.

If the contemporary media environment doesn’t lend itself to control through free-market structures, ideologies of consumer choice and sclerotic notions of public service and democracy, then the question is will governments revert once more to more repressive responses?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. dunnagall permalink
    April 22, 2009 2:49 pm

    I have been thinking about all this, Rab, and it supports my fear that we have been sleepwalking into a police state these past few years; though by now, we really should wake up and resist, not as loyal subjects of a hidebound monarchy, but as active, responsible citizens. It’s a pity that, once again, public service television news has let us down in this respect by denying us an explanation of the very urgent issues behind the protest.

    It reminds me of the police-inspired media hype in advance of the Grovesnor Square anti-Vietnam protest, 1968. Or the miner’s strike in 1984! The police predict violence from the protest, therefore behold! There is violence!

    And so it was this time round: the pre G20 summit security briefing from the Met to the media that there would be violence from protestors and that the boys in blue were “up for it” (“Go on my son!! Get into em!!”). Right on cue, broadcast journalists once again blithely accepted the official source as transparent truth, not the self-serving spin that it was. As it turned out, most of the violence seemed to come from the cops (to such an extent that even Melanie Phillips uttered a critical word!) But, as at least one good journalist pointed out in the Guardian, the police seemed happy to sit back and allow a few protestors to trash a bank before the TV cameras as confirmation of what they had been warning all along. Curiously, TV cameras were banned from other areas of the police operation.

    As for your own example of TV news’s addiction to the official version, let’s accept for one mad moment that, yes, the woman was indeed harrassing a heavily armed policeman (only going about his duty to serve and protect the public by clobbering every one of same public on head). Wouldn’t any good journalist ask if it is police policy now to beat people up for harrassment? Wouldn’t he wonder if perhaps she should have been cautioned or even arrested? If not, are not left then with the “appalling vista” that state violence is now a default reaction to petty offence? “Urinating on a public highway, sir? Wallop! Take that!”. “Daring to question a police constable without issuing a caution or warrant, madam? Have you met my dog?”

    When Czechs took to the streets to resist Stalinism in 1968, or when the Polish miners founded Solidarity in the 1980s, or when the people of Romania overthrew the Ceaucescu regime in 1989, their protests were heralded in the international media as evidence of glorious people power and democracy. Yet when protestors in Britain give vent to their feelings about bandit capitalism and a gross world trade imbalance, it’s greeted as evidence that the barbarians have broken through the gates and that our brave bobbies are now our only hope. No doubt they’ll be saying that too when the shooting starts.

    I’ll end with this little gem. The Guardian recently sampled a few entries from police bloggers, fed up with all this negative publicity, post G-20. One of the bloggers calls him/her self, I Told You Once. Hmmmm.

  2. dunnagall permalink
    April 28, 2009 11:00 am

    As a final reflection on events at the G20 protests, I thought this passage from ‘Shah of Shahs’, by late, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski to be very apposite indeed. He’s writing about the makings of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

    “Now the most important moment […] when the policeman walks from his post towards the man on the edge of the crowd, raises his voice, and orders the man to go home. The policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd are ordinary, anonymous people, but their meeting has historic significance. They are both adults, they have both lived through certain events, they have both had their individual experiences. The policeman’s experience: If I shout at someone and raise my truncheon, he will first go numb with terror and then take to his heels. The experience of the man on the edge of the crowd: At the sight of an approaching policeman I am seized by fear and start running. On the basis of those experiences, we can elaborate a scenario: The policeman shouts, the man runs, others take flight, the square empties. But this time everything turns out differently. The policeman shouts but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He looks around and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence. We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the start of the revolution. Here it starts.” (Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs, 1986; p.109).

  3. Rab permalink*
    April 28, 2009 11:42 am

    Great passage Dunnagall. Thanks for that.

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