Which side is winning the propaganda war in the battle over fees?
David Cameron called them a ‘feral mob’. Paul Harris of the Daily Mail referred to them as a ‘baying rabble of masked and hooded troublemakers’. But elsewhere I detect a degree of confusion about how to depict student protestors in the media. The mad anarchist label won’t stick and there’s too many of the blighters to blame it all on the ‘usual suspects’ or ‘rent-a-mob’. Also attempts to paint them as motivated by self-interest are easily exposed. The students leading the protests will not be affected by the hike in fees. They’re doing this for subsequent generations who’ll be drowned in debt before their 21st birthday if the government get its way. And besides, in most people’s minds, the market in self-interest and avarice has been well and true cornered by the bankers.
So what else might the-powers-that-be do to win hearts and minds? Well, if you were a conspiracy theorist you might think that they had pursued a policy of ‘give them enough rope’. Student protesters were allowed to wreck Millbank; provided a rusty, old police van to vandalise in front of a salivating media and even delivered the Prince of Wales and his wife in a Rolls Royce to terrorise in the centre of London. And still public opinion has not turned against them. In fact, on Radio 5 Live last week, Nicky Campbell expressed his surprise when 70% of callers to the show said that they supported the students. Many made clear that they regretted the violence but even some of them felt that throwing a few bricks and breaking a few windows was necessary if you wanted to get anything done these days. Meanwhile the Daily Mail is running a poll asking: Do you still support the students after these riots? At the moment (20.14 Sunday 12 December 2010) the results are that 68% say they back the students.*
One of the problems the government face in terms of establishing a propaganda message is identify credible ringleaders. If there was a Scargill or a Hatton or a Red Robbo to demonise, the task of discrediting the protestors and their cause would be easier. All they’d have to do is reduce a complex political issue to one of undesirable personal characteristics to discredit the broader cause. Everyone has a skeleton or two in their closet or some hamartia. And if they don’t, the authorities can make some shit up about them.
But what do you do when the your opponents can present spokespeople like this young man below.
You’d be delighted if he proposed to your daughter, wouldn’t you? He’s eloquent, educated and middle class. He’s also 15, so he hasn’t really had time yet to besmirch his reputation.
The Government will struggle to make a credible and worthy adversary out of the nation’s youth. Thatcher had the ‘enemy within’ during the Cold War. Tony Blair had Muslin extremists and their terrorist cells during the ‘war on terror’. But Nick Clegg and David Cameron’s nemesis it seems are the Bash Street Kids.
The idea of the credible adversary is an important aspect of propaganda. Samuel P. Winch in Journalism Studies (2005, Vol. 6 No. 3) has looked at how Osama bin Laden was presented as some sort of evil genius in the media after 9/11. Winch argues that bin Laden might just as plausibly have been considered an idiot. However it was more expedient to conceive of him as a modern day Ming the Merciless giving him the appearance of a credible threat instead of some lame, old guy living in the back-end of nowhere. And of course, bin Laden’s formidable reputation provided a handy alibi for the failure to capture him.
Evil A-rabs is one thing but its harder to imagine the the young as the source of all evil. Many of us have kids of our own and so we are well aware of what a pain in the arse they can be at times. But the thing is, they’re our pain in the arse and we’re inclined to love them. As I said to Mrs Rab on the evening of one of the protests, if one of our kids were being kettled on some freezing London street for hours on end without access to food, drink or access to a toilet, I think the old red mist would descend on me and I’d be likely to do something that would result in my arrest and the hospitalisation of at least one police officer. (I am, if nothing else, a much more worthy looking adversary than your average 15 year old.)
Imagine the events of the last few weeks were to be turned into a film. A cabal of evil bankers crash the economy and in an effort to restore ‘business as usual’, their accomplices in shady world of politics mortgage the future of the children. The kids rise up against the evil empire and assemble outside the Parliament, while inside the politicos set about selling out a generation, protected by their police storm-troopers. Trained men, armed with truncheons and bedecked in thick body armor, set against a ragged army of doughty, resourceful school kids. It’s a compelling narrative and the authorities know it. Expect dirty tricks and Black Ops in the days ahead.
*Cheers to Charlie at Excuse Me Whilst I Step Outside for drawing my attention to the Daily Mail poll