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Which side is winning the propaganda war in the battle over fees?

December 12, 2010

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

8 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    December 12, 2010 10:02 pm

    Whilst you’re sketching out your blockbuster, don’t forget the scene where granny- who had planned to leave her pitiful savings ‘to give the kids a deposit on their first house/pay for their wedding’ – suddenly realises that, er, no, that money is needed just to get them them on the bloody ladder in the first place. ( I rather fancy seeing an ageing Felicity Kendall collapsing into tears in this role if the tear ducts of Middle England are to be fully engaged with your plot.)

    My point is this: it isn’t simply that kids who come from backgrounds where they were shaping up to be the first university graduate in their family will be put off by the prospect of such absurd fees ( you’ve covered that before.) No, it’s also about the quite wide strata of people immediately above them in the income scale who might have hoped to ‘help out’ the rising generation but throwing £5 or £10 k towards their deposit on their first home. That money is now going to be needed 5-10 years earlier, and its going to go on paying some element of the fees for an education which quite a lot of the parents generation got for free.

    This isn’t just about students or young people: it’s about how the generations within any family relate to each other.

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    December 13, 2010 1:45 pm

    I think you’re right, Charlie. I’d say most of my students are from lower middle class backgrounds. And most of them are the first generation in their families to go to university.

    The interesting thing about the Goldthorpe paper I mentioned previously, is that he is trying to understand the persistence of class. He argues that Marxist notions of class formation don’t stand up (which we know, or we’d have had a revolution by now) and liberals who trumpet the emergence of a classes society facilitated by greater access to higher education, just can’t account for the fact that class stubbornly refuses to go away. It’s in this context that Goldthorpe see educational opportunities assessed in terms of cost/benefits, and these look different depending upon your position in the class structure.

    The kids I teach have no pretentions to the accumulation of knowledge, access to repositories of learning or the pursuit of truth (none of that high-faluting stuff). A university education represents the opportunity to maintain their class position (with the possibility of modest advancement). In this respect, I think Goldthorpe makes a sound point.

    They’re a generation and a class brought up to aspire to university. There’s maybe even a sense of entitlement there. So no wonder that their pissed off.

    I think the next has to be to mobilize the mums, dads and grandparents, because the final scene of my movie is crying out for a confrontation between David Cameron and Felicity Kendall on the steps of Parliament.

  3. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    December 13, 2010 2:17 pm

    I was amazed to find Goldthorpe is still alive and still publishing. When I myself was ‘modestly advancing my class position’ ( i.e. was the undergraduate of manual workers) in the mid/late-1970s he was taught for his demolition of the embourgeoisment thesis. The line of his I remember is his phrase: ” a washing machine is a washing machine is a washing machine” – i.e. accumulating material goods says nothing about class position per se.

    Perhaps he would now say :“A first degree is a first degree is a first degree- until some bugger tries to take it way and then it becomes much more important than that”.

    Also – don’t be so hard on your students for not aspiring to some ethereal, abstract pursuit of Knowledge and Beauty and Truth. That stuff comes later in my experience anyway. Mainly, young people in all ages have wanted to get laid and get smashed out of their heads and have someone give them lots of money/fame/attention/street cred for doing sod all. (At least that’s how it was in my day- I suppose computer games might now fit into that list somewhere…) . However, a sense of having experienced a kind of ‘guided self discipline’ of intellectual curiosity via a university education can, and in my experience often does, lead to people regularly puzzling stuff out that they otherwise wouldn’t later in life.

  4. December 13, 2010 11:03 pm

    Narrated by Morgan Freeman, directed by Danny Boyle? Subplot consisting of renegade Media teachers, who have been living on the streets following the non-core-subject-cull of 2012 and run underground network of leftist blogs ultimately foil ‘The Man’ with their hoards (now 8) followers.

    Too far?

    • December 13, 2010 11:11 pm

      Blimey -didn’t mean a smiley -Eight followers.

  5. December 13, 2010 11:10 pm

    On another note, the Darling Daily Mailers are winning this one. ConDemNation are selflessly persuing the window assaulters with a fervour of the rabid dog. In my name? for me? With this Roche you are spoiling us.

    It doesn’t help when, I witness first hand the protest walkout of a group of students who are so enraged that they avoid the planned protest altogether, instead choosing to go to the chippy and…er…home.

  6. Robyn permalink
    December 14, 2010 1:26 am

    I’m privilged in that I’m middle class, and I probably wouldn’t be ‘put-off’ if university fees rose, but I wouldn’t ever sit back and watch as other people, who deserve to be able to aspire to a better education, to a better life are denied university because of these giant barriers that are being created in front of them the forms of unshakeable debt.

  7. Rabelais permalink*
    December 14, 2010 11:02 am

    Hello Mrs W and welcome Robyn,

    Mrs W,
    I am alarmed to learn of the reformist tendencies of some of your students who went to the chip shop instead of the demonstration. Is detention or a sound thrashing still an option in England?

    Still, it’s good to have you onboard the scriptwriting team for the new film, although I’m not sure about Danny Boyle as director. Check out a great little bock called Classless by Carl Neville. It’s a collection of essays on British Cinema that’s pretty scathing in its assessment of Danny Boyle, in effect, accusing him of being precisely the sort who you would find skulking in the chip shop during demos.

    We’re despatching you immediately to the chip shop to act as our official rabble-rouser.

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