Saturday, 26 March 2011

Show us some respect: thoughts on the media and March 26

This post is by Stuart White, who blogs from time to time at Next Left.

I'm back from the March 26 demo. Kathy, my partner, came home a bit earlier to do an interview with Five Live. The interviewer's agenda was pretty typical of how many mainstream media outlets seem to have been presenting the demo today: he wanted Kathy to get into an argument with someone from UK Uncut about direct action and 'violence'. Turned out to be a total non-argument, since both Kathy and UK Uncut strongly support non-violent direct action.

Approaching 3.30pm, we saw the 'black bloc' march towards Oxford Circus. It was crystal clear what its intent was. Kathy and I, with our seven year-old, Isaac, in a wheelchair, hot footed it out of the area.

I can't construct a single semi-plausible argument for the kind of violent direct action they wish to engage in. It is exclusionary (we had to leave the area). It feeds a media narrative in an entirely predictable way that distracts from what is really at stake.

But let's stop and consider 'the media'. Nothing forces the media to focus, as much as it does, on the violent behaviour of a tiny minority. This is a choice. And in dealing with the media - for example, in launching a complaint to Sky or the BBC - we need to insist on what a profoundly disrespectful choice it is.

On Saturday, March 26, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life got up at some unholy hour of the morning and made their way into London. Many came with home-made banners, with costumes, with music, and, in some cases, with entirely legitimate ideas for the kind of non-violent civil disobedience which, in my judgment, is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.

So much creativity, constructive energy and - yes, let's acknowledge it - love. For people's concerns about the cuts are often grounded in a basic concern they have for their relatives or friends that is an expression of love.

So whenever any interviewer or journalist starts down the 'What about the violence?' line, let's respond as Kathy did on Five Live: Isn't it just downright disrespectful to the thousands upon thousands of protestors on today's march to focus on the silly actions of a minority and to fail to honour the creativity, energy and love of the overwhelming majority?

Why not ask us about where we have come from? About our fears and our loves and our hopes. About the banners and placards we've made or seen. About the people we've met for the first time on the demo and the conversations we've had with non-protestors on the tube or in the street. About the street theatre we saw or even, possibly, the speeches we've heard. About the many people we all know who couldn't be on the demo today, but whom we know support us and are with us in spirit.

Show us some respect. Why not honour who we really are and what we have done?

19 comments:

Zio Bastone said...

Nice to have a post one can agree with.

What particularly struck me about the ‘Not in our name’ demonstrations was how they had the potential, albeit small, to break the identification between a people and its government in a way that might be perceived, however dimly, fleetingly, uncertainly, in the Arab world and to build connections between us, at ground level.

What’s important about today’s demonstration (linked with others planned in quite a number of different countries) is, as you say, finding ‘creativity, constructive energy and - yes, let's acknowledge it – love’ and ‘conversations … with non-protestors on the tube or in the street’.

The Italian activist Franco Berardi made much the same sort of point in Milan on 14 March:

‘Our arms are those of intelligence and critique …the indispensable activity of becoming aware again of the collective body … one needs to rediscover oneself in a Tahrir Square.’

(The reference to Cairo here is not bombastic and shouldn’t be misunderstood. He cites the British journalist Roger Cohen, writing in the NYT, on Tahrir Square as a ‘reawakening’ in which the boredom of holding out also provides an opportunity to ‘talk to each other, touch each other, make love, discover the collective body, which has been paralyzed for too long’.)

In Britain we have a coalition government, part of a long continuum of neoliberal governments, whose two constituent parties have lied to us, shamelessly, about tertiary education and about the NHS and have obfuscated about cuts. We need that reawakening, albeit that the choices are less stark for us than they were in Egypt.

Liam Murray said...

That's reasonable enough Stuart but the protestors - and I mean the peaceful majority here, not the loony thugs on the fringe - tend not to afford similar naunce, compassion & humanity to their targets.

Banal generalities like 'Make Bankers Pay' are every bit as trite, meaningless & unhelpful as the sort of questions the media throw at peaceful protestors.

If the broad left want a more considered, mature response from the media then they might have a think about how to make their own pitch something similar....

The Defendant said...

There are a lot of assumptions behind this post that I think are assumptions people need to question. The big two that stand out are: (a) that we live in a functioning democracy. This directly disagrees with the experience of many people. (b) That gathering in the streets has a formative influence on what passes for democracy in this country. Again, many people have personal experience of this not bein the case.

I don't want to defend the black bloc. I think they were running around being a bunch of silly kids. But your assumption that if enough people protest in the approved manner that will change things comes from where? Certain narratives of what acceptable protest are - as defined by the very people we are having to fight.

Do I have the answers to how we should bring change? No. But I know what won't bring change and its important to be aware of that and talk about its failure so that we can talk about new strategies. The black bloc are onto a losing strategy. Sadly I think you are too.

noel.douglas said...

Liam, I agree with the post, but this 'loony thugs' type idea doesn't help, while I agree that the tactics of black bloc etc are bad, their motives are actually not really different from other protestors in terms of wanting a better society. There is a real material reason for their existence–the lack of a combatative trade union movement and no Political Party that really addresses peoples needs, I hope we now move into a situation like a general strike because that is what would prove IN PRACTICE to those mainly young kids doing those actions that the real power lies with workers and collectivity, if this doesn't happen, if TUC or whatever retreats this behaviour born of impotence and frustration will increase. It is beholden on all in the labour movement to make stuff happen!

Ade said...

Thanks for this article, it sums up my feelings about our peaceful efforts being hijacked by misguided hooligans and sidelined by news coverage.

Every news story I have seen since the march starts with the violence, mentions that it was nothing to do with the march and then shows the violence. You'd think this was a case of 1000 people rioting with an unplanned break out of reasonable people in response (1/4 million reasonable people).

Liam, fair comment if that were all that is coming out of the anti-cuts movement, but some say no cuts, some say more appropriate cuts and others say less politically motivated cuts.
Like most demos of this size, it's a diverse movement of people and the professional communicators of the media should be expected to have better interviewing skills. Why not ask people what they think were the main aspects of the march? I am sure that "in the interests of balance" they could could ask someone who wasn't there to say we were all wasting our time.

The Bristol Blogger said...

The Black Bloc did not exclude you. They would have welcomed you and your family. You excluded yourself from them, which is prejudice.

You're also obssessed with what the media says. Who cares?

Ricardo said...
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Liam Murray said...

Noel / Ade,

I suspect we're some way apart politically so no point in trading blows over the specifics of yesterday but your comments sort of illustrate the problem:

Noel - "while I agree that the tactics of black bloc etc are bad, their motives are actually not really different from other protestors in terms of wanting a better society" - that implies a certain convergence of interest.

Ade - "fair comment if that were all that is coming out of the anti-cuts movement, but some say no cuts, some say more appropriate cuts and others say less politically motivated cuts.
Like most demos of this size, it's a diverse movement of people"
- and that implies a divergence.

I know that looks like I'm picking holes guys but I think that's fundamentally the problem with yesterday's march - there IS a credible, evidence based alternative to the government's program but it's complex & naunced, and it will still involve significant cuts & jobs loses which many people marching yesterday still wouldn't accept. In short the spectrum of opinion on display was just too broad for it to be a coherent, effectual protest movement.

JonB said...

The problem is that while nobody forces the media to show all the violence it makes no sense for them not to. Hundreds of people rioting on our most popular shopping st is a big story. Its also a far more interesting story than the march because it was constantly developing. The fights were moving around with different landmarks being targeted while the march was simply going from A to B.

Its really annoying to see so many headlines dominated by such negative images but don't blame the press, blame the people who commit the crimes.

For years we have been turning a blind eye to these idiots while they hijack demos and it will keep happening until legitimate peaceful protesters stand up to the idiots, co operate with the police and route out the troublemakers.

The Defendant said...

JonB, your strategy also depends on the people in power cooperating with the idea that a bunch of people on the streets is reason enough for them to change their minds. No sign of that yet so I hope your tactics are still developing...

skylarksara said...

It isn't only marchers who are frustrated at the way the violence at the end dominates reports of the event. The police must be spitting bile, too. They were exemplary during the march itself and don't seem to be getting the coverage that getting it right deserves, or the discussion of how they did it and what should become the norm. That is as bad for all of us as the focus on the violent protesters.

Zio Bastone said...

Liam:

I’d be a good deal more pluralist than you seem willing to be. Oppositions, protest movements etc are defined by what they are against not, in the first instance, by what they are for.

There may be something of a rebound against politicians (of all three main parties) who won’t even discuss cuts before they are elected, who tell specific lies in order to get elected (Liberals and Conservatives) and who speak out of both sides of their mouths (New Labour) when in opposition. If so, that’s a good thing. That some people ‘say it with cobblestones’ doesn’t vitiate the point.

As to the ‘credible, evidence based alternative’, you make, simultaneously, a doxastic appeal (‘credible’) and a scientistic truth appeal (‘evidence’? but knowledge about the future is, at best, inductive, more probably it’s abductive, and it’s certainly not deductive) whilst apparently excluding options you don’t like. Of course if we all did that there would be no conversation, whereas what we do need (very badly) is the sort of participative political activity which actually develops different options and isn’t merely coerced into buying what’s on offer.

I see incidentally that Mrs Cameron has applied, ludicrously, for permission to hold a street party in Downing Street to ‘celebrate’ the Royal Wedding. That’s as good an example as any of how spectacular (in Debord’s sense) our politics has become: bread tomorrow, circuses today.

13eastie said...

The violence that ensued at yesterday's march was indeed regrettable, as is the media's obsession with it.

But Stuart's suggestion that those protesters who abstained from violence could otherwise be portrayed as a cohesive and intellectually coherent group is just as false as any inference that the militants are representative of the whole.

There are doubtless folk at one end of the spectrum who (in my opinion, misguidedly) believe that their opposition to the Govt is genuinely the proper manifestation of social concern.

Just as there are some elsewhere for whom any excuse for mindless violence will suffice.

Between the two extremes is the main body of placard-wavers who are motivated by nothing other than self-interest: concern for their jobs, pensions etc. There is nothing wrong with this per se and it's certainly no reason for them not to be shown respect, but they might be better regarded were they to admit this from the outset rather than disguising it.

The establishment of a common enemy is a desperate foundation to a philosophy.

The unions' approach seems largely the same as when in dispute with any other employer: no-one can credit the claim that this time their principal concern is for their members' customers! Overt hypocrisy earns the respect of no-one.

The intellectual respect that Stuart seeks will not come presently for the simple fact that these people are consistently unable to present a coherent, pragmatic argument or solution.

Chanting "Tory Scum" does not garner respect and it certainly does not define any alternative to Govt policy.

Projecting their own childish hatred onto the Govt (read the unions' posters in workplaces nationwide) also fails to present a mature, intellectual argument. Ditto the bizarre and unhealthy obsession with Mrs Thatcher.

The simple fact is that no-one can (nor should they) respect an argument that is not being articulated. Repeatedly proclaiming the existence of an "alternative" does not make it so. The message given is simply of luddite opposition to spending reductions of any kind, ever, with no recognition or concern for the public finances.

Those opposing the cuts, some of which are rightly lamented, should stop blaming their failure to capture the public imagination on the rioters and the media and simply tell us what the alternative they want actually is.

The Leader of the Opposition should be singled-out for criticism. He has proposed no meaningful alternative at all, and his seeming attempt yesterday to liken his own brief political journey to the struggle against apartheid (as well as being extremely offensive to many people) justly invites only ridicule.

Does Ed Miliband honestly expect voters to derive Labour's economic policy from his list of cuts that he wouldn't make?

If people want my daughter to pay (even more than she already will) for their job-for-life and swollen pensions, surely it's not asking too much for someone to construct a presentable alternative to Govt policy?

Zio Bastone said...

13eastie:

Disparate philosophies (plural) arising from or attempting to address the same basic problem are not at all the same as ‘a philosophy’ (singular) using as its ‘foundation’ (‘desperate’ or otherwise) ‘the establishment of a common enemy’.

I would have thought that apodictic.

Liam Murray said...

Zio,

"Oppositions, protest movements etc are defined by what they are against not, in the first instance, by what they are for."

On that I just fundamentally disagree, certainly in terms of successful protest movements. Witness the successful US civil rights movement (clearly for equality under the law & an end to segregation) compared to the ultimately unsuccessful 70's/80's CND campaigners (against atomic weapons but no coherent or sensible pro-position on anything).

Your point about a backlash on all politicians in terms of honesty of campaigning is a sound one but it's been brewing for many years.

As for the alternative I'll be honest & say I don't quite follow the point you're making. I was just trying to point out that Labour - the only other credible party of power in the UK - would still implement a fiscal contraction that most of those demonstators would oppose.

Zio Bastone said...

Liam:

Two small clarifications.

Being ‘against’ something is simply the first stage. Developing some other option arises out of that. To take a practical example, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square were ‘against’ Mubarak. What will follow (good or bad) now he’s gone remains to be seen. The US Civil Rights movement was not only a great deal more various than you give it credit for but also less successful. Entrenched power must come into it as well. As with Colonel Gaddafi.

Of course, you are right about what New Labour would have done (almost certainly) had it got back into office. All my other point boiled down to was that if democracy is to mean anything we need to be makers not takers of political activity and that means not being mere spectators, and not curtailing inquiries in advance or accepting what we’re told as Gospel truth.

13eastie said...

Zio:

The "basic problem" is one that none of the protesters seem the least bit interested in sorting out: THE TREMENDOUS DEFICIT!

Less "apodictic", more the idiomatic elephant in the room.

Zio Bastone said...
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Zio Bastone said...

13eastie:

Lacking further argument you have merely changed the subject. And your response is, in addition, factually incorrect.

There is a range of opinion amongst those opposing Government policy. Including, amongst many other positions, ‘No cuts ever’, ‘Some of these cuts are inappropriate in themselves and/or their timing’ and interpretations of J M Keynes which suggest rather different conclusions from those the Government have reached.

The Conservatives campaigned on £6bn of cuts. Statistical revisions just after the election accounted for a deficit ‘improvement’ of three times that. And yet the Coalition has lied about its inheritance, has lied about frontline services and has used Horrifying Deficit Surprise!!! as a cover story for an ideology-driven agenda (for which it has no mandate), some aspects of which will add unnecessarily to expenditure not reduce it.