Saturday 26th March marked the biggest public protest so far against the government scheme of cuts and spending drawbacks to eliminate the budget deficit in a tight, four-year plan. Whilst trade unions and people of all ages and backgrounds gathered together to raise their voices against the decimation of public services, jobs and community amenities, they were joined by an enormous crowd of students protesting against the trebling of tuition fees and the withdrawal of state support for equal access to education.
But the resulting media coverage and news stories have been so wildly varied and disparate as to make it almost impossible to piece together any concrete picture of what really took place on the day. From police interviews slamming the ‘young hooligans and yobs’ who caused mindless damage and brought violence to the streets, to the determined activist bloggers reporting indiscriminate and unprovoked police brutality, the reports on the protests are so different one could be forgiven for wondering whether they were really present at the same event.
The BBC and major media outlets followed the trend set by coverage of earlier student protests by painting a vivid picture of rioting and hooliganism and focusing far more on the violence caused by a tiny proportion of protesters than on the scale and success of the march itself. Peaceful protesters were lumped together with anarchists and hooligans as the coverage focused on the “deafening” sound of drums and slogan chanting and the “mob” which “attacked police officers, smashed windows and daubed banks and shops with paint”.
The coverage appeared to be making a token effort to mention the peaceful mainstream protest, but the very use of words like “mob” to describe what were in most cases very small groups of a few troublemakers, showed deep bias in favour of painting a picture of general violence and irresponsible chaos. In addition, the BBC captioned a video containing a message from Police Commander Bob Broadhurst to those who had incited violence “message to protesters”; thereby failing to differentiate between those who had come to protest legitimately and the few who broke the law.
As with the previous protests, police and politicians alike were swift to jump on the bandwagon of condemning the violence, heavily implying that all protesters were up to no good, and suggesting that the peaceful elements of the march were only non-violent because of heavy marshalling by the authorities. Commander Bob Broadhurst claimed that the police action “prevented widespread damage and mayhem”, as if to suggest that this was the end goal of the protesters, who were simply thwarted rather than choosing to protest peacefully. Other broadcasters swiftly followed suit, using the few incidences of violence as an excuse to disregard the implications of the entirety of the protest with the pompous and sweeping statement that “mindless violence” has “nothing to do with protest”. If so, surely these very news outlets should treat them as such, and report on them separately and with equal weight!
Then there is the hard-core, anarchist response – websites that promote and praise the violence inflicted on Topshop and the big banks in Oxford Street, claiming that it was justified by the lack of government response to peaceful protest. Extreme views abound on both sides of the situation.
But in amongst the official disapproval and the party line, the extremist blogs and incitement to trouble, thousands of bloggers, tweeters, student writers and reporters have come forward, flooding the internet with their own stories; first-hand accounts of what really went on that day. And they paint a very different picture indeed.
Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman, described the protesters as “neither mindless nor violent”, but victims of “police officers bellowing and laying into demonstrators with their shields”. She describes the incident in Trafalgar Square as a sudden and violent insurgence by armed police officers into a small crowd of chatting, seated protesters enjoying a peaceful and celebratory atmosphere. Her eye-witness account describes seeing peaceful protesters grabbed, pushed, violently thrown and struck by police “beating back protesters as they go”. She herself was struck a resounding blow on the head by a police baton.
Penny’s account has been attacked by some as an idealistic, left-wing portrayal of the situation, but it is corroborated with remarkable precision of detail by hundreds of other articles and blogs, including Dominic Campbell’s account of his experience of the day. He too reports police officers “aggressively shoving people out of their way (sometimes to the floor)”; making an “entirely disproportionate” response to peaceful protesters and provoking a heated standoff where there had been no violence before. Campbell’s account, just like Penny’s, emphasises the change in behaviour instigated by the police brutality, as their heavy handed treatment of protesters who had just been sitting around and mingling created a knee-jerk response of angry retaliation. He himself was twice physically shoved or punched in the stomach by police officers for no more than politely asking to be allowed to leave the area.
Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that the vast majority of the 200 arrests made were not of those who were violent, smashing in buildings and business premises or creating scuffles with police. They were a long line of UK Uncut protesters, part of the peaceful direct action carried out against Fortnum and Mason’s to protest against alleged tax evasion.
So yes, clearly there was wrongdoing on both sides. And yes, both protesters and police were probably to blame for breaking the rules and escalating the situation. But surely the biggest wrongdoing of all has been committed by the major news outlets and reporters whose sensationalist insistence on focusing on the actions of a tiny percentage of march attendees has robbed half a million responsible, peaceful, passionate protesters of their story.