‘Army on standby to avert May Day mayhem’ (Evening Standard, 28/04/2000)
‘May Day rioters train at US camps’ (Evening Standard, 18/04/2001)
‘Anarchists to loot Oxford Street stores on May Day’ (Evening Standard, 19/04/ 2001)
‘May Day rioters to face rubber bullets’ (Evening Standard, 30/04/2001)
‘“Black Block” anarchists to hijack summit protests using shields and truncheons’ (Evening Standard, 23/03/2009)
Articles like these have appeared in the Evening Standard for many years in the run-up to contentious demonstrations. It is a ritual in which the hacks working for the Standard have never failed to participate. Indeed, some of the articles cited here are written by people who still work for the paper, notably one Nigel Rosser.
The Evening Standard showing one of their many stories about the G20
The ritual runs along these lines. In the weeks before the protest, a range of stories which bear no apparent connection to reality appear in the press.
The ritual runs along these lines. In the weeks before the protest, a range of stories which bear no apparent connection to reality appear in the press. These allege that the demonstrators, usually anarchists, are going to do all manner of outlandish things. This has been such a feature of London protests since at least the mid-1990s that their running must be part of a deliberate campaign to undermine protest, to alienate those sympathetic from attending and to criminalise those who do. These articles make the use of state violence against anarchists, the ‘other’ who has placed themselves beyond the bounds of decency, is acceptable. Yet as far as I know no one has ever looked in depth at the articles or considered the reasons for their placement at any length.
This topic is particularly topical at the moment, with G20 coming to London next week, and demonstrations now coming in for the same attention as their predecessors.
Anarchists are portrayed as foreign, filthy, lazy, drunken, middle class, violent, feckless druggies
Looking at who gains from the publication of articles purporting to be news but in reality fulfilling a different purpose may help to explain this singular phenomenon. As has been the case in recent weeks, focusing on the upcoming demonstrations against the G20, these stories seem to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, there are stories warning of repression of the demonstrators. Increased numbers of police will be reported. The deployment of large numbers of riot police – the Territorial Support Group – will be announced. Units from other forces and the use of such ‘specialist’ police as the Forward Intelligence Teams will also be mentioned. And to rub in the extraordinary nature of the threat, on occasion the use of the Army will be threatened. On the other hand, the demonstrators will be described in the most atrocious terms. They will be painted as terrorists, as people to whom the norms of civilized behaviour mean nothing. Anarchists are portrayed as foreign, filthy, lazy, drunken, middle class, violent, feckless druggies – people who have turned their backs on society yet still somehow manage to strike fear into the authorities. They are people against whom the utmost violence can legitimately be used.
But that’s not all! Anarchists are, in this scheme of things, a violent minority who subvert the decent protestors’ day out. Anarchists famously ‘hijack’ demonstrations, their superb organization allowing them influence out of all proportion to their numbers.
The people who pose a threat to the economy must be made to seem mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Given the contradictions in this second sort of article, contradictions which suggest that anarchists are superhuman organizers hellbent on extreme violence on the one hand, while being workshy layabouts (and most likely foreign) on the other, it’s a wonder that the authors expect them to be given any credence. However, their repetition shortly before large demonstrations suggests that the reasons for their publication can only be those alluded to above. There are certain areas of society which cannot be allowed to be criticised or taken on – the monarchy and the City of London, for example. People who insist on confronting these institutions pose a threat to the established order. This was made explicit around the time of the last large demonstration in the City, on 18th June, 1999. City businesses threatened to leave the country and take their vast money-making businesses elsewhere if their security could not be guaranteed – that is, if they couldn’t be guaranteed privacy to carry on their nefarious work without the glare of publicity. The people who pose a threat to the economy must be made to seem mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Hence the articles. There are three possible sources for such stories. There’s the police or security services. There’s private security networks or informers. Or there’s the journalists’ imagination. All three have played their part over the years. The police have a clear interest in putting such stories into the public domain, as they play a dual purpose. Their aim is to reduce sympathy, support, and therefore numbers protesting. Businesses, too, have a clear interest, as they wish to show their opponents as beyond the pale. It’s well known that people like Evelyn le Chene, who ran a private investigative agency monitoring activists, have been employed by businesses targeted by campaigners. And journalists famously have vivid imaginations. Many journalists also have relationships with the police or security services, who may hand them information they wish in the public domain. This information generally serves the purpose of showing protestors, of whatever political hue, in a bad light. The way the media works, in which a range of vested interests receive the coverage they desire, helps this cosy relationship remain in the background as few people have either the time or inclination to research the hows and whys of the media. It must be remembered, though, that not all journalists jump to the police’s tune. Many journalists do a fine job of reporting the news, as a result of which some photographers and freelancers covering protest have come in for some harsh treatment from the police.
The experience of Climate Camp
Taking the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth last year as an example, ridiculous stories were run – planted by the police – about how the campers would do all manner of bizarre things. Lie followed lie from the police. The press reported the police claim that dozens of police had been injured – when that simply wasn’t the case. Even when they were caught out in lies, the police persisted, up to a week or so ago, when the Chief Constable wrote a letter to the Guardian in which he insisted that his oppressive operation was necessary to stop protestors shutting the power station and leaving over 300,000 people in Kent without power. The only problem with this argument was that the power station had been shut down for the duration of the protest. Can the police deal with public order situations without lying? Perhaps; but they show no inclination to.
The police on the backfoot
Some weeks ago, the police’s treatment of journalists came under the spotlight. The police, especially the Metropolitan Police, came out of this very badly.
Turning to the specifics of the stories around the G20 protests, it is important to consider some of the context in which they are published. A number of recent stories have put the police on the back foot. Some weeks ago, the police’s treatment of journalists came under the spotlight. The police, especially the Metropolitan Police, came out of this very badly. What was less emphasised was the role the police Forward Intelligence Teams play on demonstrations. These units, in the words of the Home Secretary, ‘practice harassment policing’. Due to a combination of this media pressure and a long campaign by activists, the FIT are now under pressure. Added to this, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights released a report on the policing of protest which added to police woes. A case going through the courts at the moment may see aspects of current police practise declared unlawful. If this wasn’t enough, the Metropolitan Police Authority will be discussing the future of public order policing in London at a committee meeting on 2 April. This is a critical moment for police.
And not simply for the police. The government is in an extremely difficult position, unable to deal successfully with the growing economic crisis.
And not simply for the police. The government is in an extremely difficult position, unable to deal successfully with the growing economic crisis. The widespread discontent has the potential to turn from passive anger into widespread disorder. Against this background, the demonstrations in London assume a greater importance. The propaganda campaign being waged against the demonstrators, therefore, has implications well beyond the events of next week. Demonising the protestors therefore serves both longer and short-term agendas.
The various factors at work around the propaganda campaign don’t indicate a backroom conspiracy. The way the news is manufactured, under many influences from advertisers, sources, editorial guidelines and so on, create the conditions in which the interests of the ruling class are served by the media. There is no ‘free press’, as stories are written with both conscious and unconscious biases at work. Given the usual policy of anarchists to treat media advances with disdain, the field is often left open for the press to report all manner of nonsense without fear of contradiction. The sloppy nature of much reporting, in which a press release is regurgitated almost word for word, means that scant research into stories about protestors ever takes place. The journalists under whose bylines stories attacking anarchists are published are often also the journalists who cover crime – and therefore the ones who have the closest links to the police. This is no accident! They’re unlikely to bite the source that feeds them. Journalists like Justin Davenport, who has run stories about anarchists recruiting children to do their dirty work, are clearly either credulous or active agents of the police. In either case, people like these give life to the old saying that ‘you cannot hope to bribe, or twist the British journalist. But given what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to’.