TV Review: What did you hear about Genoa?

Published: Wed 25 Jul 2001 09:09 AM
What did you hear about Genoa?
Review of TV coverage of the Genoa G8 protests
By Aileen O'Carroll
See also
In the 1960s Gill Scott Heron sang "The Revolution will not be televised". On Saturday I watched as Sky News broadcast from the police front line. Walking past the camera, lines of police moved forward. We could hear the tear gas guns go off, watch them fall a distance away and see the clouds of tear gas fill the air. The tear gas floated towards the camera and we saw pictures of bushes as the camera man stumbled and then the screen went black. Who said the revolution would not be televised. Sitting in my living room, I could follow everything.
But as the days went on, I became more aware of the spin that was being put on the reports. There is no such thing as neutral news. There are many ways to present the truth. And as the days went on, it became increasingly clear, that many parts of the media had a particular line that it was trying to sell to us. I imagine that many of those returning from Genoa will find it strange relating their experiences to those at home.
Sky News, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch is obviously not going to be sympathetic to an anti-capitalist movement. It is not however the case that all journalists speak with the one voices all the time. Some journalists are more critical than others, some are more aware than others, some are more willing to go beyond press-releases and spin than others. Those undercover journalists who were beaten by the police are obviously going to have a different perspective from those sitting inside the security cordon. It is the case however that with most of the reports there is some things that it is acceptable to say and some things that are unacceptable. It is acceptable to call someone throwing petrol bombs at the police violent. It is not acceptable to call someone firing plastic bullets (as they did in Quebec), live ammunition (as they did in Gottenburg and Genoa) or tear gas violent. Unless, of course, the person throwing the tear gas canister has picked if off the street and is throwing it back at police lines. It is acceptable to say that rioters are causing disruption, it is not acceptable to say that the cordoning off of a large part of the city by the authorities is equally disruptive. Much of the TV news over the Genoa weekend carried along with eye-witness reports, assumptions about what is legitimate political action and what is illegitimate, about who is likely to be right in a situation and who is likely to be wrong, and about whose truth we should be believing. This article outlines some of the assumptions that I noticed.
1. The first assumption is that 'The ruling class are peaceful. The protesters are violent'.
EuroNews at 9.30 on Thursday night reports Berlusconi is "urging protesters around the world not to resort to violence". "My wish is we could work in serenity he says". EuroNews continues that "The port is controlled by security forces. The authorities are taking no chances with surface to air missiles deployed at the city airport to defend against potentially serious attack." The Italian State is presented as wishing peace, and as being potentially under-attack from heavy artillery. We are never told from whence this attack might come, and in the end of the day it doesn't materialise. However, it sets the scene for a depiction of the police state as under real threat from forces that may be greater than itself. The RTE news on 9.00 reported that
"Unlike their Swedish police at the EU summit in Gottenburg, the Italian police didn't hold back". In Gottenburg the Swedish police fired live ammunition at the demonstrators, critically injuring one and wounding two others. That past has already been re-written.
"They promised violent protest and they delivered. A hardcore intent on turning Genoa into a warzone ÉA number of police vehicles were attacked by a stone throwing mob, scores of protesters and a number of policemen were injured in these clashes. For the residents of the great port town as well as for the Italian government these are nightmare scenes. A group of demonstrators who flagged their intention to cause violence for weeks meeting a police force wound up to respond in kind"..
Accompanying this voiceover was footage which showed a young women running away from police hands raised. She is then hit in the head by a police batton, falls to the ground as is kicked by another. She was seriously injured. The next image is of Carlo Giuliani's body lying on the ground. There is no doubt that the voiceover is correct when it reports that police vehicles were stoned, that rocks and petrol bombs were thrown. Though the voice over concedes that it was mostly protesters that were injured, and the pictures show a women being attacked and a man lying dead, only the protesters are referred to as violent.
It is implied that the protesters came prepared for a fight, but the equal implication that the police, wearing tear-gas masks, body armour, with batons and guns, were also prepared is avoided. This was a fight with one side only, and strangely they seemed to be taking all the casualties. The bottom line is that police violence isn't violence, it is purely a human response to a difficult situation. The BBC news even excuses an attack on their own cameraman "As the day went on the police response was increasingly harsh, in their frustration they also turned on a BBC cameraman" (9.00). That the rioters might also be expressing a human response when they trash a police van is not acknowledged.
Though the police are the ones who are heavily armed with guns, batons and water cannons, it is the protesters who hurl stones and petrol bombs alone that are referred to as being violent. Unless of course it is a journalist that is being attacked.
2. The second assumption is that it is shocking when journalists are attacked (by the police) because they are innocent. By implication, all protesters are if not guilty, than at least suspect. They could well have deserved the beating they got.
People returning have stories about peaceful demonstrators being repeatedly tear-gassed, about baton being used against them. The activists staying at the Genoa Social Forum were beaten as they slept. The police viciously assaulted people inside, those arriving afterwards found the wall smeared with blood. Many of the arrested were taken away on stretchers. Computers were destroyed.
These assaults have not featured prominently in the press reports. Particularly in the case of the Genoa Social Forum centre, which I outline below, it is obvious that the first assumption of the media was that the those in the centre were guilty in some way.
3. The third assumption is that it is the right of the G8 powers to meet, the protesters have no right to be there.
In the news reports, delegates arrive, while protesters descend. Demonstrators create 'havoc' around a security zone, the zone in itself inconvenienced no one. Tony Blairs characterises the protesters as a minority of travelling troublemakers. It's ironic that in a world in which politics is more globalised, the rights of people to travel for political reasons is being undermined. Not everyone's rights of course, only those who challenge the existing world order. Tony Blair as no objection with meeting with a minority of foreigners in Genoa, Cologne or Canada, as long as those meeting are of those who support the capitalist economic system.
4. The fourth assumption is that a minority cause violence
This line in particular comes from the more liberal end of the media and indeed from the liberal elements of the protest movement itself. It will be cited the police and politicians to justify civil liberty abuses. Already Tony Blair has muted the introduction of legislation aimed at preventing anarchists from travelling. It's a difficult line to deal with because is it true. Or at least there are elements of truth in it. What this line does is simplify a complex event. The rioting at these protests does not occur in a clearly defined way, organised by one group, with one aim in mind. What this line avoids is answering difficult questions
a) Questions about the nature of the violence.
Rioters are uniformly portrayed as violent, but some rioters reject this. They argue that the are engaged in property destruction not in attacks on people.
b) Questions about who these people are.
Notice in the sentence above, I said 'some rioters'. This is because the rioters are not a uniformed body. They are made up of groups and individuals coming from different parts of the world and from different political persuasion. They are all being characterised as anarchist. In one article in the Sunday Times, an 'anarchist' rioters is described as waving a 'hammer and sickle' flag, on the BBC news footage is shown of rioters waving Maoist flags, yet these are supposed to be anarchists? would do). Many of the rioters are anarchists, many are Maoist, many are autonomists and many are from other shades of the left.
Some indeed are members of the police force. Both in Prague and in Genoa there have been reports of under cover police men taking part in both property destruction and in assault. These two reports were carried, in separate article, in the Irish Times (July 23rd);
"As a German TV crew waited and watched on Saturday morning, they were horrified to see a couple of anarchists walk behind a local Genoa TV crew and viciously strike the camera operator with iron bars, breaking the camerawomen's leg".
"An Italian Communist MP, Mr Luigi Malabara, yesterday alleged he had seen a large group of people dressed in black in one police station on Friday during the riot. I saw groups of German demonstrators in black with iron bars inside the police station near the Pizza di Kennedy. This is what I saw, draw your own conclusions" he said.
Video evidence collected by protesters and independent media suggests that men dressed in black were also seen getting out of police vans, effectively being taken to protest marches. They are noted for "never attacking police or the steel wall around the red zone of the city."
I don't know whether the 'anarchists' portrayed in the first paragraph were the undercover police portrayed in the second. Neither do the journalists. To explain, that they are not sure who is doing what and why takes too long, so instead the media falls back on a simplification 'the black block is causing the violence'.
c) Questions about why are they doing it.
Given the various coalitions of people involved, there are many different reasons why people are taking part in the rioting. These reasons are almost never reported. On one hand some argue that without the rioting the protests at these summits would never receive press coverage. This is something the media acknowledge themselves in many of their reports. The Prague demonstrations were preceded by a two-day counter summit on Globalisation, this was ignored. The Nice riots were preceded by a trade union march attended by between 60-100.000 people, this was ignored. Indeed the rioting at Genoa was followed by a march at which in excess of 100,000 people attended. The majority of the coverage of that day was concerned with a stand off between 2,000 rioters and police. We did not find out who was on the march, why they were there and what they stood for. Given this, for some, rioting is a tactic used to force globalisation onto the agenda.
There are also those who feel that marching round in circles is a futile response to a capitalism that causes poverty, misery and death on an enormous scale. While breaking McDonalds window won't overthrow the system, it is a symbolic act which questions the systems legitimacy. Siting down with world leaders in negotiation, as many NGOs do, sells the lie that the only reason capitalism is so cruel because those in power do not really know what the effects of their policies are. Bob Geldolf believes "you can make things better for people, enormous millions of people by talking, just talking, just talking, its boring, but just talking" (Newsnight, BBC2, Friday). The rioters do not believe Geldolfs tactic can succeed. By thrashing banks and corporations these protesters are saying 'we will not negotiate with you, negotiation will not solve our problems, you are our enemy'.
There are also those who are just plain angry and relish an opportunity to take power back into their lives, to act the very forces who control so much of their lives.
No doubt, there are those who want to experience the high of rioting.
And of course there are the police. The police are there to bring the movement into disrepute, to commit acts of violence, which will bring condemnation down on the movement and so allow the beating of prisoners to go unchecked and the arrest and imprisonment of protesters to go unchallenged. The Italian police of course have a history of using agent provocateurs. In 1981 a bomb placed in Bologna station killed 85 people. Initially blamed on the left, it is now accepted that it was planted by the groups linked to the Italian secret police to discredit the left. ( SEE )
And I'm sure there are other people who have other reasons. Given the coalition of forces mentioned above, it would be simplistic for me to explain away the rioters as being nothing more than agent provocateurs or undercover police, just as it is simplistic for Bob Geldolf to refer to them as nothing more than hot headed kids looking for a ruck or for the media to refer to them as nothing more than anarchists. The rioters contain these elements and others. They can not be explained away in a sound-bite
d) Questions about the rioters and the wider movement
The assumption is the rioters have piggybacked (to quote a BBC journalist) onto a wider peaceful political movement. It is a serious accusation, if rioters were hiding behind the cover of peaceful protests they would indeed be using the people they are supposed to be working in tandem with. However one of the most unusual aspects of the protests is that the have created a structure which recognises that different people want to use different tactics. For this reason, the demonstrations are divided in zones, each with a different stated aim. Some zones focus on purely peaceful protest, in some zones the aim is to try and physically breech the barricades. This is not something that you hear very much about in the media, nor do you hear, that many of the police attacks were on the peaceful segments of the march.
In conclusion, when the media says all the violence was caused by 'black block anarchists', they are partially right and partially wrong. The purpose of this simplification is to divide the movement into the good and the bad, the acceptable and the unacceptable, the legitimate and the illegitimate. The various elements that make up the rioters are lumped into one. Their motivations are not outlined.
Rioting is a tactic, and there is a real argument about how successful it is and about the problems of using such a tactic. The debate over which strategies the movement will adopt will never be heard. On one hand Bob Geldolf or Oxfam criticise protesters, on the other hand there is silence. This silence does not reflect a silence among participants in the movement. The tactics of the 'black blocs' are hotly debated on various political Internet sites and at political and organisational meetings. The media reflects only one element of that debate, the views of those groups who are seeking respectability for themselves, those who want to sit at the table with the world leaders. The other-sides of the argument over tactics are ignored. A complicated argument is replaced by a simplistic truth.
5. The fifth assumption is that the protests aren't political. Real politics is conducted by the world leaders only.
For example, Sky News reported on the 9.00 news on Thursday,
"It's supposed to be about policy, it is more likely to be dominated by protests, with thousands of anti-capitalist demonstrators preparing to descend on the port city of Genoa"
Here the protests are portrayed as somehow separate from the policy under discussion. These weren't protests against policy, but just protests against. As mentioned above, liberals such as Bob Geldolf support this characterisation when they refer to protesters as nothing more than football hooligans.
There is a bit of a contradiction here, because while the protesters are presented as apolitical, they are also frequently refereed to as hard-line. Of course no-body asks the question, what is the line that they are being hard about? To do that, would be to imply that maybe they do have a political viewpoint.
The world leaders in particular are keen to highlight that they are the only ones who have a legitimate right to take political action. As George Bushes security adviser was reported as saying
"these protesters are un-elected, they represent nobody and everybody should remember that the leaders here are elected to represent their nations unlike their protesters".
To the world leaders, these protests are anti-democratic. Of course to many of the protesters, it is the parliamentary form of democracy itself which is anti-democratic (but this is another argument, see )
Another contradiction evident is that the protesters are simultaneously pictured as either chaotic and therefore suspect, or organised, and therefore suspect. As one Sky News presenter asked
"You said how well the Italian police are organised but of course the worrying thing is that the demonstrators are also organised. They have been training in other cities, they have been studying police tactics, we gather"
6. Police Spin
You have to wonder, what she means when she says "we gather".
Does she mean that Sky News have sent investigative reporters to researching the global movements, or that they have been reading press reports prepared by the police. This brings up another element of the reporting, which is worth highlighting. The relaying of the police line, without highlighting that this is the source of the information. In the run up to the May Day march, various British newspapers from The Observer to The Sunday Times carried a stream of increasingly bizarre articles citing, for example, the existence of anarchist training camps and claiming that thousands of foreign anarchists were going to swoop down on London. The most peculiar came from Sky on the day, when they reported fears that anarchist vampires would come out after dark (I presume, to suck blood).
One of the interesting things to do with rolling news-coverage such as on Sky News, is to watch how the spin changes in the course of the day. At midnight on Saturday, the Italian police raided the offices of Indymedia and the Genoa Social Forum.
Considering the lengths the mainstream media goes to defend its right to protect sources you'd expect that they would have been outraged at this attack on press freedom. Instead, early reports relayed verbatim the police line. First these were the 'headquarters of the black block', a few hours latter these were the people who organised the riots - "was this the rioters nerve centre in Genoa, Italian police obviously think so", by 2.00 on Sunday afternoon, the line had moderated somewhat and an element of doubt at crept in. Now Sky reported that these people 'were thought' to be behind the protests. Again you have to ask yourselves, 'thought by whom?'. Here we see reference, un-attributed and oblique to the police source that they have been relying on for information since the raid began. By 2.30, they seem to be loosing further faith in the official line, now the people raided are "believed to be co-ordinating protest action".
Finally, after Genoa, there will be a debate about what happened and what is the way forward. The Italian police were looking for revenge when they attacked the Indymedia centre. Their choice of victim sent out a clear message; 'we do not want you to be able to tell the truth of what happened in Genoa'. They would rather we relied instead on the mainstream media with their acceptable assumptions. They do not want the status quo to be challenged. If you were in Genoa, make sure you tell your story.

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