The Media Failures Surrounding the England Riots
August 17, 2011
In the aftermath of the riots in London and elsewhere in the UK a little over a week ago we have been subjected to no end of bellyaching, hand-wringing, and a torrent of misguided comment and analysis. The news coverage has all-too-often failed its audience. The BBC has had to apologise twice in the past week for ill-conceived broadcasts, first for its offensive interview where a news anchor thought it necessary to accuse a black broadcaster in his seventies of condoning and participating in the riots, and then for a radio feature which asked "Is there a problem with young black men?" The problematic reporting has spilt over into New Zealand, a can be seen in a wire-story run in the New Zealand Herald (Paul Vallely, ‘High end looting… it’s all the riot’, 10 Aug) which pointed to Operation Trident as a success story in reducing tensions between police and the communities involves – the same police operation during which the shooting and killing of Mark Duggan took place, and which sparked the riots.
As for the analyses offered, the views on display have been depressingly predictable. Many on the left were quick to point out the possible effects of widespread disillusionment with the system. They cite the wildly different fortunes of the working poor and the unemployed, compared to the glittering fortunes of their neighbours in the financial districts, as well as the bad and worsening employment situation alongside the weighty cuts to social services. Be this as it may, the characters in this story aren’t really the ones participating in the riots, who came from a wide range of demographics and most of whom certainly had nothing more in mind than having a riot. The loudest voices of the right have seen no use for such compassion and want all involved pilloried, each commentator having their own list of whom they would see vengeance visited on. In perhaps the most confused example, Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail has given a long and single-minded account of why this is all the fault of feminists. One wonders why, if the cause for the riots has to do with feminist influence on the Labour government, the riots happened well into David Cameron’s very masculine administration, and after they started to form the social services in their mould. The most common line of explanation, also taken by the UK government, is that this is an outburst of criminality. This is a classic and unfortunate example of trying to pass off the statement of the problem as an explanation, and we are left no wiser. These responses, and most of the other pieces foisted on the public, read like they were written some time ago and stored in a file for the right occasion. Or perhaps they are simply ramblings off of the top of a correspondent’s head. In neither case is there a link drawn between the stories they have to tell, nor the events they are supposed to be commenting on. We in New Zealand have fared no better, as Paul Holmes has in the Herald wondered whether the rioters should have been shot in the street (‘Riots would make Winston spin in his grave’, 13 Aug). This casual bloodthirstiness is voiced in a sentence tossed off carelessly at the end, after paragraphs of first detailing a book about Winston Churchill he was reading, then admitting he had no idea why any of this happened (or, we might add, what the architecture of Churchill’s home has to do with it).
This type of media failing can benefit nobody, as confusion is responded to with more confusion, in a display which wavers between self-absorbed grandstanding and gawking uselessness. In aiming for a better treatment of events, any worthwhile discussion of the riots would have to acknowledge that there is no single body of people who count as the rioters. There are going to be different groups of people with different aims, motivations, and actions, each needing to be treated in their own right. Different commentators have told different stories which might work for some of these groups, but we have not been treated to a comprehensive and satisfactory overview. There are going to be the looters and arsonists, the criminal element who have attracted all of the attention. An appropriate response to their involvement would need to account not only for what allowed such a reaction to get going, but also how it was allowed to continue – the lack of compassion or restraint needs to be addressed, as well as the feeling of impunity with which many of them displayed. There are also those who joined with the riots but not with the looting and arson, who may very well have acted out of a frustration at a system they might conclude takes little account of them, except as a nuisance. These protests might have lead to the heated atmosphere which the looters opportunistically made use of, but by no means must we take these groups to be the same – one can easily be disaffected without being a thug. Any account of what motivated these groups must also explain why the riots had such a wide uptake across England, quickly spreading to other disaffected communities not linked by the Mark Duggan shooting. Also something to take account of is why the anti-government protestors, who have been at the forefront of other recent show-offs with police, were nowhere to be found. There are also going to be the members of the affected communities who protested against systematic police mistreatment, a longstanding and difficult problem. Since 1990 in the UK there have been over 1400 deaths after contact with the police, and not a single conviction for murder or manslaughter for any of them (New Zealand fares better, with proportionally far less deaths and more convictions of police wrongdoing, though only for lesser offences than murder or manslaughter). To put this into perspective, whereas about a 1000 people have been charged in the aftermath of the riots, about 5000 in London and 2000 in Birmingham have come together in solidarity after the violence. These vigils for peace have received scarcely any mention. And these people, who would be the same ones who were hiding in their homes during the fires and looting, will also be the people the police will spread-eagle against the walls of Hackney and Tottenham in the crackdown to follow. This selective attention, ignoring the everyday troubles of those at the centre of the issues in favour of the spectacle of the looters, tarring everybody with the same brush, is a deep failure of our understanding of the issues. The resentment that will follow can only make matters worse. We owe it to those caught up in these troubles to make a measured response, or risk having the same thing happen again and again.
Marinus Ferreira is an Ethics Advisor in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland.