Saturday, 23 April 2011

Riots and romance: thoughts on journalism, revolution and the anti-cuts movement.



I am in the process of trying to write an article for ADBUSTERS about 'Revolution in the UK'. The question I was set - "can it happen here like it happened in Tahrir Square?"- is broad and, I think, misplaced. As in, I think it's the wrong question to be asking. For one thing, the simple answer is no- of course it can't, it's a completely different country and the conditions that produced the Arab uprisings cannot be replicated here. That simple answer, however, closes down debate on what really is happening in Britain right now. I believe that something is on the move in this country, something important. And it's important to document that something honestly, without resorting to caricature, blithe supposition or wild inference.

I've been thinking about this more in the aftermath of the riot in Bristol this week. There was a vast disparity between MSM coverage of the riot and what thousands of us watched live online that night. I held back from writing a report until, reading the BBC and Guardian coverage the next morning, I realised that noone in the sparsely occupied Bank Holiday press rooms was feeling inclined to dig beyond the official police statement that day. In the age of Twitter, we should be able to do better than that- so I hurried out a piece based on eyewitness accounts and as much insider info as I could collate.

Following this piece, as with my
reportage of March 26, I have been accused of bias, of glorifying and romanticising the protesters. I believe this charge, however tritely or maliciously put, deserves to be answered. More than that, I think I absolutely need to answer it if I want to get better at what I do.

On the charge of romance, I hold up my hands, with the caveat that the struggle of citizen versus state is essentially a romantic one. If one cares about accuracy and linguistic craftsmanship, it is very hard to describe these active clashes in a way that does not provoke passion on both sides. This is because the events themselves are moments of high emotion and challenge. Whatever their affiliations, a person's political passions are drawn with fierce accuracy when they are asked for their opinion on a given police ruckus- and every time it happens is another chance to take the political temperature of the nation.

The British people are, however, generally resistant to romance. We tend to get uncomfortable when too much of a fuss is made. There is also an important cognitive dissonance at play: when people read, for example, about children being assaulted by police officers practically on the steps of Parliament, the emotions that stirs, and the conclusions we are inevitably led to about the benevolence or otherwise of the state, directly challenge the desire that very many of us have to believe that the police have our best interests at heart, that our politicians know what they are doing, that the ship of Britain is being steered gently away from the worst of the oncoming rocks. That cognitive dissonance can make people incredibly angry.

Personally, I don't believe that romance can be overlooked- apart from anything else, the rush and thrill of the fight is one of the big reasons riots spread. But just because a riot is romantic does not mean that it is right.

Which brings me on to the question of condemning or condoning. I make no secret of the fact that, quite apart from my journalism, my political sympathies lie with the anti-cuts movement. But m
ore than anything else, since I arrived at Millbank on the tenth of November just in time to see the windows kicked in, I have wanted to understand the nature of the political changes taking place in this country. This is why I have taken care to record and speak out about any instances of deliberate violence against police I happen to have seen. It's also the reason I've resisted the temptation to become member of any political party or anarchist group: it's easy to reel off propaganda (especially if one's style has a sliiiiight tendency to drift towards bombast) but far more difficult really to anatomise a movement and a generation and a nation in traumatic flux.

I believe that riots, and our response to them, teach people a lot about themselves. They have taught me one fundamentally important thing about myself - apart from the fact that I have a reckless attitude to my own personal safety, tossing all 5foot nothing of me repeatedly into violent situations where journalistic integrity forbids any active self-defence. What drags me to the scene of any riot, to any interesting protest currently ongoing, is not just politics, nor thrill-seeking: it's chasing a story that the mainstream press are still not telling properly yet, chasing a an important story, a story to which I currently have unique access as a young person within the movement.

Being inside a big story is exciting, especially for a rookie journalist, because by our nature people who choose this job like to know things other people don't, to be 'in on it', whatever 'it' is, and then to tell the world. This often produces quality, important journalism. But - crucially- not always.

I am forcefully reminded of another story currently running in my own magazine, the New Statesman: John Pilger's reports on the Wikileaks affair and the trial of Julian Assange. Pilger is a phenomenal journalist. I admire his investigative work more than I can possibly say, and I hope one day to be able to meet him in person. However, in my opinion, Pilger's insider access to Assange and to Wikileaks - his understandable glee at which is barely disguised - have nudged him towards glorifying his subject. In my reading, Pilger pre-emptively exonerated Assange of all sexual assault charges, and that is extremely problematic. Wikileaks is unquestionably a force for good in the world, but Pilger's celebration of and reliance on Wikileaks in articles about other subjects are becoming rather predictable. Predictability is anathema to great journalism. IMHO.

If a reporter as renowned, brilliant and experienced as John Pilger can be susceptible to the professional virus of insiderhood, any of us can be, so it's advisable to check repeatedly for symptoms. I stand by the accuracy and rigorousness of my own reporting of the movement in Britain to date, but the potential for infection is there. How could it not be?

There's nothing wrong with a bit of romance, but this movement deserves to be reported honestly, warts-and-all honestly. The voices of anti-cuts protesters, student activists and everyone they represent and defend deserve to be heard clearly, not distorted to the point of caricature. Full-time activists are more than capable of writing their own propaganda. A real campaigning journalist should be able to amplify unheard voices without distorting them. I think it's crucial that hacks involved or interested in resistance movements hold ourselves closely to that standard. I'm certainly going to try my best.

33 comments:

  1. 'pre-emptively exonerated Assange of all sexual assault charges'

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11049316

    Assange has already been cleared once of these rape charges: the EAW was only issued after the cables were leaked. There's something fishy about that, don't you think?

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  2. "Wikileaks is unquestionably a force for good in the world"

    The unquestionableness of that is questionable.

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  3. We've been discussing leaders of invasions and financial catastrophes for too long. It's time to allow the people to have a say. Rather than rulers complaining about riots they should listen to what the riot means. If they are going to support revolutions abroad all the more reason to support them at home too.

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  4. I'm consistently amused by the mainstream media's disregard for research and fact based journalism, and their occasionally downright one-sided approaches, especially when journalists who seek to delve a little deeper into a story are regarded as somehow MORE bias, rather than less bias. Hell, even if yourself or others were being as bias as the mainstream, I might still welcome that differing side to the story. I prescribe somewhat to the dialectical notion that the truth can only really be discovered through the clashing of two differing viewpoints anyhow, and as such, extreme derision of any viewpoint rubs me the wrong way.

    That said, the reporting of a lot of the mainstream media has left something to be desired. Being often less than even a bias report, and more of a randomly cobbled together patchwork of “Things we overheard from some people we can't cite”.

    I think I rambled off the topic there but, hey it's late and I'm up to my eyeballs in suspicious coffee.

    http://fluxxed.net/

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  5. Great piece. Should be compulsary reading for anyone who criticises your reporting.

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  6. The whole concept of an unbiased report is a myth. Even a purely factual report is biased by the selection of which facts are included. The beauty (and danger to the establishment) of the "new media" is that the bias from the opposite point of view is now more available.

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  7. I think the issue with the Stokes Croft piece is that your amplification of unheard voices, in this instance, led to your column being factually inaccurate. By the time your piece was published a whole ton of blog posts had appeared contradicting your version of the nights events, and indeed the local communitys views on the squatters. Yes you dug passed the police statement that was given, but you did so looking for this version of the story.

    It was equally as lazy and you were rightly called out on it in the comments (the majority of which by the way were not trite or malicious, so please don't feel to just discredit them outright).

    Whether you didn't see these posts or just ignored them I don't know. The problem is, if you want your words to have power they absolutely cannot be written for Laurie's people, only taking in the accounts OF Laurie's people. I can see WHY this is an attractive notion, but be prepared for your writing never to be taken with the severity (and weild the power) that it deserves.

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  8. "In my reading, Pilger pre-emptively exonerated Assange of all sexual assault charges, and that is extremely problematic."

    Indeed. Though the same point is true of those on the internet who have pre-emptively exonerated the Stokecroft squatters of making petrol bombs.

    (That doesn't mean one should pre-emptively find them guilty either. It's something that a court should, and will, decide.)

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  9. good article! my own take on the hasty way in which some on the left wished to pre-emptively exonerate Assange of sexual assualt charges

    http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=7405

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  10. A great post!
    I couldn't agree more.

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  11. From the trenches, all you can see of the world is war.

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  12. Think twice about Pilger. He doesn't let facts get in the way of a good story. Too many people have noticed. If you follow his route you'll be a laughing stock. Sure people forget you made one or two factual mistakes but when you have made as many as Pilger then you'll end up taking stances in your later age, thinking you can 'persuade' the public to free one of your mates.

    Remember both are Australian males ... and there are slick artists here; they know how to bull shit big time.

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  13. Good to see you've relaunched your site. You need a purely creative outlet. Obviously the time factor and 'editorial restraints' have now come into your life and they have infringed upon your creativity. And it was great to hear from your twitter that you have sold a few books.

    The romance is there but the solution is with housing but you've got to provide people withe opportunity to own the house. And the housing has to be set up for the future. Why don't you look into types of social housing projects so you can provide solutions rather than merely criticising. When you have romance do you not have an ideal? What exactly is your ideal?

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  14. Mr Divine - seeking to lecture us about facts? The same Mr Divine who thought St John Ambulance was illicitly paying me to be a fake casualty when I was paying over a fiver in bus fare every time I attended one of their meetings? Feel free to laugh, Laurie, I certainly find it amusing.

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  15. This is good; very good. At last, someone who is not afraid to speak their mind.

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  16. Dear Vanilla Rose, I have apologised to you on a number of occasions about making that remark. I will do so again. I am sorry for suggesting that Vanilla Rose was receiving back handers from St John's Ambulance brigade. I hope we can be friends now and let our past misunderstandings and mistakes be forgotten.

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  17. Laurie, please,

    can you stay focused, you've a great future in journalism and possibly in politics. I think it would be better to make one point and ram it in. I understand it's a blog, rambling by nature, but still.

    I nearly fell off my rocking chair when I read your reply to the opening question 'can it happen here?'

    'The simple answer is no- of course it can't'.

    Not only it can, it has, and not once, but many times. You are right Britain is different, when French weavers were smashing windows and building barricades, British chartists were marching and petitioning. Think of the suffragettes, or the 1920s strikes, or the winter of discontent. The form that mass protest takes may be different, but its origins are the same as in the Arab countries.

    Young British 'rioters' will grow - in fact, are already growing - into campaigners. They need to put more thinking, more focus into what they aim to achieve, and then 'it' will happen.

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  18. "Following this piece, as with my reportage of March 26,"

    Reportage? My, aren't we posh.

    By the way. How's the student uprising going. Have they overthrown anything yet?

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  19. I'm not convinced that good journalism has to be unpredictable - depends if your priority is the quality of the writing or the effect it has .

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  20. Laurie, how can a privileged Oxbridge type like you even think you truly think they can understand the position of ordinary people like me who are at the sharpest end of the right wing policies being implemented by your fellow Oxford Uni alumni?

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  21. MomM, Penny Red is confused and not as bright as she should be - either that, or she enjoys disingenuising us for personal profit...

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  22. On the contrary, good journalism if it conforms to relevant standards is eminently predictable.

    We need you to be better than this, PR - get over your ego and your bad self. We're not interested in self-indulgent wank. Do the right thing and stop trying to ingratiate yourself into a rotten doctrine that you don't even agree with. To thine own self be true. You know it mek sense.

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  23. Class and student movement:

    http://th-rough.eu/writers/campagna-eng/dangerous-alliances-class-and-student-movement

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  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  25. I do not condone violence. Secret service agents are trained as provocateurs for a reason. But where the peaceful and democratic will of a society in undermined or suppressed, the rioting of the unheard is inevitable.

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  26. It's all just a little bit of history repeating...

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  29. The romance is there but the solution is with housing but you've got to provide people withe opportunity to own the house. And the housing has to be set up for the future. Why don't you look into types of social housing projects so you can provide solutions rather than merely criticising. When you have romance do you not have an ideal? What exactly is your idealaustria fm radio onlinebrazil fm radio online

    ReplyDelete

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