Police, Protests and the Media

Thursday, 16 December 2010

At the student fees protest in London last week, a young man with cerebral palsy was allegedly twice hauled from his wheelchair and dragged across the ground by police officers. Footage of the incident soon appeared on the internet, while the man, a 20-year-old activist and blogger named Jody McIntyre, was invited onto BBC News to recount his ordeal. “Did you shout anything provocative, or throw anything that would of induced the police to do that to you?” he was asked by the presenter, Ben Brown. “There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair, is that true?” McIntyre kept his calm and replied. “Do you really think a person with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair, can pose a threat to a police officer who is armed with weapons?”

The BBC has already received a number of complaints about the interview. But the sneering tone of Brown’s questions, which repeatedly punctuate the 7-minute interview, are typical of how the mainstream media have responded to protests and the policing of them both past and present. Their automatic assumption is that the police are protectors of our best interests, defenders of public order, righteous upholders of the law. Protesters, on the other hand, are automatically perceived as a threat and a potential destructive force – they are folk devils: outsiders, troublemakers and vandals of decency.

The police are therefore at an immediate advantage in the media realm, for they are always given the benefit of the doubt. Officers may have had to crack a few skulls during the fees protests, however only because they were provoked by what David Cameron described as "feral thugs". And it is for this same reason that McIntyre was repeatedly placed on the back foot throughout his BBC interview. Was he a “cyber-radical?” Did he want to build a “revolutionary movement?” The police would never just attack a defenceless disabled man in a wheelchair, would they?

This problem is not a new one. For years protesters have been jarred by the gulf between the reality of protests and the way they are reported by the mass media. During the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005, for instance, I witnessed firsthand unprovoked police baton charges on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Dressed in all black, wielding shields, batons and with their faces covered, riot police lunged indiscriminately at anyone within arm’s length – male or female, adult or youth. The sight was shocking. Yet the next day, there was not a whiff of it in the newspapers. “Those seeking to cause disorder laid down the gauntlet to police officers who were determined to keep control,” reported the BBC.

Likewise, when Ian Tomlinson died after being assaulted by a policeman at the G20 protests in London last year, almost all media outlets initially reported the police’s account of events uncritically. Tomlinson had collapsed and stopped breathing, we were told, so officers quickly sprung to his assistance. Police medics tried to revive him as hell-bent protesters threw bricks, bottles and planks of wood – but it was already too late. Of course, none of this was true. There were no bricks or bottles or planks of wood, and neither did the police attempt to assist Tomlinson as he fell to the floor. In fact, as it later turned out, Tomlinson was pushed to the ground by a policeman and it was protesters who helped him to his feet.

It is a difficult thing to accept – that the police, the very individuals whose role it is to protect us, can occasionally perpetrate hideous acts of violence. But those who witnessed police tactics at the recent fees demonstrations will know that the friendly British bobby has a darker side, too. A new generation of young people is consequently now waking up to the grim fact that all is not as it seems. However, unlike in previous eras of mass civil unrest – such as during the 1960s and the 1980s – this generation has technology at its disposal.

As in the case of Jody McIntyre and Ian Tomlinson, camera-phone footage can hold the police to account for their actions like never before. If the reality of the protest is absent from television reports, the truth will eventually surface via the internet. Mainstream media outlets may still continue to negatively portray protesters, but their credibility will slowly begin to wane and disintegrate if they do so for much longer. With the advent YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, there is now, finally, a platform from which both sides of the story can be told.

This article originally appeared at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/media-police-and-protest-now-both-sides-of-story-can-be-reported