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The Media- the Real Enemy? An investigation

April 6, 2011

During a Q&A session following the release of his feature film documentary ‘The War We Don’t See’ back in December 2010, John Pilger suggested that students who were out on the streets fighting against the cuts to education were possibly fighting the wrong people. By this Pilger was understood to mean that the real enemy was not the coalition government who were implicating the cuts but the mainstream media outlets of the UK. Those education cuts were passed through parliament and have already started to wreak their damaging effects. Mass public demonstrations were seen across the country in opposition to the cuts as well as other forms of protest. Since then more worker lead demonstrations have begun to take place with students continuing to play a significant role within them, but how has the medias portrayal of such events been carried out and are they real enemy as Pilger suggested?

In order to investigate this, a small sample of three articles from arguably three of the biggest TV media outlets (BBC News, Channel 4 News & SKY News) was taken from their websites covering the recent 26th March demonstrations in London. The links to which can be found below;—UK-Uncut/Article/201103415960442?lpos=UK_News_Carousel_Region_1&lid=ARTICLE_15960442_Spending_Cuts%3A_Workers_To_Stage_A_March_for_the_Alternative_Protest_Against_Government_-_UK_Uncut

The aim of this investigation was to analyse the balance of these articles through first counting the amount of lines of text in the reports that were assigned to either; Police descriptions of the day, Demonstrators descriptions of the day, Union and official organisers announcements & any remaining lines of text. Secondly the balance was analysed by investigating the themes of the articles. This investigative method can be seen to be based upon the Glasgow Media Groups ‘Thematic Analysis Model’.

After counting the lines in the three articles it was found that altogether there are 176 lines, 71 of which are assigned to Police descriptions of the day’s events with almost half that number assigned to Union lead spokespersons 36, and 58 lines of text assigned to either commentary from the news agencies themselves or spokespeople who cannot be described as fitting into the four categories. Whilst 50% less text being assigned to Union spokespeople or demonstrator organisers  is a worrying statistic enough, what is even more startling is the fact that around only 11 lines of text are assigned to protesters actually describing the events of the day, almost 7 times less text assigned than there is to police descriptions.  This becomes even more important when analysing the themes of what is said in these lines of text.

*A breakdown of how assigned text in each article can be found at the bottom of this piece

After reading the articles certain themes were identified and analysed using the text assigned to each category, these themes being; Protestors tactics, Police Tactics and The demonstration as a whole. In order to illustrate how these themes are discussed in the articles we will look at some examples of the text. First of we will look at the theme of Protestor’s tactics,

*Text in Red is taken from Police descriptions text in Blue from Union officials and text in Brown from Demonstrators descriptions.

‘Police said officers later came “under sustained attack as they deal with the disorder and attempted criminal damage” in Trafalgar Square.’ (BBC)

 ‘Commander Bob Broadhurst, who led the police operation, said: “I wouldn’t call them protesters. They are engaging in criminal activities for their own ends.”’ (Channel 4)

 ‘Later, police clashed with protesters in Trafalgar Square.’ (SKY News)

‘Police commander Bob Broadhurst said about 500 “criminals”, who had nothing to do with the march organised by the Trade Union Congress, were responsible for the violence.’ (SKY News)

‘TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said he “bitterly regretted” the violence, adding that he hoped it would not detract from the massive anti-cuts march.’ (BBC)

‘”I don’t think the activities of a few hundred people should take the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of people who have sent a powerful message to the government today,” he said.’ (BBC)

‘Campaign group UK Uncut claimed around 200 of its supporters forced themselves into luxury store Fortnum and Mason – known as the Queen’s grocer.’ (Channel 4)

‘A spokesman for the demonstrators said the target was chosen because “they dodge tens of millions in tax”.’(Channel 4)

Sally Mason, a UK Uncut supporter from Manchester who took part in occupying Fortnum & Mason said the group had chosen “civil disobedient action” because they were not “just going to march from A to B and be ignored”. (SKY News) 

What can be seen from these examples, arguably expectedly, is that almost all police description of the events that unfolded in London that day speak of ‘violence’, police coming under ‘sustained attack’ and defining those involved in the direct action on various business establishments as ‘criminals who had nothing to do with the TUC march’. What is interesting however is that the text selected to be used for these articles which come from Union officials are those that also condemn the actions of these protesters seeing Union officials ‘bitterly’ regretting ‘the violence’ with little analyses of what it was that happened at these events. This type of rhetoric is continued when the articles finally get around to assigning a small amount of their text to descriptions from the protesters involved with little or no commentary of what happened according to them, except for that ‘around 200 protesters forced their way into Fortnum and Masons’ ‘because they were not just going to march from A to B..’. This seems interesting when reports from the UK Uncut group who organised the occupation of the store have later been seen to describe the entering of the store as not forceful and that they walked in unopposed. However this is not what this investigation is interested in, what it is interested in analysing is that throughout the text there is little to no description of what happened during the events on the 26th from any agency/group or individual except that of the Police, whose commentary suggests a situation where criminals who had nothing to do with the demonstration, intent on nothing but violence, randomly attacked Police and property in the city of London. The only voice heard to the contrary  is from a UK UNCUT spokesperson who explains that the occupation of Fortnum & Masons was because ‘they dodge millions in tax’, however even this can be seen to be lost under the vast amount of text that is assigned to the Police’s description of the event.

The second theme that is to be discussed is that of the Police’s tactics during the demonstration;

 ‘The Metropolitan Police said 214 people were arrested for a variety of offences, including public order offences, criminal damage, aggravated trespass and violent disorder.’ (BBC)

‘There were 66 reported injuries over the course of the day, including 13 police officers. Sixteen were taken to hospital, including one officer.’(BBC)

‘But after a few hours of containment by police, during which people in the square were only allowed to leave in small groups via its north-eastern corner, there was just a small number of protesters remaining.’ (BBC)

‘Police have defended their tactics after violence broke out in Trafalgar Square following the spending cuts demonstration. More than 200 people were arrested and dozens injured.’(Channel 4)

‘…officers using ‘containment’ tactics in a bid to manage those congregating. The area was eventually cleared by around 2.45am.’(Channel 4)

‘We’ll never have enough officers to protect every building in central London. It cannot be done. Commander Bob Broadhurst’ (Channel 4)

 ‘Later, police clashed with protesters in Trafalgar Square.’ (SKY News)

Policing minister Nick Herbert said the main TUC rally had been a “testament to the British model of policing” but condemned the violence as “completely unacceptable” (SKY News)

‘Director of policy Isabella Sankey told Sky News: “We are going to be observing what police are doing and then we are going to be calling it as we see it.’ (SKY News)

‘”The police have all sorts of powers at there disposal … and we’ve seen that peaceful protest has been undermined by misuse and abuse of those powers.”’(SKY News) 

What is initially striking regarding the commentary of this theme is that there is no alternative description of how the Police conducted themselves during the events than the rhetoric offered by the Police themselves. Whilst there is some critique of Police tactics used in the past from Human rights group ‘Liberty’, there is none from the day itself, it can also be argued that this holds very little weight in being just 5 lines of text amongst 171. Now this would not be a problem if there was nothing to discuss regarding the tactics of the Police on the day, however the injuries reported in the BBC article ( however not within in any context) would indicate that 53 injured protesters compared to 13 Police officers after police had used ‘containment’ tactics and had ‘clashed with protesters’ would suggest that there may be much to be discussed. The third piece of text above which reads ‘Police have defended their tactics…’ would suggest that their tactics had been possibly brought into question regarding the injuries spoken of, however the reading of the full article actually sees the Police tactics being brought into question in the context of not being ‘tough enough’, this can be seen in the defences quote from commander Bob Braudhurst who says ‘we’ll never have enough officers to protect every building in Central London..’.

This lack of critique of Police tactics coupled with the all out attack on protestor’s tactics sees a very alarming central theme of anti demonstrator and pro hard line police tactics and an apparent unbalanced account of what exactly it was that happened on the day. The third theme will attempt to investigate how the day was reported on as a whole as opposed to the concentration of unbalanced analyses of the so called ‘Unrest’ during the day.

‘TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said he “bitterly regretted” the violence, adding that he hoped it would not detract from the massive anti-cuts march.’ (BBC)

‘”I don’t think the activities of a few hundred people should take the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of people who have sent a powerful message to the government today,” he said.’ (BBC)

‘”Ministers should now seriously reconsider their whole strategy after today’s demonstration. This has been Middle Britain speaking.”’ (Channel 4)

‘Mr Barber said unions would now step up pressure on the Government, especially MPs in their constituencies, and launch a series of protests next week in defence of the NHS.’(Channel 4)

‘The march – the biggest union-organised event for more than 20 years and the largest in the country since the anti-Iraq war march in 2003 – set off early from Embankment because of the huge number of protesters.’ (Sky News)

‘”This is an absolutely incredible turnout and display of anger which the Government will have to take notice of,” Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union, said.’(SKY News)

‘The protesters brought central London to a standstill, waving banners and blowing vuvuzelas. Steel bands, choirs, performers and dancers performed during the march.’ (SKY News)

‘TUC head of economic affairs Nicola smith said the marchers were “trade union members, but also public sector workers, pensioners, people from a whole range of community groups, people with their families, all joining together to send a message to the Government that there is an alternative”.’ (SKY News)

‘The alternative is a deficit reduction strategy that focuses on growth and the role that tax can play in making sure our public finances are put on a sustainable footing.”’ (SKY News)

‘Unite’s Len McCluskey said those taking part in the march were the “tip of the iceberg” because millions were opposed to the Government’s cuts in public spending.’ (SKY News)

‘”There is growing anger, which will build and build as the impact of the cuts take effect,” said Mr McCluskey, who warned of more demonstrations and possible co-ordinated strikes in the coming months.’ (SKY News)

 What can be seen in the above text is a commentary of the day and why it took place, taken mostly from Trade Union leaders, spokespeople and organisers of the ‘March for the Alternative’ demonstration that took place on the 26th March. There are no other descriptions of the day offered by any other category, being the Police description or Protestors, the latter due to only having one theme covered throughout the three articles, that involving the small amount of text covering the occupation of Fortnum & Masons. What can be understood from this is that the above statements, while one can be seen to be condemning ‘the violence’, provide a commentary of why the demonstration is taking place. This is very important if the audience who is reading the article is to understand why there was a demonstration and to allow the organisers an opportunity to publicise their cause. However whilst comments such as ‘the alternative is a deficit reduction strategy that focuses on growth and the role that tax can play..’ and that ‘those taking part in the march were the tip of the iceberg because millions were opposed to the Government’s cuts in public spending’ can be seen to bring some balance to the articles, however it is argued by this paper that the damage can be seen to have already been done through the unbalanced accounts analysed above and that comments such as these are often squeezed in between the rhetoric of ‘violence’ and ‘criminals’.

In conclusion what this piece finds from the analysis of the three articles is that Police descriptions of events that unfold at demonstrations are seen to dominate the news stories that cover them and that within these descriptions much emphasis is placed upon demonising of protests and protesters with little or no alternate description offered or investigated. Instead what is seen is that there is very little opportunity for protesters involved in any form of the demonstrations to describe the events that unfolded of which they were part of within the news articles. What is also found is that Police tactics are seldom brought into question in any critical context regardless of statistics suggesting there may be an issue. Whilst the reasons for a demonstration are often provided, it is seen by this piece that the message of the demonstration and the social problems that have been inflicted on the people who take part and support them (and those who don’t) is lost to a Police commentary of protester criminality. The findings of such studies as ‘Bad News from Israel’(Philo, G 2004)  suggest that peoples understanding of news events can be seen to replicate the themes of news bulletins, suggesting that public opinion can be influenced by how these news reports are presented. So how will public opinion be shaped by these and other articles that report on past and future anti-cuts demonstration? What this short analyses suggests is that public opinion could be easily shaped to the tune of what has already been said in other blogs as ‘well I agree with what you’re saying but…’.

This piece began speaking of John Pilgers suggestion that protesters demonstrating against the cuts may be fighting the wrong people and that the main stream media is the real enemy. This short analyses would seem to support this statement in some part, whilst recognising that a peoples movement needs to include demonstrations fighting against its government, however it also sees that in order to be able popularise such a movement much must be done in order to bring a media to account which seeks to hinder its progress at every opportunity.

*Breakdwon of text assignment in each article

176 lines altogether –(BBC [47] – Channel4 [57] – SKY News of text [72]

11 lines Protester description -(BBC [2], Channel4 [4], SKY News [5])

71 Police description -(BBC [23], Channel4 [33], SKY News [15])

36 Unions – (BBC [6], Channel4 [9], SKY News [26])

58 remaining – (BBC [16],Channel4 [10], SKY News [31])


Philo, G. Berry, M (2004) ‘Bad News from Israel’. London. Pluto Press


From → Politics, UK

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