364.143 The whole story

First the story:

I try not to comment here on recent or current events. I’m hoping these pages will be around for a while, and any comments I write may not make much sense after the events themselves have been forgotten.

These thoughts are prompted by the rioting which happened in the summer of 2011. Not so much the events themselves, but what we heard about them.

Rioting is nothing new of course. The French Revolution, not to mention the American and Russian ones, started with rioting and events moved on from there. On the other hand there were outbreaks of rioting all over Europe in 1848, and these seem mostly to have led nowhere.

When we were taught history at school, the various events were usually approached by answering three questions:

1) What happened?

2) Why did it happen?

3) What were the consequences?

It seems to me that the same questions can usefully apply to current events and how they are reported.

The reporting of the 2011 riots which I saw was mostly on television, a little on radio, and not at all in newspapers. I imagine most people would say the same. It may be that the newspapers did a thorough job of answering the three questions, but television certainly didn’t. This I think was mostly due to laziness, as television has plenty of airtime available for comment and analysis.

The first question was answered in exhaustive detail. This is hardly surprising; the sight of people smashing windows or occupying up-market retailers certainly grabs people’s attention. And it’s easily done; images can quickly be imported from YouTube or mobile phone footage, it costs almost nothing, and hardly any thought is required.

Then it started raining and the rioters went home. This should have been the time to move on to the second question. Instead the government blamed criminal cupidity, the Daily Express blamed it on benefits scroungers, and after some cursory theorising the television news moved on to next business.

We never really got to the third question. There was some “aftermath” reporting, with tales of people robbed, livelihoods destroyed, and physical damage; but this was really just a continuation of the “what happened?” question. The government and the police vowed that rioters would be pursued to the ends of the earth for the rest of their lives until everyone had been arrested. Eighteen months later prosecutions were still occurring.

Not until months later (early November) were we told that so far about 2000 people had been arrested of whom 1200 had appeared in court and 155 had been jailed. I heard this just once on television and not at all on radio, and we only got the bare facts, in just two sentences, with no comment or analysis. Not surprising, as comment or analysis might have suggested that a figure of 155 jailings was not quite the kind of Armageddon that had been portrayed in the “what happened” coverage.

Not for the first time we are not hearing the end of the story. After a news item has run for a couple of days the media assume we have now got bored, and they move on to something, anything, else. As for further, longer-term, consequences of the riots, well probably there won’t be any worth reporting.

The conclusion of all this is only that we are not being informed as well as we should be. As to what to do about it, just as with the end of the riot story, you’ll have to work that out for yourself.

Then the comment:

Less than one hour after I wrote the above, Channel4 News mentioned in passing some other riot statistics. According to them, 3003 people had been arrested in London alone, and 618 had been jailed. If these figures are correct, one Londoner in every 2000 (men, women and children) had been arrested, which seems hard to believe. In any case, the national figures quoted above were only a few days old, and it’s also hard to believe that arrests had lept forward that much in such a short time. So who do you believe? Either way, we really are not getting reliable information.
There was a bit more harmless fun in December 2011, when not one but two reports on the rioting were published. They were very different from each other. The first, a Government-commissioned report, mostly repeated the pre-judged comments that Ministers had made; the riots were the result of criminal opportunism. More interestingly, the report criticized police passivity in the face of the disturbances. In other words, they should have hit ’em harder.
The second report was jointly produced by the Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics. This was based on interviews with some of the rioters, though not a large number. The motivation cited by a large proportion of the people was revenge for heavy-handed treatment by the police in people’s everyday lives. In other words, they hit ’em too hard.
It’s not too much of an over-simplification to say that the Guardian is generally on the left half of politics while the current (2010-2015) government is on the right. So the conclusions of these two reports could have been guessed before they even started; they would say that, wouldn’t they?
This isn’t quite the end of the story; perhaps there never will be one. One evening in March 2012, Channel 4 News referred, twice in one programme, to “the death that sparked last summer’s riots”. The same turn of phrase was used again by the same programme in January 2013.
It refers to the shooting by police, unexplained at the time, of a young man, Mark Duggan, in Ferry Lane, Tottenham Hale (north London). It was said that the man was in possession of a gun which had been supplied to him by a friend, apparently, but not necessarily relevantly, a drug dealer. The exact circumstances were to be established by an inquest, which eventually began on 16th September 2013, more than 100 weeks later.
But it’s hard to believe this was what outraged rioters in Liverpool and Manchester, however much human compassion this would have displayed. A more convincing argument came in March 2012 from, of all people, Boris Johnson (Mayor of London), who blamed social exclusion resulting from poor education. This may or may not be right, but it certainly shows he had given the subject some serious thought, which is too rare a commodity; but he may have had advance knowledge of a genuinely independent (but Government-commissioned) report which appeared a few days later and which gives a much more wide-ranging view.
Noting that most of the rioters were aged under 24, an age group currently afflicted by above-average unemployment, the report highlighted failings of the education system but also criticised over-materialistic marketing of luxury goods to younger people. In other words, people were being given unrealistic expectations and had reacted to being misled. The report made some 60 recommendations, most of them costly to implement. A government response would have answered the third of the questions above; but in the event the government spent the next day dealing with rumours of a possible petrol shortage, there had been some bad behaviour at a football match, and a man in the USA had had a face transplant, so that was the end of the report.

At this point it’s worth taking a look at the Toxteth (Liverpool) riots of 1981. An article in the Guardian newspaper points out similarities and differences. In that case there was a clear root cause; resentment against the police. But the background was very similar. In this case, the “question 3” point is readily answered. The valiant Michael Heseltine took personal charge of the situation and over a considerable period of time oversaw a programme of regeneration in the city of Liverpool. That really did put an end to the troubles, but it involved spending some money, which proved to be a very worthwhile investment, and above all it required time and patience. Instant reaction and expectation of instant results would have been useless. Maybe on this later occasion there is a need for a long-term carefully planned response, but this seems unlikely to happen.

There is another point of obscurity, though this time it is not the news media that are to blame. The circumstances of the shooting in Tottenham were unclear from the start. Late in March 2012 it was revealed in court that the inquest into the shooting would have to be delayed and might not be possible at all, as the necessary evidence would include “sensitive information”. What sensitive information can be needed in order to tell us why this man was shot? This is reminiscent of the case of Jean-Charles de Menezes, shot by police simply through mistaken identity. Maybe they got it wrong again; and as many of the same people were still at the top of the Metropolitan Police, shooting the wrong man on a second occasion would be embarrassing. In the event, it was decided that the inquest (referred to above) would indeed have access to the “sensitive information”.

It now (September 2012) seems as if there will never be an end to this. A two-part television programme “Rioters in their own words” was ready for broadcast in July but withheld at the time as the result of a court order. It eventually went out in August, on BBC2, when most people’s attention was on the Olympic Games. I can’t tell you what it said as almost all the transmission bandwidth had been assigned to Olympics coverage, and my receiver could pick up little else.

On September 12th there was a nice coincidence of topics in Channel 4 News. The main item was a report on the Hillsborough Stadium (Sheffield Wednesday football ground) disaster of 1989 in which 96 Liverpool supporters were killed, mostly through crushing. The main thrust of this was that South Yorkshire Police had misrepresented the course of events to suggest that the incident was caused by drunken Liverpool fans. The effect was to blame the victims. Minutes later there was an interview with the rapper Plan B (nominated for the Mercury Music Prize) who was talking about his depiction of the 2011 riots in his recent work. The main point of his argument was that many of the rioters, and in particular the looters, had been fooled by the materialism of society into thinking that “having stuff” made them feel more important, more worthy of respect, more like proper people (which tallied with the “buried” report of March 2012); and that the government reaction (the “criminal cupidity” mentioned above) had in effect been blaming the victims.

The inquest into Mark Duggan’s death finally ended on 8th January 2014. It was concluded that he did have a gun, which he was taking to the nearby Broadwater Farm Estate (a name familiar from a riot long ago), but threw it away before he was shot. The verdict was lawful killing; whether or not this is correct, the effects of the klling were over a couple of years ago, and have long since lost their connection to the original killing. And what was the “sensitive information” mentioned above? Presumably we’ll never know.

In 1957 Harold Macmillan told the British people they had “never had it so good”. In the 1960s Ayn Rand told people that the highest moral duty of individuals was to care for their own individual wellbeing. In 1987 Margaret Thatcher, talking to the magazine Woman’s Own, said: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves”.

I wonder if they imagined what they might be starting.

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