No more austerity: are protests ‘news’?

On Saturday 21st June the People’s Assembly, Trade Unions and campaigning groups held what they described as a ‘national demonstration and free festival’ to ‘demand’ an alternative to austerity. As expressed on the People’s Assembly website:

“Living standards continue to drop, forcing millions into poverty, yet the politicians remain addicted to austerity.

This demonstration will assemble right on the BBC’s doorstep and march to Parliament to demand that the alternative to austerity is no longer ignored. Join us.”

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50,000 or more people did join them, including Russell Brand, Green MP Caroline Lucas and others. And yet the result, at least as far as the BBC was concerned, was that the protest, and the alternative to austerity, was ignored. On the day, the BBC gave it no coverage at all, to the fury of the protest organisers and the radical twittersphere. Eventually the BBC did put up a cursory mention of the protest on their website, including a very short video with no commentary, but nothing of note on either their radio or TV news or current affairs programmes, at least nationally. There was coverage on some overseas media outlets (e.g. RT, Al Jazeera), on local broadcasts (so I am told) and in some of the newspapers, but nothing on the mainstream BBC, ITV, Channels 4 or 5.

Why was this? Is it a kind of conspiracy of silence – a closing of ranks by the establishment against the ‘alternative’, instructions from above or similar? Or is it, as Willard Foxton, writing in the New Statesman, put it, that:

“…the sad truth is “Lefties march in moderate numbers, again, and then go home, again”, isn’t much of a story”

Foxton’s article is well argued and, as someone who has been on many, many marches from the late 70s onward can testify, his observation ‘…that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ certainly has some application here. And yet that too misses the point – because though the chances of a genuine conspiracy of silence are minimal, coverage of politics and news in the mainstream TV and radio stations in the UK is remarkable in its narrowness and insularity. The term ‘Westminster Bubble’ applies much more directly to the media than it does to the politicians, most of whom do at least spend a decent amount of time in their constituencies. I made a couple of flippant remarks using my  Nick Robinson Twitter parody account, @KipperNick, that seemed to resonate.

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The point isn’t that there’s a conspiracy of silence or even a whiff of corruption here. I don’t believe either of those for a moment. The point is that the BBC, and their news and politics teams in particular, really do think that Nigel Farage in a pub is news, and protest marches aren’t news. They really believe that lefties marching in moderate numbers (and yes, in the BBC’s eyes 50,000 are moderate numbers) doesn’t constitute news – and, to be frank, I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong. Those kinds of numbers go to premier league football matches every week, and we wouldn’t call that news.

Where I would argue with the BBC is what, if protests aren’t considered news, the BBC and others do consider to be news. That’s where the @KipperNick tweets come in, and why, I suspect, they got so many RTs. The BBC has a role to play, and they have to understand their power – as anyone with even a cursory contact with that ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject ‘media studies’ should know, TV news plays a significant part not just in reporting but in setting the agenda.  Through the narrowness of their coverage – their obsession with UKIP and with Nigel Farage in particular is just one manifestation of this – they can have a significant impact on politics. They can also generate great dissatisfaction and exacerbate the feeling of disconnection that many people have with both the media and the political process.

The fact that Russell Brand was the key celebrity figure at the march on Saturday should have made the point – Brand’s Newsnight performance last year was largely about this disconnection. People, and young people in particular do not feel included in the debate or the decisions about what’s happening in this country. On the subject of austerity, there seems to be almost complete consensus amongst the mainstream political parties – certainly the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour seem wedded to it, and though UKIP have said very little it would be hard to imagine that, libertarians as they sometimes claim to be, they would do anything but embrace austerity if they were ever given the chance. It’s not even up for discussion – either by the politicians or the media.

So what can those (myself included) who do not believe austerity is the solution, actually do? Organise more protest marches that will inevitably be similarly ignored to Saturday’s? If 50,000 wouldn’t get media attention, would 100,000? 500,000? Perhaps. If the protests turned violent, or became riots, that would get media attention – but would do nothing to change the minds of those behind austerity. Quite the reverse. So what else can be done? The more ‘modern’ alternatives like online petitions etc are even more useless and more easily ignored – indeed, most of the time they seem like the best way to dissipate any energy there is behind change.

The truth is, I don’t know the answer – I wish I did.  I can understand why the BBC didn’t cover Saturday’s march – but I think they need to broaden their horizons and start looking beyond the Westminster Bubble and their increasingly tired and irrelevant political programmes. If they want – and they often claim to want – young people to be more engaged in politics, then they, as well as the protestors and campaigners, need to find new ways to do their job. In the end, I agree with Foxton that the protests were not really ‘news’ – but the movements behind them, and the debates that they’re trying to put forward are certainly, in my view, politically relevant.  How can these arguments make it onto the news and into the mainstream? That is a challenge for both the campaigners and for the media. Both need to show more imagination.

 

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31 thoughts on “No more austerity: are protests ‘news’?

  1. Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    “Those kinds of numbers go to premier league football matches every week, and we wouldn’t call that news.” But the BBC covers those Premier League football matches every time they take place!
    Interesting questions here about what campaigners need to do in order to be heard by a media that has an increasingly narrow focus – mostly, as pointed out here, on Nigel Farage.

  2. I was there last Saturday and the atmosphere of togetherness and solidarity was amazing. However, I agree with a lot of your post and it expresses a lot of the views that I have held against protests for a while. That may seem a weird thing to say after I attended the demo last weekend,

    Yet although I have always questioned the world from a young age and bemoaned the way in which governments operate, until last year I never attended a protest for three reasons. Firstly, the focus of particular protests by the media always tends to dilute the reason behind them (for instance, during the student protests of three years ago, there was a lot of focus on the man who threw the fire extinguisher down towards the street below). Secondly, with the exception of the Occupy movement, the overall format of protests and how they are carried out has really remained the same. Seeing the same type of protest again and again can make people inured to them. Thirdly, protests have tended to be reductionist in nature. People may know that a particular group is been treated badly and therefore decide to go to the protests as a result. But ask them for specific details as for the reasons for attending and they can become unstuck. Plus as you say, 50,000 (though a large number) is not going to make much noise. I also feel that protests are only as good as the work that follow them, otherwise any momentum that they have built up can be lost. Also any protest must be about the cause and not the celebrity behind them.

    What also does not help the image of protests is when people on social media use techniques that the mainstream media are criticised for to obfuscate what actually occurred. In the case of this protest, within minutes of it finishing, a picture showing people very congregated on the streets with banners claiming to be from the protest. I knew this was not the case and tweeted so. It was in fact a photo taken of an NUT march in 2011.

    While I do not agree that this was an effort by the mainstream media to block out, I can in some way understand why people think this. When reports have been twisted statistically, or particular groups have a positive or negative bias attached to them regardless of the context of the story, it not surprising that people draw to the conclusion that certain protests are been blacked out.

    • Thanks Chris – and there are a couple of things I didn’t mention on the post that might be relevant. One is that protests have other functions than generating media interests. Helping feelings of solidarity, for one, and making contacts for another. The second is that we now have, through the social media, another outlet, and one which the mainstream media needs to pay attention to. I suspect the BBC’s little post and video was put up largely as a response to the twitter activity, for example.

  3. I read this and agreed with many of the (very considered) comments.
    Then I thought I’d take a look at what interest the BBC had given to other such protests that weren’t in the UK
    Google makes it pretty easy to do this by searching:
    site: bbc.co.uk austerity protest
    This results in a focus on the bbc website and those words.
    Interestingly (as Paul points out on Twitter) the initial view would be that, indeed riots and violence are key to getting reported and the ‘hell of a lot of protests since’ the 2010 general report on non-violent protest action have been ignored.
    On reflection this could perfectly substantiate Paul’s blog.
    I’ve got a slightly different view.
    Firstly – BBC news is likely (just by location) to give added weight to domestic news. In this context – any large protest gathering (rather than sporting event) is big news – regardless of the apparent ‘moderate’ numbers.
    Secondly – Moving 50k+ people to protest in a non-violent manner has held BBC attention in the past. Liberty and Livelihood (way back in 2002) was reported extensively from the earliest few dozen thousands right the way up to the largest gathering of 400k+

    The point surely, is that whilst the BBC are unlikely to have a silence conspiracy (let’s be honest – the rest of the press have written more words on BBC non-report than they have on the actual protest – so equally culpable) it is very likely that the BBC has taken a view on the actual relevance of the protest.

    Liberty and Livelihood was seen by the BBC as a ‘proper’ protest. It had sides. Those agin and those for hunting.

    Anti-austerity only has one side, and a Gov. That type of protest makes it more challenging to report, because the outcome is predetermined. One group protests and the Gov ignores.

    If it were an election year it would be news. It isn’t, so it has reduced newsworthy relevance, and becomes easy to ignore.;

    Greenham Common women had the same issue – they were there for years, but only sporadically had ‘relevance’ that got them featured on the news.

    Paul’s last comment is for us all to have more imagination. I’m up for that challenge and promise to do something in the next couple of weeks that will be both imaginative and have the possibility of permanently changing things.

    I’ll tell Paul first.

  4. Sorry Paul but 50,000 bored students and one comedian don’t make a convincing protest movement – any more than a few thousand angry tweeters shouting no more austerity and cut the cuts. You’d need at least a million people, marching from Birmingham to London, with two or three charismatic leaders, to make the media even consider turning up.

    The problem is, protesting is easy (many doing it see it as a jolly day out) – but coming up with a coherent, economically and socially literate, and motivating alternative that enough people can understand and agree on is damned difficult.

    Let’s face it, the Labour party (with the might of its electoral machine, trade union backing and heaps of focus group data) has had the best part of four years to put forward an alternative and has pretty much failed to convince anyone, even its core supporters, that it will do anything different (can anyone even sum up what Ed Balls would do?).

    While the protesters arguments remain inchoate, the public and media will remain largely disinterested. And it is not up to the BBC or any other news gatherer to focus on this just because a few people think it is important – it is up to those protesting to convince the media (and the public) it really is important.

    You claim the “movements behind [the protests], and the debates that they’re trying to put forward are certainly, in my view, politically relevant” – but that’s just your view – in truth they are not relevant because they offer no substance. The protesters never put forward concrete, real world proposals – they simply complain (“we don’t want to pay tuition fees” in other words “we want you to pay our tuition fees”) and call for some vague unobtainable utopia such as “a fair society.”

    Now if those protesting would commit the time an energy to forming party groups in their home constituencies, agreeing a platform of radical policies (including say LVT to break the monopoly of the landowners, abolishing the monarchy and all titles, reform of the second chamber, proportional representation in council elections, equalisation of constituency boundaries, and an English devolved parliament),and fielding credible candidates in local elections they might be on to something – and they might shift the political debate in their favour.

    But they need to get organised, they need to develop clear, understandable policies that offer people real benefits, and they need to start now to be in with a chance at the 2030 General Election.

    Kind regards

    @HuwSayer

    PS: Over 250,000 people protested against the end of the GLD in 1986, the govt ignored them. The stop the war march in Feb 2003 mustered 750,000-1m people – and the govt ignored them. The pro-hunting lobby got over 250,000 out to march in 1998 and then over 400,000 in 2002 and the govt ignored them. Each time the government successfully argued it had a mandate – the same is said today (anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand how our electoral system works). The numbers marching don’t translate into political support/rejection (if they did MT and TB would not have won third terms). You have to win seats to change policy.

    • I don’t disagree with anything there significantly – though the last line ‘you have to win seats to change policy’ is being challenged somewhat by UKIP, who have no seats and seem to have driven the policies of the Tories and Labour to change over immigration, for example – but I’m not sure your suggestion that alternatives to austerity haven’t been argued coherently is necessarily the point. Have arguments in favour of austerity been argued coherently? Economic evidence is unconvincing, and the idea that somehow public spending was causally related to the financial crash is one that has little logic to support it.

      I’d agree – and indeed I hope I hinted as much in my piece – that campaigners need a new way to do this, and new and better expressed arguments.

      • I think UKIP have some seats – just not in the UK parliament – and the Tories are responding because of the threat they might lose seats in that parliament.

        Private arguments might have been coherent but those in public have not – and there is certainly no coherent alternative being proposed by any party that would make sense to the voters. The logic of austerity might not stand up to serious economic challenge but it works for most people: we spent too much, we lost a lot, we have to spend less and save more. (Telling people they don’t understand the real ‘economic’ arguments or jumbling up stuff about debt and deficits, only turns them off.)

  5. Reblogged this on amnesiaclinic and commented:
    A thoughtful analysis about the non-reporting of the anti-austerity march last Saturday. If 50,000 people did some really good follow up action then it would make a real difference.
    Thinking caps on!!

    x

  6. Protest marches expecting the political class to somehow magically change course which will not happen.

    The public do not watch anything to do with politics on TV.

    The public believe austerity is to stop the scrounging somewhat criminal unemployed living off them, the working taxpayer. That doesn’t come from politicians. It is a belief that went viral centuries ago.

    If the 50,000 people on the protest all became members of Trade Unionist and Socialist Coaliton or Left Unity Party or Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall, and then spread the word of the existence of those socialist parties on their social media, then more and more of the public would know that there are parties to vote into power that would end austerity and welfare reform aka abolition of the welfare state.

    Instead none of these blogs talk of parties that could deliver what the protest marches want.

    See the banned TUSC video (OK to see now that May 22 council elections come and gone) on my personal website:
    http://www.theswansnewparty.org.uk

    • Clicked on your website link – clicked back almost immediately. Way too busy and noisy.
      Unfortunately this acts as a salient message in this context.
      You may well have something valid and important to say, but if it isn’t made accessible it will be ignored.
      The BBC didn’t make information about this protest accessible and it will (likely) suffer a similar fate.

  7. The BBC receive the license fee from most people in the uk (i wont mention how they achieve this as its a different convo) as such they are more beholden to the public to provide a wide range of news because the public directly pay for it. if the public have gathered in large numbers and they are presumably fee payers, if ignored (i think only the guardian covered it on the day) then what message does that send to the general public and the protesters? once the general public found out that there had been a protest and they hadnt been informed by their so loved BBC in a funny kind of way it did something that no other outlet could have done for them… they showed the public that they are not as trustworthy, diverse and unbias (lol)as they once thought, even has people wondering what else they arent being shown.. could they (bbc) possibly have shot themselves in the foot? people were videoing themselves phoning the complaints department and being hung up on once they revealed what their complaint was about i think this is the reason for the begrudged .vid clip and few words on the subject was finally put out the following day. it remains to be seen if they loose any credibility in the view of the public and if any of them stop purchasing their license. i dont include myself in this because i saw this a long time ago from the bbc and no longer purchase a license, i dont watch live tv either so dont need one (before anyone calls the evader hotline lol)

  8. Well 50,000 people marched in Stafford to save our hospital but the beeb prefers to list to one woman who was given a CBE for her services to the privatisation of the NHS than people who know what they are on about, but I suppose sensationalist lies are better news than than the truth.

  9. It’s possible they felt “key celebrity” Russell Brand has had quite enough of the oxygen of publicity… ;-)

  10. Was thinking about protests the week before and whether they’re effective, let alone newsworthy.

    I was wondering if protesting by telling people what you think is wrong and what should be done is repellant. In the sense that it just pushes away non-involved people: both on the street and in the media.

    Protests are, maybe, like broadcast media, an anachronism. A way of talking about change that makes no sense in world of fragmented issues and social media.

    Blog is at http://acuitydesign.blogspot.com/2014/06/undemo-creating-public-debate.html

    • Yes, I think for the most part you’re right: conventional protests are an anachronism, except in highly unusual circumstances. When they’re huge, when they’re truly desperate, they have a big place, though – and creative use of them can be very important.

  11. Something to consider – if a large and peaceful protest is not deemed newsworthy and is ignored (for whatever reason) by most of the media, how long before demos mutate into something they WILL take notice of ?

    Or to put it another way, if peaceful protest doesn’t cut it, lets try violent protest instead. (I’m not advocating that course, just making the point…)

    Perhaps Boris has been thinking ahead on this one, with his water cannons ?

  12. how long before some decide to recreate 2011, that was reported (by all media from the beginning) even before the trigger was known and consisted of a hell of a lot less people. Before people say anything , yes I know it grew to more areas, the participant count grew and the trigger was identified that made it even more newsworthy. But don’t be surprised if it happens as we don’t have a Guy Fawkes

  13. The fact the march started at the BBC concerns me,for some time now the BBC as been attacked by Libertarians for it to be destroyed.yet C4,5 sky & ITV also never reported this & other protest,in not reporting it the BBC has upset the left & many did start calling the BBC existence into question,yet nothing about the others,with the BBC connection’s to Murdoch & we know is intentions in that area,i believe the BBC is deliberately being undermined & it’s failure to report like all the others is meant to gain support from those who would normally defend the BBC.the BBC is fighting for it’s survival this am afraid is the real truth behind the silence,the Greek national press was closed for reporting such protest,am afraid truth is the loser in all of this ,it also proves we do not have a free press.

  14. I wonder if any pop groups would have the courage to put on a concert for ‘Britain’s In Need’?
    Maybe a series of picnics around the country where people can get together and share ‘A day of Loaves and Fishes’?
    Combined with the march / demonstration.

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