Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A demonstration of impotence


In the end, I'm half-glad, half-sorry I couldn't go to the demonstration against the government's new protest exclusion zone around Parliament.

Half-glad, not only because it meant I wouldn't be arrested (which can't be pleasant, no matter how much of a martyr you may wish to be), but also because the whole event was a bit of a damp squib. I say this partly because I saw the feeble media coverage, and partly because nothing very much happened except a bit of point-scoring by both sides.

First, the media coverage. There was no report of the demonstration on the BBC Ten O'Clock News. There was a (very) brief report on BBC London, straight after the main news. The report made it look as if the 'usual suspects' (disaffected lefties and trouble-makers) had turned up for a meaningless protest. The cameras made sure they were pointed at the core group of protesters, so that there appeared to be only about thirty people there (the actual number between seventy and three hundred, depending on which source you read). They also made sure they filmed a verbal altercation between the campaigners and some upper-middle-class buffoon who just happened to be passing by and decided to castigate the demonstrators for diverting police attention away from fighting terrorism. Finally, the cameras made sure they concentrated on the placards reading everything from "Justice for Palestine" to "Bring the Troops Home". Which begs the question - if you're going to have a protest against limiting the right to demonstrate, why the hell mix up all the other (perfectly reasonable, but irrelevant) left-wing causes in the same protest? It doesn't reinforce the message, it dilutes it. The viewing public, watching the report, would have come away with no idea of what the protest was about, and the impression that "it's that bunch of leftie loonies again".

All right, this is not the fault of the demonstrators - they can't control what the media chooses to report, and how those reports are edited. But they, like all of us, live in a media-savvy age and they must have been aware of how the media would try to control the message. Targeting the protest more efficiently might have ensured the real message got through better, instead of being written off as 'same old same old'. Now you're going to ask me how I would have done that. Read on.

Second, the protest itself doesn't seem to have been up to much. I'm not just judging this on the basis of the BBC's coverage. Bringing out a few hundred people in such an important cause looks like a fairly pathetic (and apathetic) response. According to Blurred Clarity's report all was going well until the police handed out a dispersal order. Read that again: no baton charges (there were cameras there, the police aren't stupid) - just handing out a dispersal order. The response was clever but, again, irrelevant: Tim pointed out that the dispersal order breached copyright. Tim, I have huge amounts of respect for you, as you know, but did you really think that this kind of response was going to be greeted with anything other than indifference and contempt by the police? And do you think BTex, who own the copyright on the map used, are really going to sue the police or the Home Office? You may be technically in the right, but this sort of intellectual point-scoring merely looks childish.

Anyway, as Tim points out in his report, there were no arrests of high-profile people like Lauren Booth, just little old ladies and a Palestinian. The police successfully kept the event low-key and low-hysteria. They know how to 'manage the message'.

As I said above, though, I'm half-sorry I couldn't go, because this law is perverse and I would have liked to have made some kind of public statement about it (there's no point in writing to my MP because, as I have reported previously, he is a lobotomised Blairite). There is no doubt in my mind that the present government wishes to restrict the right to protest as much as it can get away with. It had a bad shock when the anti-war protest brought over a million people onto the streets of London in February 2003. It doesn't want that to happen again. Armed with the handy excuse of a terrorist threat, it can now restrict democratic freedoms with relative impunity, comfortable in the knowledge that laws are rarely repealed, the majority of the population can be 'messaged' into compliance and the government ministers will all have retired by the time any of this comes back to haunt their successors. The right to protest should be a fundamental right of any civilised society. At the moment it is being eroded.

Nobody comes out of this with much credit. The protesters were in trouble the moment they called the protest: first, because the law came into effect on a Monday - and good luck with getting any mass movement together on a Monday afternoon, especially in the holiday season - and second, because the whole thing was managed by the Stop the War Coalition. The StWC was a breath of fresh air in 2003, but it has now fallen back to being yet another predictable pressure group, like CND. Whatever the rightness of its cause (and I agree with much of it in principle), it has suffered from a mixture of success and failure: the million-person protest meant it peaked right at the start, but the protest did not succeed in altering government policy, so the StWC suffered the double whammy of raised expectations and total lack of result (England cricket team, anyone?). No wonder support fell away, and they were left with only the most dedicated and fanatical.

The government looks stupid, too. This law was (off the record) brought in to remove the embarrassment of Brian Haw, who has carried out a one-man protest against the Iraq War in Parliament Square since 2001. He won his court case - the law does not (currently) apply to him. So they are left with the legacy of a law introduced to silence one individual, which has ended up applying to everyone in the country except that individual. You couldn't make it up.

And the police have to put up with having their reources diverted from terrorist duties to policing a peaceful group of protestors. They have to put up with new forms being filled in by people wanting to stage demonstrations, so yet more admin. And they have to be shown in the national media arresting the elderly and non-white.

A protest isn't going to have any impact until it hits critical mass. Marching against the Iraq War was easy. People could understand the issue. They could understand why it was wrong, and they felt it would make this country less safe (they were right, there). A new pressure group caught the public imagination. The march was on a Saturday, outside the holiday season. The decision had not yet been taken by government. There was everything to hope for, every reason to feel optimistic. Even the police were on our side.

Compare that with yesterday. An obscure law is passed, and it doesn't even fulfil its purpose. No one is really aware (apart from the protestors and, presumably, the government) what the law means. It doesn't affect the security of the average Briton - it only affects those who have something to protest about, and Britons don't usually do much more than grumble down the pub. The protest is held on a Monday afternoon. It's fronted by the Sort of People Who Usually Complain About This Sort of Thing, whose track record on changing government policy is non-existent. It's held at a time when people's focus is on whether or not they're going to get blown up on their way to work. In short, it's easy to write off.

How would I have done it differently? I'd have let this one go. On reflection, the protest may have been morally right, but tactically it was useless. It could never achieve the kind of critical mass that ended the Poll Tax. Morality one, effectiveness nil. Perhaps it's good that I couldn't go, or I might be sitting here fuming, feeling even more powerless than I usually do.

Anyway, you can read the "I was there" reports here, here, here, and here (I particularly recommend the last one, for its sense of perspective).


Blogger Tim said...

On copyright: not intellectual point-scoring, but a valid reason for those in attendance to refuse receipt of the dispersal order.

I share your views about mixed messages... which is why I went armed with 250 on-issue posters. However... issues like Iraq are what make this law necessary from Blair's point of view. Same goes for the 'security' screens in the Commons.

250 posters... of which there were 50 left at the end of the day. Not everyone wanted one, either. My '300' figure is based mostly on this and I think it's a fair estimate.

Still, on Teh Usual Suspects and general malaise, we're in complete agreement. But I'm working on it...


12:55 pm  
Blogger Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I believe that it was better to do something yesterday by turning up and standing up rather than doing nothing.

There is always plenty of time for talk and complaining about the flimsyness of such events but that's easy. The hard bit is staying there while arrests are being made.

Come along next time.

1:32 pm  
Blogger Oscar Wildebeest said...

Tim: thanks. I should have given another mention to your posters, which were excellent and right on the nose. If they'd been the only things on display, your message would certainly have had more impact.

Daniel: Oh, dear. I really, really want to agree with you. Of course talk is always easier than action. Of course it's usually better to do something than to do nothing. I just don't think what was done on Monday was done in the right way, and I'm not sure that it's really advanced the cause of free speech and liberty in the UK. The government is a great juggernaut, and it doesn't stop unless it meets another juggernaut. A few well-attended, well-organised, well-timed protests will work much better than a motley crew of oddballs (this is not how I perceive you, this is how the GBP perceive you, and good luck with changing that perception) turning up and waving the same placards once a month.

I look forward to the protests about ID cards, because I think we're going to see some real action there. Especially if the price is too high...

12:37 pm  

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