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Demonising the young won’t heal our cities, writes Laurie Penny

It's vital that we resist the easy story of "us" and "them".

The resilience of Londoners approaches cultural cliché. Just up from Camden Lock, on the morning after the worst night of civil unrest in living memory, people were going back and forth with brooms and bin bags, looking for something left to clean. The glass, debris and burning bins from the previous night's riots had already been swept away by the first eager Londoners to arrive. Five women, some white, some Asian, were holding large pink signs reading "free hugs". They had already been to Brixton.

I accepted a cuddle. It was that sort of morning.Across London, an enormous clean-up campaign swept through the shattered boroughs, organised over the same social networks that rioters had used to co-ordinate looting and arson. It quickly became clear that social media, contrary to initial panicked reports, was morally neutral in this crisis. In Clapham Junction, hundreds of people stood together and raised their brooms. Some had come from across the city to show support. The website that had been set up only hours earlier to bring together cleaning campaigns crashed due to a surge of traffic from volunteers.

Elsewhere, stories of solidarity were filtering through over the feeds: of local Jewish and Muslim youths banding together to protect a Stamford Hill synagogue from rioters, of anarchist groups in Hackney putting out fires where the emergency services were stretched. People called their friends to check that they were safe and opened their homes to strangers who had no way of crossing town. This, commentators began to assure each other, was the "real Britain". As I write, no member of the beleaguered cabinet has yet dared to use the term "Big Society".

The narrative being encouraged by most politicians is one of social division: of "us" and "them", of "real" British citizens mopping up after the "mindless" young hooligans.

Party leaders vow to punish looters who, they insist, are engaging in a “pure criminality" with no social precedent. Right-wing commentators pointed the finger at multiculturalism, single parents - anything except austerityand unemployment. Twitter was alight with racist indignation on Tuesday morning, and some people discussing the clean-up urged volunteers to "sweep away the scum". News outlets trying to explain the chaos focused on social media rather than social breakdown.

New broom needed

A clean-up operation is one thing, but vigilantism on the streets is quite another. The impulse to defend one's community is absolutely understandable, and citizens cannot be faulted for organising to patrol their neighbourhoods against arson attacks, but reports of gangs of EDL members yelling racist slogans at young black men in Eltham are extremely worrying. So are the professed liberals calling for water cannon and rubber bullets to be deployed.

Those using the various manifestations of this "fightback" to confirm their own prejudices would do well to remember how the Clapham broom brigade reacted when Boris Johnson arrived to congratulate them on their hard work. Shouts of "this is your fault" and "how was your holiday, Boris?" greeted the mayor, who had only just returned after three days of rioting to "take charge".

He did so by making helpers clear the area and pause their clean-up operation while he posed, broom in hand, for press photos. He then put down the broom and made a hasty exit from a crowd murmuring about closed community centres.

As panicked politicians with little understanding of social disorder fight to reclaim the narrative, it is vital that we resist the easy story of "us"
and "them".Because the truth is that it's all "us". The disorder will continue until we acknowledge that the young people who rampaged through Manchester, Liverpool, Brixton, Tottenham and 50 boroughs of London are as much a part of the "real Britain" as those who nobly came out the next morning to clear the debris from their trashed high streets. The language of "true Brits" defending themselves against a feral underclass is precisely the language of social division that predicated these riots.

Civil unrest is a frightening thing, but more racism, more violence and more young people being demonised will not heal our cities.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

Oli Scarff / Stringer
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Does the media's herd instinct risk them missing the real story yet again?

 The warning from 2015 and 2016: what matters in the flurry of the campaign may not matter at all the morning after polling

In an election campaign, everyone is on the lookout for political bias on TV. They usually search in vain because journalists prefer a good story to parading their party affiliations. And in any case the regulation by stopwatch during a campaign means there’s little chance to indulge one party over another when on-air time is being closely monitored.

But that doesn’t stop unfairness caused by the herd instincts of journalists seeking headlines; and what seems like a natural hunt for a story to broadcasting insiders can come across very differently when you’re outside the Westminster and London media bubble.

In 2015, the narrative was simple: there was going to be a hung parliament. The polls said it, so it must be true; and the Conservatives had enormous success in getting everyone to froth about the prospects of a Labour-SNP coalition. For day after day, the game was trying to get Ed Miliband or a senior Labour figure to rule out – or tacitly accept – that there might be a coalition with Nicola Sturgeon; and every programme that obsessed about that subject missed a much bigger story. What would happen if the Conservatives won an overall majority? What was their programme for government? Instead there was an awakening immediately after the election in which the nation discovered that the manifesto commitments – including an in-out referendum on Europe – might be for real.

The referendum campaign in 2016 was also plagued by an obsession with process over policy; and, I suspect with hindsight, a belief that Remain would win in the end. We were minutely informed about the manoeuvrings within the Conservative Party – “blue on blue knife-fights” and all – and about the Labour worries that Jeremy Corbyn was making a poor fist of it. There was a much less conspicuous attempt to outline what ‘Leave’ might look like, and many of the network bulletins endlessly recycled the same soundbites about the economy or immigration. The interest in internal Tory politics drove out the diversity of politicians backing Remain.

In 2017, the two big and related narratives were established from the start. First, the election result would be a Tory landslide; and second, Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless and is leading his party to an historic defeat. This means, paradoxically, that Conservative policy this time is being minutely scrutinised – hence the rows about pensioners’ entitlements and social care. By contrast, political correspondents rushed to put Labour’s manifesto launch into a context of 1983 and another lengthy suicide note; and there was an unmistakeable snarky tone in some of the reporting about Corbyn’s activities.

The narrative may yet be proved right. Third time lucky, and all that. But Theresa May was correct to point out at the weekend that she only needs to lose 6 seats to lose her parliamentary majority, and although she exaggerated by saying it would automatically mean Jeremy Corbyn moving into Downing Street, there are, questions of interest about what would happen if the Tories did lose seats. Tim Farron, for instance, is taking the position of ‘no coalitions’ and is asking for the Liberal Democrats to be a strong voice in opposition. Is that valid at a time of national need in the Brexit negotiations if the Commons arithmetic gives him unexpected power?

More generally, broadcasters should be mindful of their responsibility to give the electorate a chance to hear the views of the parties straight. The traditional way was to allow us first to know what was in the manifestoes without over-intrusive commentary, and yet there have been times in this campaign when I’ve felt we learn too much too quickly about a correspondent’s view of the agenda. Analysis matters a lot, but it has a place within programmes that is not in the opening script or driven home relentlessly through the main report. That is particularly the warning from 2015 and 2016: what matters very much in the flurry of the campaign may not matter at all when we wake up the morning after polling. Allowing for a range of outcomes is wise, and a democratic duty.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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