Show Hide image

Occupy the media: Laurie Penny on the freedom of press

Dissatisfaction with mainstream journalism is leading to a profound change in the way that protest is reported.

Of all the many outrages, anticipated and unanticipated, that I have seen perpetrated by American police against peaceful protesters and members of the public this week, perhaps the most chilling has been their harassment of journalists on the job.

As law enforcement cracked down on Occupy encampments around the country, a pattern began to emerge whereby officers moved in the small hours of the morning, held members of the press in police "pens" away from the evictions, and arrested them if they stepped out of line.

Supporters of the movement were quick to cry "censorship", and to point to a possible co-ordinated media blackout when the Oakland Mayor, Jean Quan, let slip in an interview that she had discussed how to deal with the protests on a conference call with other city leaders. The issue at stake here, however, is not merely the freedom of the press, but the role of the media in a time of profound cultural and political change.

In all, 26 journalists have been arrested while covering the Occupy movement to date. As New York State senator Eric Adams and attorney Norman Siegel put it in a strongly-worded letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly this week:

Whenever a government interferes with the role of the press in reporting the news, questions pertaining to the appropriateness and legality of these actions arise and evoke extreme concern.

Holding the police to account has always been one of the toughest and most crucial roles of the fourth estate, and in New York, the path to honest reporting is particularly thorny, as the only press passes recognised by the New York Police Department are issued by the department itself to individual journalists, who are required to submit their work and attend police interviews in advance.

In Britain, press unions and employers provide accreditation -- but one of the first things I was taught in journalism school was to "be very, very careful what you say about the police. They can and will sue you, and they rarely lose a case."

Across the west, journalists have learned deference to police forces just as they have learned deference to the political establishment -- but over the past year, the objectives of the police and the press have been, for once, decidedly at odds.

Not so long ago, it was easy to tell at any given protest who were the demonstrators and who were the journalists. The latter stood well apart from any action taking place, smartly dressed and coiffed, and they would be the ones with the cameras and recording gear. The people made a noise and the press wrote it up -- or not, deciding between themselves and their editors what did and did not get to be reported as fact.

Now, journalists are just as likely to be young people in casual clothes, running in and out of the crowd, tweeting and blogging from smartphones and broadcasting from handheld recording devices. They look, in other words, just like the protesters.

Many of the members of the press arrested over the past month in America match this description, and a significant number of those harassed are members of small independent outlets, or freelance reporters broadcasting directly to their online followers.

The changing role of the press in an age of digital empowerment and civil unrest has been drawn in bold colours over the course of the Occupy movement around the world.

Not only is much of the best, fastest and most accurate copy and footage being produced by journalists who are not accredited -- and who therefore have to fear for their safety on demonstrations just as much as the protesters who have been pepper sprayed and beaten bloody this week. Many of them are not even journalists in the traditional sense. Increasing numbers are bystanders, interested amateurs, or members of the occupations themselves, shooting footage on phones and pocket cameras, writing up eyewitness reports on Twitter and Facebook.

There's another problem for the authorities: not only do more of the journalists look like protesters, more of the protesters behave like journalists.

You can bar every reporter from the scene of a camp eviction, you can pen them way away from the action and rip off their credentials when they complain, you can arrest every single person with a press pass, and there will still be recording, publishing and broadcast technology beyond any 1990s news editor's most nicotine-addled fantasies right there in the sterile zone.

The most striking thing about what look increasingly like co-ordinated media blackouts around the crackdown on Occupy protests -- staging evictions in the small hours of the morning, closing down transport routes and banning and arresting journalists -- is how roundly they have failed.

We still had images of an elderly woman in Seattle with her face red and streaming after being pepper sprayed by police; we still had video records of students screaming as UC Davis campus police officers tortured them with chemical spray during a peaceful sit-down protest.

The fact that law enforcement agencies were so obviously reluctant for such footage to be collected, even before they moved in, makes the crackdown on Occupy movements look really rather suspicious -- but it also shows that police no longer feel they can rely on a tame press to report their version of events.

The kids don't have to wait any more for traditional news reporters to spin their message for them. A hostile tension has long been maintained between activists and members of what Americans call the "mainstream media" and the British term the "corporate press", who are seen to be fostering stubborn editorial bias under a veneer of "objectivity".

Natasha Lennard, a former freelancer for the New York Times who was arrested during the Brooklyn Bridge kettle on 1 October, wrote in an article for Salon that:

If the mainstream media prides itself on reporting the facts, I have found too many problems with what does or does not get to be a fact -- or what rises to the level of a fact they believe to be worth reporting -- to be part of such a machine ... I want to take responsibility for my voice and the facts that I choose and relay. I want them to instigate change.

More and more journalists, reporters and citizens sane enough not to write for a living are finding themselves facing a choice: do we accept and perpetuate the line handed down to us, or do we take responsibility for our own voice?

Distrust of the police, dissatisfaction with mainstream media bias and dissidents' hunger to control their own messaging is leading to a profound change in the way that protest is covered and reported.

Members of the public can record and upload their own footage without waiting for it to be collected by the mainstream press, and the network moves fast, leaving traditional media outlets rushing to keep up with the story.

The first videos of police violence against demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street in late September were recorded by a bystander and uploaded to YouTube. They went viral, changing the narrative around the fledgling occupation and forcing the mainstream media to respond to the public outcry.

Control of the agenda is no longer in the hands of the police or of the corporate press, and digitally enabled young people are forcing honest, capable journalists to up their game.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Macron celebrates 100 days in office with historically low approval ratings

He knows whose fault it is... and it's not his.

Clouds are accumulating over Jupiter. Today marks 100 days in the French presidency of Emmanuel Macron, the cunning “neither left nor right” politician with a grand vision for France who has been compared to the aforementioned king of Roman gods, France’s Sun King Louis XIV, and Napoleon, the last of whom Macron only just loses out to as the youngest French ruler since the Revolution. There’s just one problem with the narrative - the French people don’t seem to agree.

Macron’s approval ratings have plummeted over the summer, to reach an all-time low for any modern-era president's first 100 days of 36 per cent. That’s 10 points lower than his predecessor – and former boss – Francois Hollande, whose nickname right after his election in 2012 was “Flamby”, the French equivalent to a very floppy pudding. It's much lower than Nicolas Sarkozy, to whom Macron has been compared for his relative youth and flamboyant style: at 100 days, “Sarko” was sailing with 66 per cent (though he would fall to 34 per cent during his later “bling” period, never recovering enough for the 2012 election). That's even a point below Donald Trump's own ratings, and the US President is a few steps away from causing the apocalypse.

There are many explanations for this abysmal drop: rows have developed over the summer, including one over a planned housing aid cut and another after the general-in-chief quit over army budget cuts (the general's approval ratings in the row were much higher than the president’s). The French Parliament, which is controlled by his party La République en Marche, has also allowed the government to use rulings to reform the French labour market rather than putting them to a full vote.

But Macron thinks he knows the real reasons his popularity has fallen. MPs from his party are deemed inexperienced, his ministers don’t speak enough to the press and his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, “doesn’t leave enough of a mark” on the public. Basically, it's not his fault – nevermind that his vision detailed all the things he is blaming: a renewed Assembly, a very restricive media strategy, and a PM who would remain in the president’s shadow.

To find a similarly unpopular French President near the start of his term, you must go back to 1995 and newly-elected Jacques Chirac’s attempt to makes cuts in the sacred French healthcare system, la Sécurité Sociale, which left voters feeling betrayed. He recovered, topping 63 per cent in 1999, but in 2002 was unpopular again and only got re-elected (with an astounding 82 per cent) because he was facing far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in the runoff. Remind you of anyone? Actually, even that isn't a favourable comparison, as Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen last May was much less of a landslide, with 65 per cent.

Not all is lost, though. Now 84, Jacques Chirac saw the tide of public opinion turn in in his favour, at least after his presidency. He has been named "most likeable president" by the French people and has become a meme, notably on the viral Tumblr dedicated to photos of his mandates, FuckYeahJacquesChirac.

Macron’s own Tumblr fans aren’t quite as famous yet, but he will need all the help he can get if he wants his authority to survive past the autumn’s planned social movements.