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.

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

0800 7318496