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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.

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”