Beyond the spectacle

How can the anti-cuts movement break through the media’s short attention span?

Violence is good television; peace is not. The people who smash things know this. They aren't necessarily natural vandals who would go around breaking windows or setting fire to pallets – though let's not rule that out – but they know the best way to be looked at is to break something. The naughty child in a classroom who always plays up gets the most attention from the teacher, while everyone else working quietly can be ignored.

It's the same reason why terrorists try to blow up aeroplanes rather than organising 200 separate fatal car crashes: one will make the news worldwide, the other will not. Break something, charge a police line, chuck a brick, arrange a colourful stunt – you'll get coverage, while thousands of people can march peacefully along in the background, completely ignored.

News channels think that footage of someone smashing a window or chucking paint at Top Shop are more interesting to their viewers than staring at Ed Miliband's face. They may be right. As Charlie Beckett says, we shouldn't necessarily go blaming the media if the "wrong" messages are taken away from an event by news outlets. The rolling news channels think their viewers are like dozing, elderly, half-blind cats who need a poke in the ribs and a bit of wool dangled in their whiskers before they get interested; they've either hugely miscalculated their audience, or they know them all too well.

The short attention span of the viewer, fingers forever poised over the remote control, demands that excitement be maintained in whatever way is possible. The sight of things being smashed is sexier to look at than tens of thousands of peaceful protesters slowly processing along a prearranged marching route. After a few seconds, you get banner fatigue, and quickly start wondering what's on the other channel.

None of this is a glib dismissal of Saturday's March for the Alternative, or an assertion that it was all a waste of time; the event was a coming together of many different groups with a range of viewpoints, sharing common ground over a way forward that doesn't have to involve the savagery of cuts planned by the coalition government. It was a wonderful show of feeling and determination, and could prove to be a springboard for a wider grass-roots movement. But the difficulty in getting the message across, without having your peaceful protest hijacked by rent-a-mob or having your movement tainted by the actions of unconnected others, is evident.

So what impression are we left with, those of us who didn't attend? Do we think of the thousands of smiling faces, the high spirits, the masses of families and individuals getting together for a shared cause? Or are we left with the sinister fag-end of the day's events – the reports of light bulbs filled with ammonia or fireworks stuffed with coins, the "anarchists" and troublemakers, regardless of what relation they had to the vast majority of protesters?

Where the anti-cuts movement goes from here, and how it conveys its aims, will determine its success. Building a broad grass-roots movement takes time, effort and hard work, most of which is going to happen away from the cameras, away from big events like Saturday's, away from the troubleseekers and troublemakers, too. That's where the battle will be won or lost.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.