What the royal poking says about our media

Coverage of the student protests shows the limits of media impartiality in Britain.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, reportedly offered his resignation over the Charles and Camilla student protest debacle. What else could a man of integrity do in such circumstances? Surely the gravity of the situation demands nothing less?

The mainstream media's reporting of these events has been fascinating and raises some very important questions about the nature of its relationship to our country's elite – as well as the implications of that relationship for truth and democracy.

Of course, anyone can see that Charles and Camilla's car being attacked is a story – but the priority given to it, and the horror with which the mainstream media have shrieked their disapproval, reflects more than just ordinary journalistic pragmatism. It reveals the media's allegiances.

As Laurie Penny reported, children were being beaten up by the police as the royal family had their brief brush with the mob – not that you would know this if you chose to find out what was going on by watching TV news. They have laid bare their pro-establishment bias in the starkest way since these student protests began, including the embedded assumption that what happens to a member of the elite is of far more importance than what happens to those challenging the elite.

This explains why we have had the Charles and Camilla incident trumpeted with all the indignation of a major atrocity while the injuries of protesters at the hands of police have been sidelined in the media or omitted altogether.

Only when the student Alfie Meadows underwent brain surgery, after being beaten over the head with a baton, did we get a hint that the picture painted by the mainstream media was not entirely accurate.

The media narrative is absolutely clear. Even as I write, Adam Boulton is on Sky News talking to Theresa May: "Can you confirm that Camilla was actually poked with a stick?"

Try to imagine Boulton asking different questions: "Can you confirm the police hit a boy so hard on the head that he needed brain surgery? Can you confirm police dragged a disabled boy from his wheelchair during the protest?"

Whether they are dependent on advertising, like Sky, or led by a government-appointed board, like the BBC, our media simply cannot tell the truth when their governing interests are implicated in the story.

The roles were cast long before the play began. The police are always the good guys in this drama. Police violence is justifiable, while any overt wrongdoing will be attributed to "bad apples". Institutional corruption will not be countenanced – meaning that inexplicably abandoned police vans and unprotected political party headquarters will only leave journalists scratching their heads, while the words "police provocateurs" never pass their lips.

The complicity of the media in portraying the students as violent and the police as victims becomes clear to people after they have seen at first hand how the police deal with protests. The crime researcher Jacqui Karn, in the kettle last Thursday, gives a compelling account of the sense of bewilderment that follows this experience:

On getting home last night, I was stunned to see journalists had not told the whole story of the protest that I witnessed. Instead, the focus on the [attacks] on the royals and the Treasury, shocking though they are, [has] allowed for sensationalist coverage and tough talk. This seems to have left little room for debate about the appropriateness of these tactics, particularly against children.

Compare this to ITV News's Keir Simmons, who helpfully told viewers that "what the police are trying to do is facilitate peaceful protest". I'm sure the Met's press officer could not have been more pleased with him. It was Simmons who, after the first student protest, informed us that violence had been planned long before the event – because activist websites stated that "direct action" and "civil disobedience" were planned.

I sent him a quotation that could have been plucked from one of these websites – "We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action" – only this was Martin Luther King, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It would be news to King that his words were proof of support for violence, and to Gandhi, too, who urged his followers to engage in active resistance.

Simmons did not reply to my email. But as the Media Lens editors David Edwards and David Cromwell have observed, "No one expected the Soviet Communist Party's newspaper Pravda to tell the truth about the Communist Party; why should we expect the corporate press to tell the truth about corporate power?"

Alison Banville is a campaigner on human rights, animal rights and environmental and political issues

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.