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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle