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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser