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15 December 2010

What the royal poking says about our media

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

By Alison Banville

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.

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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