Of all the many outrages, anticipated and unanticipated, that I have seen perpetrated by American police against peaceful protesters and members of the public this week, perhaps the most chilling has been their harassment of journalists on the job.
As law enforcement cracked down on Occupy encampments around the country, a pattern began to emerge whereby officers moved in the small hours of the morning, held members of the press in police “pens” away from the evictions, and arrested them if they stepped out of line.
Supporters of the movement were quick to cry “censorship”, and to point to a possible co-ordinated media blackout when the Oakland Mayor, Jean Quan, let slip in an interview that she had discussed how to deal with the protests on a conference call with other city leaders. The issue at stake here, however, is not merely the freedom of the press, but the role of the media in a time of profound cultural and political change.
In all, 26 journalists have been arrested while covering the Occupy movement to date. As New York State senator Eric Adams and attorney Norman Siegel put it in a strongly-worded letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly this week:
Whenever a government interferes with the role of the press in reporting the news, questions pertaining to the appropriateness and legality of these actions arise and evoke extreme concern.
Holding the police to account has always been one of the toughest and most crucial roles of the fourth estate, and in New York, the path to honest reporting is particularly thorny, as the only press passes recognised by the New York Police Department are issued by the department itself to individual journalists, who are required to submit their work and attend police interviews in advance.
In Britain, press unions and employers provide accreditation — but one of the first things I was taught in journalism school was to “be very, very careful what you say about the police. They can and will sue you, and they rarely lose a case.”
Across the west, journalists have learned deference to police forces just as they have learned deference to the political establishment — but over the past year, the objectives of the police and the press have been, for once, decidedly at odds.
Not so long ago, it was easy to tell at any given protest who were the demonstrators and who were the journalists. The latter stood well apart from any action taking place, smartly dressed and coiffed, and they would be the ones with the cameras and recording gear. The people made a noise and the press wrote it up — or not, deciding between themselves and their editors what did and did not get to be reported as fact.
Now, journalists are just as likely to be young people in casual clothes, running in and out of the crowd, tweeting and blogging from smartphones and broadcasting from handheld recording devices. They look, in other words, just like the protesters.
Many of the members of the press arrested over the past month in America match this description, and a significant number of those harassed are members of small independent outlets, or freelance reporters broadcasting directly to their online followers.
The changing role of the press in an age of digital empowerment and civil unrest has been drawn in bold colours over the course of the Occupy movement around the world.
Not only is much of the best, fastest and most accurate copy and footage being produced by journalists who are not accredited — and who therefore have to fear for their safety on demonstrations just as much as the protesters who have been pepper sprayed and beaten bloody this week. Many of them are not even journalists in the traditional sense. Increasing numbers are bystanders, interested amateurs, or members of the occupations themselves, shooting footage on phones and pocket cameras, writing up eyewitness reports on Twitter and Facebook.
There’s another problem for the authorities: not only do more of the journalists look like protesters, more of the protesters behave like journalists.
You can bar every reporter from the scene of a camp eviction, you can pen them way away from the action and rip off their credentials when they complain, you can arrest every single person with a press pass, and there will still be recording, publishing and broadcast technology beyond any 1990s news editor’s most nicotine-addled fantasies right there in the sterile zone.
The most striking thing about what look increasingly like co-ordinated media blackouts around the crackdown on Occupy protests — staging evictions in the small hours of the morning, closing down transport routes and banning and arresting journalists — is how roundly they have failed.
We still had images of an elderly woman in Seattle with her face red and streaming after being pepper sprayed by police; we still had video records of students screaming as UC Davis campus police officers tortured them with chemical spray during a peaceful sit-down protest.
The fact that law enforcement agencies were so obviously reluctant for such footage to be collected, even before they moved in, makes the crackdown on Occupy movements look really rather suspicious — but it also shows that police no longer feel they can rely on a tame press to report their version of events.
The kids don’t have to wait any more for traditional news reporters to spin their message for them. A hostile tension has long been maintained between activists and members of what Americans call the “mainstream media” and the British term the “corporate press”, who are seen to be fostering stubborn editorial bias under a veneer of “objectivity”.
Natasha Lennard, a former freelancer for the New York Times who was arrested during the Brooklyn Bridge kettle on 1 October, wrote in an article for Salon that:
If the mainstream media prides itself on reporting the facts, I have found too many problems with what does or does not get to be a fact — or what rises to the level of a fact they believe to be worth reporting — to be part of such a machine … I want to take responsibility for my voice and the facts that I choose and relay. I want them to instigate change.
More and more journalists, reporters and citizens sane enough not to write for a living are finding themselves facing a choice: do we accept and perpetuate the line handed down to us, or do we take responsibility for our own voice?
Distrust of the police, dissatisfaction with mainstream media bias and dissidents’ hunger to control their own messaging is leading to a profound change in the way that protest is covered and reported.
Members of the public can record and upload their own footage without waiting for it to be collected by the mainstream press, and the network moves fast, leaving traditional media outlets rushing to keep up with the story.
The first videos of police violence against demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street in late September were recorded by a bystander and uploaded to YouTube. They went viral, changing the narrative around the fledgling occupation and forcing the mainstream media to respond to the public outcry.
Control of the agenda is no longer in the hands of the police or of the corporate press, and digitally enabled young people are forcing honest, capable journalists to up their game.