How to suppress a protest movement
It’s time to start talking about our democracy.
Shape the narrative, suppress competing narratives – the story of the student protests:
It began with the Millbank protest. From here the media narrative began to diverge from events on the ground, at first subtly.
Almost at once, attacks began on the protesters as “posh”, when many were non-white, not in any way posh, and there to protest the cutting of EMA, as the BBC photos – which concentrate on violence and property damage – show.
There was consensus by students in opposition to violence against people, and, unlike the BBC photos, most protesters saw no violence and took part in none. Protesters were indiscriminately attacked by police, and all protesters were blamed for the actions of any. There was shock at the anger of ordinary members of society, so much shock that scapegoats had to be found. The violence and property damage at Millbank was shocking because it was political, but not shocking on any British Saturday night.
At every stage actions that are described by those there as organic are blamed on a “tiny minority” – like reds under the bed. This is a narrative of “domestic extremists” that leads to crackdowns, scapegoating, and repression.
Subsequent protests were violently policed, kettled, and horse-charged, yet all violence was attributed to protesters. The agenda remained firmly focused on violence. Police violence is rarely questioned, and only after evidence is gathered and put forward by members of the public, rather than by the media.
When there is violence the focus is always on “anarchists” and “thugs” rather than the actions of ordinary people. In contrast, hundreds were cautioned merely for entering Millbank, some after police dawn raids. These arrests may go on to affect their future UK and international career prospects, a cost to society far greater than the tens of thousands in property damage to Millbank.
“Dreadful violence” was still the narrative by March, when the cleanup of Trafalgar Square was around 2.5x the normal Saturday night cost. By now, violence to people and property are indissolubly conflated. A narrative that began with concern for the welfare of police and protesters has concluded with political freedom not being worth the price of a mid-range car.
How the narrative is shaped:
None of this comes to pass in a vacuum. The timing of major events is carefully chosen, from the date of the recent Royal Wedding to that of news of the scale of the NHS cuts, which broke on the same day. While scores of pages and supplements over weeks were devoted to the wedding, the effects of the cuts are rarely more than a footnote. Cuts over many years are not a story, the Royal Wedding is.
News stories now break in a different way to the past. Journalists are under increasing time pressure, and while investigative journalism is rarer, churnalism – the swift regurgitation of press releases as fact – is increasingly common. Even the comparatively left-wing Guardian straight-out reports press releases that – as in the case of Soho Square here – are factually untrue.
What editors want in a story is shaped by previous stories in that publication, as well as the feelings of owners and advertisers. In rare cases, a journalist quits over the blatant untruth of their expected output. In many more cases, owners admit to having tight editorial control, such as Murdoch over the UK red-tops. Stories that conflict with advertisers are pulled so frequently that experienced journalists take it as given.
Beginner journalists are told that top of the list for a successful story is topicality, that is that it seamlessly fits with the stories before it as part of one narrative. The first rule for freelancers is that pitches must fit with what already gets published, in a matching style. Any media with submission guidelines ensures that there is no appreciable divergence in copy, with the required prose style necessarily shaping content.
It is this environment that determines what “news” is. The way that news is constructed means that violence is news, whereas the effects of policy, anger, and open political debate are not.
Prevent formation of different narratives:
This monolithic narrative means that people are atomised, lacking contact with language to conceive of and express competing narratives. With the media narrative firmly centred on violence no discussion of the narrative behind the cuts becomes possible there. With spaces against cuts being prevented from forming or being evicted by police, public life becomes by default pro-cuts. With a massive recent drop-off in mentions of “neoliberalism” on the BBC news website, forming any alternative narrative becomes very difficult, even when there is massive evidence behind it.
Over time this unspoken narrative moves to the political right, with US presidents becoming economically massively more right-wing since WWII, the UK Labour Party moving ever rightwards, and politics in the west becoming dominated by neoliberal ideals despite the constant elision of the term, with discussion of it in the media bordering on the forbidden.
The closest the media are able to come to discussing the necessity for the cuts is reporting on a conference, while most dissenting time in media is spent responding to hyperbolic reporting in other media while sticking to the same cuts narrative.
The media also operate around a hierarchy of trust, with official media such as the BBC being perceived as more trustworthy than “just some blogger”, and more than non-media individuals who are seen as “politically motivated”. This takes place while the BBC cannot escape being political, taking the line of the perceived centre, a line which constantly evolves under attack from politicians who want coverage to reflect their interests and use threats to back this up. This leaves a BBC which can question whether Uganda was truly wrong to propose the execution of gays, but which cannot offer or allow any critique of the pro-cuts narrative. The result is a media which predicates questions on unquestioned, unjustified assumptions and posits a choice between a right-wing and far-right alternative.
With cuts affecting different groups over time, it becomes even more difficult to assemble questioning into one narrative. First student cuts were announced, moving onto local service and jobs cuts, and then arts cuts, then NHS cuts and structural marketisation. The effects of these will take place over years and in a geographically dissipated way, making resolving them into one story a herculean task.
This goes hand-in-hand with increasing modern demands on time that disincentivise any break from the mainstream narrative. As working hours increase over time alongside the increase in precarious work, and with rent in London – where there is still work – soaring, the need to work, to have fun, to spend time with friends and family, and not to spend time arguing about politics means that challenges to that narrative grow less frequent, and occur with less force. Even art, which often acts as a challenge to mainstream narratives, is not immune to these changes: in the 1990s 1% of top 10 chart acts came from public schools; in 2010 it is 60%.
All this takes place against a backdrop of many economic experts saying that the cuts are not necessary at all.
What diverging narratives do exist soon fracture across party political lines, with debate becoming about how much to cut rather than cuts being necessary, when most money the UK owes is in fact to the banks that were bailed out. Discussion centres around “how much to cut and where” with no linking with the reasons behind the collapse despite the enormous exposure of the film “Inside Job”.
Though there is an enormous amount of evidence showing that the cuts are not necessary, they are going ahead with any “mainstream” questioning being fragmented and incidental. It is as if the question has been settled before it has even been raised.
Under these established pressures, breaking from the main narrative becomes virtually impossible. Once one dominant narrative is established, a variety of factors inherent in human psychology – change blindness, attention fatigue, and the way in which we are influenced mainly unconsciously and by the people around us – mean that the vast amount of information contradicting this narrative is ignored or subsumed into the unconscious to fuel nightmare or art.