Riots and romance: thoughts on journalism, revolution and the anti-cuts movement
- Published: 14 May 2011
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A real campaigning journalist should be able to amplify unheard voices without distorting them, and it’s crucial that hacks involved or interested in resistance movements hold ourselves closely to that standard, writes Laurie Penny.
15 May 2011
I am in the process of trying to write an article for ADBUSTERS about 'Revolution in the UK'. The question I was set – “Can it happen here like it happened in Tahrir Square?” – is broad and, I think, misplaced. As in, I think it's the wrong question to be asking.
For one thing, the simple answer is no, of course it can't; it's a completely different country and the conditions that produced the Arab uprisings cannot be replicated here. That simple answer, however, closes down debate on what really is happening in Britain right now.
I believe that something is on the move in this country, something important. And it's important to document that something honestly, without resorting to caricature, blithe supposition or wild inference.
I've been thinking about this more in the aftermath of the riot in Bristol in April. There was a vast disparity between mainstream media coverage of the riot and what thousands of us watched live online that night.
I held back from writing a report until, reading the BBC and Guardian coverage the next morning, I realised that no one in the sparsely occupied Bank Holiday press rooms was feeling inclined to dig beyond the official police statement that day. In the age of Twitter, we should be able to do better than that – so I hurried out a piece based on eyewitness accounts and as much insider info as I could collate.
Following this piece, as with my reportage of March 26, I have been accused of bias, of glorifying and romanticising the protesters. I believe this charge, however tritely or maliciously put, deserves to be answered.
More than that, I think I absolutely need to answer it if I want to get better at what I do.
On the charge of romance, I hold up my hands, with the caveat that the struggle of citizen versus state is essentially a romantic one. If one cares about accuracy and linguistic craftsmanship, it is very hard to describe these active clashes in a way that does not provoke passion on both sides.
This is because the events themselves are moments of high emotion and challenge. Whatever their affiliations, a person's political passions are drawn with fierce accuracy when they are asked for their opinion on a given police ruckus – and every time it happens is another chance to take the political temperature of the nation.
The British people are, however, generally resistant to romance. We tend to get uncomfortable when too much of a fuss is made. There is also an important cognitive dissonance at play: when people read, for example, about children being assaulted by police officers practically on the steps of Parliament, the emotions that stirs, and the conclusions we are inevitably led to about the benevolence or otherwise of the state, directly challenge the desire that very many of us have to believe that the police have our best interests at heart, that our politicians know what they are doing, that the ship of Britain is being steered gently away from the worst of the oncoming rocks. That cognitive dissonance can make people incredibly angry.
Personally, I don't believe that romance can be overlooked- apart from anything else, the rush and thrill of the fight is one of the big reasons riots spread. But just because a riot is romantic does not mean that it is right.
Which brings me on to the question of condemning or condoning. I make no secret of the fact that, quite apart from my journalism, my political sympathies lie with the anti-cuts movement. But more than anything else, since I arrived at Millbank on 10 November just in time to see the windows kicked in, I have wanted to understand the nature of the political changes taking place in this country.
This is why I have taken care to record and speak out about any instances of deliberate violence against police I happen to have seen. It's also the reason I've resisted the temptation to become member of any political party or anarchist group: it's easy to reel off propaganda (especially if one's style has a sliiiiight tendency to drift towards bombast) but far more difficult really to anatomise a movement and a generation and a nation in traumatic flux.
I believe that riots, and our response to them, teach people a lot about themselves. They have taught me one fundamentally important thing about myself – apart from the fact that I have a reckless attitude to my own personal safety, tossing all 5-foot nothing of me repeatedly into violent situations where journalistic integrity forbids any active self-defence.
What drags me to the scene of any riot, to any interesting protest currently ongoing, is not just politics, nor thrill-seeking: it's chasing a story that the mainstream press are still not telling properly yet, chasing a an important story, a story to which I currently have unique access as a young person within the movement.
Being inside a big story is exciting, especially for a rookie journalist, because by our nature people who choose this job like to know things other people don't, to be 'in on it', whatever 'it' is, and then to tell the world. This often produces quality, important journalism. But – crucially – not always.
I am forcefully reminded of another story currently running in my own magazine, the New Statesman: John Pilger's reports on the Wikileaks affair and the trial of Julian Assange. Pilger is a phenomenal journalist. I admire his investigative work more than I can possibly say, and I hope one day to be able to meet him in person.
However, in my opinion, Pilger's insider access to Assange and to Wikileaks – his understandable glee at which is barely disguised – have nudged him towards glorifying his subject.
In my reading, Pilger pre-emptively exonerated Assange of all sexual assault charges, and that is extremely problematic. Wikileaks is unquestionably a force for good in the world, but Pilger's celebration of and reliance on Wikileaks in articles about other subjects are becoming rather predictable. Predictability is anathema to great journalism. IMHO.
If a reporter as renowned, brilliant and experienced as John Pilger can be susceptible to the professional virus of insiderhood, any of us can be, so it's advisable to check repeatedly for symptoms. I stand by the accuracy and rigorousness of my own reporting of the movement in Britain to date, but the potential for infection is there. How could it not be?
There's nothing wrong with a bit of romance, but this movement deserves to be reported honestly, warts-and-all honestly. The voices of anti-cuts protesters, student activists and everyone they represent and defend deserve to be heard clearly, not distorted to the point of caricature.
Full-time activists are more than capable of writing their own propaganda. A real campaigning journalist should be able to amplify unheard voices without distorting them. I think it's crucial that hacks involved or interested in resistance movements hold ourselves closely to that standard. I'm certainly going to try my best.
Laurie Penny is a British journalist, author and feminist. She writes for mainstream media including The Guardian and The Independent and has a regular blog at New Statesman. She was shortlisted for the Orwell prize for political writing in 2010 and her latest book is Meat Market.