Media Focuses on Drama Rather than Ideas at Occupy London

The Editors, 20 November 2011 | 1 Comment

Categories: BBC News | The Telegraph | Protest | Democracy | Politics | Occupy Movement |

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On 13th November a peace vigil was held at the Occupy London camp at St. Paul's Cathedral, remembering the victims on both sides of the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan. The evening consisted of speeches, song, poetry, and a reading of the names of the dead, remembering British soldiers and Afghan civilians.

Matthew Horne, the 23 year-old founder of the group Veterans for Peace, spoke of his own experiences in Iraq, describing witnessing killings of Iraqi civilians, and discussing the death of his close friend within the army. During this heartfelt speech a shout of ‘Get a job!’ could be heard from the edge of the camp, prompting a giggle from the heckler’s companion as they walked past.

This is an all-too familiar attitude; many observers will conversationally proclaim that the Occupy protesters are nothing more than jobless dropouts living on government benefits – losers in the competition of life. Such an attitude is hardly surprising, given our value system of ‘get a job, work hard and move up in society’. Working in the City of London – in which certain institutions received a bailout of government money equivalent to over 20 times the amount of total spending on Jobseeker’s Allowance in 2008 – is respected. But being unemployed during the worst unemployment crisis since the Thatcher years is attributed to lack of ambition.

Visiting the London camps, one could not help but be aware of the level of ambition of the operation: the organised and inclusive nature of the groups, the diversity of people and viewpoints, and the opportunities to learn and share ideas. But, if limited to the media’s portrayal of the movement, one might perceive Occupy as a public nuisance, which is ignoring eviction notices and upsetting tourists and concert-goers at St. Paul’s.

There’s an array of news coming out surrounding the protest showing concern for tourists and for St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Telegraph’s Richard Alleyne writes about Italia Conti, who moved the venue for their Christmas performance because of ‘health and safety concerns’. A spokesman for St. Paul’s is quoted as saying that ‘people are put off by having to wade through the tents’. It looks as though neither this spokesman nor Alleyne himself have been to visit St. Paul’s. Had they, they would know that unfettered access is available to the Cathedral as the occupation continues. Frequent reports concerning the drop in tourism and lost revenue for St. Paul’s Cathedral dominate news coverage. After visiting the camp, one has to wonder: if people are deterred from visiting the Cathedral, is it caused by the occupation itself, or by what they read about the protest in the press?

Occupy London has been successful in creating a debate about several issues which have been escaping public dissection. However, while BBC Radio 4 shows, Moral Maze and The Report, have been prompted to address issues raised by the occupation (such as the Church’s role in politics, and the political lobbying of the City of London Corporation, respectively), the depth of analysis of the Occupy movement in various reports of events by the BBC News website is as follows:

15 Oct: ‘Up to 3,000 people have been demonstrating... against alleged corporate greed’;
25 Oct: ‘The Occupy Bristol movement is part of a worldwide protest against alleged corporate greed’;
27 Oct: ‘Demonstrators, who are protesting against alleged corporate greed and inequality, have vowed to remain for several weeks’;
3 Nov: ‘People taking part are protesting against inequality and corporate greed’;
4 Nov: ‘activists … are protesting against inequality and corporate greed’;
11 Nov: ‘The activists at St Paul's say they are protesting against inequality and corporate greed’;
16 Nov: ‘The Occupy movement said its protest aimed to highlight the issues of inequality and corporate greed’;
17 Nov: ‘The Occupy movement has said its protest aimed to highlight the issues of inequality and corporate greed’;
18 Nov: ‘the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement set up its protest camp last month in an attempt to highlight inequality and greed’.

Though the word ‘greed’ – that the BBC use incessantly when describing the protest – is a feature of the problems cited by the protesters, it does not appear in the camp’s initial public statement. There is seemingly a lack of connection between the majority of the news reports and the real aims of the camp. This repetition of ‘alleged corporate greed’ and other vague statements can create an image of protesters who are angry at the world but can provide no more advanced an analysis of the cause of the system’s failings than ‘greed’. And it’s ‘alleged’, so therefore declared but not proven. It gives the impression that the occupiers are unclear of what they are protesting against, perhaps that the system hasn’t worked for them and that they’re resentful of those for which it has.

There is a failure in the BBC’s reporting to provide analysis of the ideas behind the occupation or even to merely convey the camp's stated aims, falling back repeatedly instead on the prescribed line of the protesters’ opposition to ‘inequality and greed’ – i.e., their discontent is with general issues, not, therefore, specific, rectifiable problems. Though the camp functions primarily as a space for debate, its various statements have outlined key areas of focus for the group. The initial statement calls for ‘an end to global tax injustice’, rejects the government programme of austerity cuts, and expresses support for actions to defend ‘our health services, welfare, education and employment’ and ‘to stop wars and arms dealing’.

The founding statement of the newly opened Bank of Ideas in UBS’s abandoned Hackney office block reiterates the group’s opposition to the austerity programme and aims to provide space for ‘community groups, youth clubs, nurseries and other public services that have lost their space due to Government spending cuts.’

Yet, news in which such real concerns and ambitions were reported, portraying the occupiers as focussed or motivated, would not gel with the mainstream fiction being created which suggests a rowdy, noisy, tourist repellent.

A BBC News ‘Q & A’ on 14th November states that the Occupy movement ‘has seen protesters taking to the streets across the world to rage, albeit peacefully, against greed and inequality.’ The peculiar use of the term ‘rage’, the definition of which is to ‘feel or express violent uncontrollable anger’, results in an oxymoronic contortion as the BBC almost reluctantly acknowledges the peaceful nature of the movement, which has been overwhelmingly rational and articulate.

While events surrounding Occupy London make for some interesting headlines – divides within the Church of England and threats of eviction receiving the greatest attention – the deeper issues raised by the movement are not conveyed in the media in any significant way, despite such unlikely figures as even Bob Diamond (who, after three weeks of the occupation, urged a different way for banks to ‘participate in society’) responding to this new atmosphere of debate. As a spectacle, Occupy London is effective in demanding media attention, but for now resistance by the media to conveying its ideas is set on preventing the wider public from engaging with the very relevant issues it raises.

Categories in which this article appears: BBC News | The Telegraph | Protest | Democracy | Politics | Occupy Movement |

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Comments (1)

1. Tom21 November 2011 12:00

Fantastic article.

Be great if news unspun have some pictures to back up the statement (which I believe) on how easy it is to gain access to St Pauls.I mean, if you want to help them by publishing the access photos with a domian name - Accessstpauls,com for example, then I'd be happy to chip in.

I broadly agree that the vast majority of reporting has been on the protest itself, and not the message.

But, in defence of the BBC, who can tell us exactly what the Occupy London message is? I am sure the vast majority of the public would support the protest movement - if it had a clear message on addressing inequality as a result of corporate greed, but when they start a debate, expanding a wish-list with ideas such as 'stopping wars and an end to arms dealing', (that's a different message, requiring a different approach), then who can expect the public to keep up.

With a wishy-washy message, it's no wonder people shout 'get a job' at them.

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