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The G20 Protests: an email exchange with Deborah Orr of The Independent

Posted by David Benson on April 11, 2009 at 9:05 AM



One of the most distressing aspects of the police brutality at the G20 protests on April 1st was the way the mass media portrayed the event.

In case you did not see it, here is footage which shows very clearly how peaceful protesters, as well as passers-by, office workers and tourists who happened to be caught in the 'kettle' created by police, were brutally attacked by riot police. I have seldom felt so angry and shocked as I did watching these pictures.





I am one of a dwindling band of Independent readers, who treasure the paper's committment to justice and human rights, exemplified by their principled stand against the Iraq invasion. So I was astounded at the tone of their coverage of this systematic abuse of the public. It seemed as if they had joined every other major media outlet in seeking to excuse the police action by blaming the protesters.

Video: Dog bites

Video: Policeman assaults woman


Police Medic (centre) busy dispensing treatment at the G20 protests 1-4-09


The normally admirable Deborah Orr contributed to this calumny with an article that reinforced the idea that it was the malevolence of the protesters that brought justified punishment from the police.


On Sunday, a disgusting article by another leading Independent columnist Joan Smith (who claims to be "known for her human rights activism") focussed again on the tiny trouble-maker element amongst the protesters and insulted the intelligence of every reader by advising those who do not like the way things are going in the world (and let's face it, who does?) to "vote for another party". You wonder whether she has noticed that the political system in this country is completely corrupt, hence the unprecedented lack of engagement with it by the public.


Deborah Orr redeemed herself on Wednesday 8th April with a trenchant comment piece, claiming the Met is "out of control" (though I would despute this analysis: the attacks were in fact highly co-ordinated and premeditated). The email address published at the end of the article prompted me to write to her and express my feelings about the way The Independent covered the attacks. Ms. Orr engaged fully and promptly with my comments and I think it right to publish the exchange here. It gives an insider's view of the workings of a newspaper office and the ethical conflicts that a columnist must work through in order to maintain their integrity and at the same time, keep their job.




Thursday, 9 April, 2009 3:51 PM

Dear Ms Orr

Thank you for today's article on the G20 policing. I read it with something like relief after a week in which The Independent initially swallowed the police version of events and several articles including, I am so sorry to say, those by yourself and Joan Smith, seemed to seek to justify the shocking scenes of co-ordinated (far from 'out of control') attacks upon peaceful protesters.

I was not there but have seen the footage
of the attack on the Climate Camp - absolutely gut-wrenchingly terrifying in what it reveals about the State's attitude to dissent. To see people with their hands raised in the air, chanting, "This is not a riot" being beaten and abused with pitiless force made me feel physically sick.


The police were surely not acting out of personal malice or frustration: they behave like this because they are servants of the State and they have been authorised to crush even peaceful, legal protest by the subjects of this country. That is a deeply frightening development.

This, rather than the trouble caused by what was clearly a tiny minority of the protesters (some of whom we might reasonably suspect of being agent provocateurs) or even the tragic but freakish death of Mr. Tomlinson, was the real story and it has been distressing to see that the mainstream media either missed it or decided to ignore it. Even now, the Independent's focus (with the admirable exception of your article today) is on Mr. Tomlinson's death rather than the generalised aggression shown towards the crowds by these stormtroopers. Viewing the footage of the police tactics it is amazing that there were not more such deaths that day.

I have always regarded you as a real voice of sanity amongst media commentators and I was saddened that some of your authority seemed to have rubbed away last week. I hope that in future columns your loyal readers may read your further thoughts on this issue and others that so pressingly affect us all.

Best wishes

David Benson



Thursday, 9 April, 2009 4:27 PM

Dear David Benson,
Thanks for your email. I'm sorry you have been disappointed by the Independent's coverage of the protests. I'm afraid I fully share your feelings, and don't agree at all with the way the newspaper's editor has treated the story. I can't speak for Joan Smith, whose piece I could tell I didn't wish to read from the headline alone) but I can assure you that I did what I could.
I attended the protest (which I would have done anyway even if I hadn't got the opportunity to write about it) and spoke to my own editor on the comment pages about doing 1,250 words for Thursday's comment section, which he was happy to carry. The paper's editor called me and asked for 700 words of colour instead, which I feel gave an accurate picture of the early part of the day. I was told to keep it light because the paper had reporters at the protests as well. Also, the event when I attended it , was good-homoured, and I tried to match the tone of the piece to the event as I'd experienced it.
By Friday, when I'd seen coverage of the latter part of the day, and looked at footage posted on the internet, I wrote another piece for Saturday's paper about the raid on the climate camp and the attacks and kettling there, condemning it in strong terms. That piece was placed at the bottom of the page without a picture, which was extremely disappointing. In Monday's paper, a letter in response to it led the letters pages, again condemning the police action at climate camp. Another letter on Tuesday backed up the contents of the first.
On Wednesday, the details of Ian Tomlinson's treatment by the police had become apparent, and finally I got a decent amount of space. Staff on a paper, unless they are important and powerful enough to throw their weight about (which I'm not), can only do what is requested of them. I'd strongly advise you to write to the editor, Roger Alton, or the letters page in complaint about the Independent's coverage as well.
Thanks again for your email,
Deborah Orr



Thursday, 9 April, 2009 5:02 PM

Dear Ms. Orr

Sincere thanks for your candid and illuminating reply. I very much appreciate your honesty and the insights into the workings of editorial policy. It only serves to compound my horror at the police action with dismay at the attitude towards it by a supposedly liberal and enlightened newspaper.

What is now hanging in the air, for me is the question: why does the editorial board take this attitude; what does it mean? I do not expect you to answer this question to me personally but I hope that in your future writings you are able to address this great ethical conflict, which I imagine must be giving you much cause for anguish.

I will take your advise and write to Mr. Alton and the letters page.

Many thanks again

David




Thursday, 9 April, 2009 5:09 PM

Dear David,
You mention the editorial board. This group rarely meets and has nothing to do with day-to-day content decisions, which are done on an ad hoc basis by the editor and his staff. I'd imagine that he just decided that the media was hyping up the protest/riot stuff too much, decided to err on the side of caution, and ended up literally and totally ERRING on the side of caution. Cock-up, not conspiracy ...
Deborah




Friday, 10 April, 2009 1:42 PM

Dear Deborah

Sorry to come back to you again on this but I have your last comment to me pinging about in my head and I can't get rid of it until I address it with you.

I wasn't alleging a 'conspiracy' as such. My mistake is one of ignorance as to how these editorial decisions are made: I used the term 'editorial board' incorrectly. I was referring to the decisions made by the editor and his team.

The fact remains that, with I am sure no actual verbal collusion between them, the entire mainstream media (with the exception of The Guardian) closed ranks with the police and made exactly the same decision: to demonise the protesters and support the police action until incontrovertibly damning evidence of the abuse of one person made it an impossible line to sustain. If your editor decided that the media was 'hyping up the protest/riot stuff too much', his coverage did not reflect that; quite the opposite.

In the face of the gravity of the crimes committed by these agents of the State against innocent people, this is profoundly worrying and surely cannot be attributed to 'cock-up' alone. It suggests a deeply-entrenched mind-set common to all mainstream media editors - which is why so many of us now look to the internet for a less institutionalised approach to news and comment.

Hope this clarifies my position. I have, by the way, now written to the letters page and to my MP, Mr. Corbyn (who alas, as a maverick, has little influence on the current regime!)

best wishes

David




Dear David,
I'm probably guilty of trying to persuade myself, not you. The truth is that the Indie has only just had a new round of redundancies, decimating an aleady tiny staff, and as usual demoralising those who are left. No one has worked out yet how the paper is going to be got out with such a small number of people and in the short term the tendency is to rely on news agencies because reporters are so thin on the ground. The guardian is lucky it can put so many people on a story and of course it did it marvellously. We, on the other hand, are so financially constrained that it's difficult to work out what sort of unique contribution we can make at all ... The protest coverage probably just confirms that the answer is:none.
Ah, well, it was good when it was good ...
Best


Appendix


13-4-09

Janet Street-Porter added to The Independent's murky track record on this issue with a bizarre and unreasoned article highlighting Ian Tomlinson's personal problems as some kind of mitigating consideration in the police's treatment of him (they had had a "long and titing day," apparently. The Burmese police must use that one next time they attack their own people!). I urge you to read it.


Here is the much shorter email exchange that passed between us.


Sunday, 12 April, 2009 12:48 PM


Dear Janet

Hope you don't mind me writing to you but I feel I have to express my surprise and disappointment at the article that appeared under your name today about Ian Tomlinson.

I have been amazed over the past week by The Independent's coverage of what happened on April 1st
. After seeing the shocking footage of how peaceful protesters were attacked by the police, having been - along with tourists, journalists and passers-by - 'kettled' for seven hours with no toilet facilities or water, I was distressed that the entire mainstream media began by demonising the victims, closing ranks with the police until incontrovertible evidence of the abuse of one man made that line untenable.

To focus on the tragic but freakish death of one man when the real story is the terrifying attacks on defenseless members of the public by these brutal storm-troopers is bad enough. But to even mention Ian Tomlinson's personal problems as being in any way evidence of culpability for the violence that was done to him is just plain wrong.

I had an email exchange this week with Deborah Orr and found her almost despairing about the editorial line taken by The Independent on this subject. She implied that she had been more or less pressured to write something uncontroversial and complied with misgivings. I accept that you too may be facing the same pressures.

I hope that you will appreciate that I write this with uneasiness that I may anger you but I do feel strongly about the events of last week and feel I must address what I see as a dangerous injustice.

Best wishes



David



Monday, 13 April, 2009 11:14 AM


Hi there- if you re-read my piece, I am only writing about the Tomlinson death and I come out at the end of the column condemning the police for their behaviour. I was not writing about everything that went on that day...and I completely agree with you that the way the demonstrators were treated was unacceptable. Also, the Tomlinson death is now the subject of a inquiry and so there are further difficulties about what you can say legally.
I am surprised you think I sided with the police, because I did not.
all the best, Janet


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7 Comments

Reply susie m
8:50 AM on April 12, 2009 
Very interesting to read that exchange - and thank you David for expressing and sharing your views on this. I'd felt instinctive (and perhaps cynical) mistrust about the way such events are reported. The whole concept of 'kettling' is mistaken; to treat humans as you would a bunch of feral cats is to invite them to 'boil' at that injustice, conveniently, as the Kettlers can then justify the continuing mistreatment. Had that been animals, penned up and beaten, there would have been outrage from all and sundry. I am ashamed of the way this Labour government - which I voted for, long long long ago, treats the electorate.
Reply David Benson
4:34 PM on April 13, 2009 
Thanks for comment, Susie. I agree with everything you say in your analysis.
dx
susie m says...
Very interesting to read that exchange - and thank you David for expressing and sharing your views on this. I'd felt instinctive (and perhaps cynical) mistrust about the way such events are reported. The whole concept of 'kettling' is mistaken; to treat humans as you would a bunch of feral cats is to invite them to 'boil' at that injustice, conveniently, as the Kettlers can then justify the continuing mistreatment. Had that been animals, penned up and beaten, there would have been outrage from all and sundry. I am ashamed of the way this Labour government - which I voted for, long long long ago, treats the electorate.
Reply miranda
11:32 AM on April 16, 2009 
Very interesting, David. I'm glad you posted this and glad that you wrote to the journalists. The police behaved this way during the 80s, when they became a government tool during the Miner's Strike, and it was then that many people lost their trust. They'd just been starting to scrape back what's left of their reputation when all this happened.

That first photo reminds me of an anti-apartheid demonstration I went on in 1985 - I was with a group standing quietly at the back of Trafalgar Square, where all the families and vicars and those who didn't want any bother had gathered. You could see trouble off at the edge of the crowd, next to the SA embassy, and a lot of missiles were being thrown, but the area that I was standing in was very quiet; we were at the back because we wanted to avoid trouble. So, of course, we were baton-charged. I was near the front of the charge and faced a thundering wall of huge stir-crazy policemen, truncheons raised, all with bared teeth and glazed eyes. It was terrifying, but I managed to avoid being hit. One young man wasn't so lucky - he tripped and fell and was beaten to a bloody mess.

I don't especially recall any media outrage after that demonstration, but it is a memory that will stay with me for as long as I live.
Reply David Benson
7:56 AM on April 17, 2009 
Depressing, isn't it? What else is there worth reading? I'll stick to the internet, I think.

[email protected] says...
Hmmm, I wouldn't give the Indie more than a few weeks more of life on this basis - it sounds desperate!
Reply David Benson
7:59 AM on April 17, 2009 
Thank you for that, Miranda. It's funny, I don't think you ever told me about that. How horrible. I cannot imagine much worse than being in that situation. Glad you weren't injured, physically at least.
xx

[email protected] says...
Very interesting, David. I'm glad you posted this and glad that you wrote to the journalists. The police behaved this way during the 80s, when they became a government tool during the Miner's Strike, and it was then that many people lost their trust. They'd just been starting to scrape back what's left of their reputation when all this happened.

That first photo reminds me of an anti-apartheid demonstration I went on in 1985 - I was with a group standing quietly at the back of Trafalgar Square, where all the families and vicars and those who didn't want any bother had gathered. You could see trouble off at the edge of the crowd, next to the SA embassy, and a lot of missiles were being thrown, but the area that I was standing in was very quiet; we were at the back because we wanted to avoid trouble. So, of course, we were baton-charged. I was near the front of the charge and faced a thundering wall of huge stir-crazy policemen, truncheons raised, all with bared teeth and glazed eyes. It was terrifying, but I managed to avoid being hit. One young man wasn't so lucky - he tripped and fell and was beaten to a bloody mess.

I don't especially recall any media outrage after that demonstration, but it is a memory that will stay with me for as long as I live.
Reply miranda
10:44 AM on April 17, 2009 
I didn't realise I hadn't told you about that - it was terrifying, up there with being at the Los Angeles riots of '92. When the police were beating that guy up, in London, one of the group I was with went over and shouted over and over 'Stop! what the fuck are you doing?' - he said that (I'd moved away by this time) eventually, they just stopped and walked away looking blank, but leaving the man bleeding on the ground. That was one of the scariest bits. That and hearing about the police wagons full of bruised and leeding people, who had been arrested.

mxx