Archive for the ‘g20’ tag

JS Mill, the Guardian, and footage of the G20 protests

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When, back in 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote that truth – provided it wasn’t suppressed - would eventually triumph, he also added a caveat. As long, he said, as there are people prepared dig it out and make a song and dance about it. Actually, his language was rather more polished than mine, he wrote:

‘The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it’ (JS Mill, On Liberty).

It’s that caveat I’m most interested in, particularly with regard to the media coverage of the G20 in London.

The coverage would, of itself, make for a wonderful doctoral thesis: the attempts by government to control the media within the summit by penning all established correspondents within a single venue, while outside there was a morrass of dissonant voices – reporters, protesters, police, onlookers. While all the while everyone was publishing furiously in text, audio, photographs and video, across multiple platforms and thousands of outlets.

But within the multiple major narratives and thousands of individual stories was one particularly tragic one. A man trying to return home from work who, trapped in the protests, died of a heart attack.

The initial ‘truth’ of how Ian Tomlinson died was shaped mainly by the police. The police said they were told a man had collapsed, they found and examined him, contacted an ambulance, and moved him because bottles were being thrown at them by protesters (from Guardian, 8-4-09).

But we live in a different media age. Not just an age of mass reporting but an age of mass recording. Most people now carry a mobile phone that can certainly take still photos, may well be able to film video, and record audio. Now, if you are at a newsworthy event – and a G20 protest most definitely counts as a newsworthy event – then the chances are you will be recorded many times, by many people.

And you can publish what you have recorded, without fear of suppression, to the world. Technologies like AudioBoo allow you to audio record and then, with a couple of clicks, upload it to the net. If JS Mill were alive today, you figure he’d be pleased.

So, given people’s ability to record and publish you would assume that, amongst the millions of still photographs and the thousands of videos that someone, somewhere, would have recorded the death of Mr Tomlinson and, as important, the minutes leading up to his death.

But how do you find it? How do you track down something you don’t know exists recorded by someone you don’t know how to identify? Here’s where we come to Mill’s caveat. You need someone willing and able to take alot of time, and a media outlet willing to provide the oxygen of publicity. The Guardian did this with the story of Mr Tomlinson. It found it, published it as their lead story, and gave it the context with which people could appreciate its authenticity (article and footage here)

Would the ‘truth’ surrounding Mr Tomlinson’s death have come to light had it not been sought out by journalists, and then published as the lead story in the Guardian? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

Good journalism has always been about digging out information, authenticating it, and contextualising it. But in our new media world where every voice can, theoretically, be not only heard but recorded and published, our need for journalists – who can, in Mill’s words, ‘rediscover’ the truth, is greater than ever.

Written by Martin Moore

April 9th, 2009 at 7:18 pm

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How new media helps old media better report protests

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I’ll be appearing on Radio 4′s iPM programme on Saturday evening discussing some of the challenges for mainstream media of covering protests.

How can mainstream media cover the G20 protests fairly when:
- the authorities have been talking up the likelihood of violence for weeks leading up to the protests?
- some protesters having been talking up how disruptive they would be prior to the protests?
- the protests are about many many different (sometimes contradictory) issues, some with widespread public support, some with very little?

It ain’t easy.

The media (mainstream media in particular) often get blamed for covering protest badly – for over-emphasising the violent or outrageous, for under-emphasising the peaceful and pictorially dull, for over-emphasising the protests and for under-emphasising the politics… But that’s because covering protests from many different angles is tricky. I was at Bank station at lunchtime on Wednesday (where the main protest was) but could only tell you what was happening at the corner of Prince’s Street, not what was happening a hundred yards away on Threadneedle Street (where people were breaking into RBS).

If a bunch of self-professed anarchists break into a bank in broad daylight and start throwing computers out the window, would you cover it? Wouldn’t it be remiss of the media not to show this happening?

If the police have been telling media organisations there is a significant threat of violence and that workers may well be in danger of being lynched shouldn’t the media report that too?

At the same time, of course, the media has to put the violence in context (i.e. was it widespread and did it characterise the protests?) and exercise scepticism about police reports.

Given all this, there were alot of good things about some of the news reporting this week:
- The use of twitter, by journalists and others, made it possible to get multiple perspectives from people on location. From journalists in the crowd at Bank (Paul Lewis was fascinating at giving the impression of how the mood changed at Bank during the afternoon), from protestors, from bankers, though not – as far as I could see – from the police. The Guardian, The Times, Sky and the BBC were all tweeting around the city.
- Recognition, by some, that the violence was limited, and much much less than predicted. Funnily enough it was the city freesheet, City AM, that reported on its front page on Thursday that the financial centre ‘breathed a sigh of relief’ that things were not nearly as bad as expected
- The widespread use of a photo that, consciously or unconsciously, actually indicated how isolated the violence was in the bigger scheme of the protest. The photo, of a man smashing a window at Royal Bank of Scotland on Threadneedle Street showed not just the protester but the 40+ photographers surrounding him

There was also, of course, some poor coverage:
- Headlines like ‘Protesters ransack RBS office as thousands of anti-capitalists go on rampage in the City’ and ‘London G20 protests descend into violence’ were just inaccurate. There weren’t thousands of anti-capitalists on the rampage, and the vast majority of protesters were peaceful
- The press seemed too ready to accept the much hyped predictions of lynchings and violence, provided by the authorities in the lead up to G20
- The minimal reporting about what happened on Wednesday evening, after it got dark and there was further tension between protesters and police

But given how difficult it used to be for news organisations to represent multiple viewpoints simultaneously, it’s exciting that this is now not only possible, but is happening – and will hopefully happen more and more.

Written by Martin Moore

April 3rd, 2009 at 1:43 pm

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