G20, media and trust


<Image – G20-London-Protest by Room1834 http://www.flickr.com/photos/0742/3405203655/>

There are so many lessons, pointers, revelations, areas of concern and epiphanies from the G20 protests that blogging about them seems almost superfluous. But to add to the comment mountain, here are my thoughts.

Social vs Traditional media
I listened and watched the coverage on the BBC and Sky, while simultaneously tracking events on twitter and Flickr. At the time the traditional coverage seemed biased against the protestors. Traditional media needs to go after a 'story', a narrative it can use to conveniently bundle events together, and it had decided crowd trouble would be that story. Some of the commentators on the traditional media bordered on the offensive – one business expert bemoaned that the protestors won't achieve anything and it will inconvenience people working in the city. Inconvenience? Bloody inconvenience them? Their behaviour has done far more than 'inconvenience' the rest of us.
Over on Twitter the picture was much more of aggressive tactics from the police and of protestors being penned in. This is just as biased in its way, but what it revealed was that 'the story' emerges from the stream, it isn't determined (or worse, predetermined) by a few.
Subsequently it turns out that the real story, or at least the 'feel' was better conveyed by social media than traditional media.

Policing and accountability
I think it is very easy to portray it as protestors = good, police = bad in this scenario but that is naive and simplistic. It was obvious to me that we would have some such accounts of police brutality at the event by watching the twitter stream where the general sense was of antagonism towards protestors. This should be no suprise really – prior to the demonstrations the police had been told  to expect violence, by police chiefs, but also by various protest groups. It had been set up for the police and protestors as a conflict situation – if you come into any situation expecting that, then you will interpret actions accordingly.

The key then is not a review of police practice so much, but a review how the protest was represented to the police. Senior officers could have pitched it along the lines of  'Our job is to help these people protest safely. They're angry at what has happened and to be honest, we know how they feel, so help them demonstrate, but any signs of trouble and we'll stamp it out quickly.'  That creates a different mindset and relationship with the protestors.

I also wonder if the police send in officers, or use trusted people, to report back to them on what the experience was like from the other side? A sort of customer review. And then to have these people come and brief officers prior to demonstrations. Does anyone know if they do this? One of the issues seems to be that some police have stopped viewing protestors as people with whom they have any connection, and vice versa.


The danger for the police is that we are seeing a politicization of policing last realised during the 1980s. This is largely a result of many of the counter-terrorism laws, which themselves have become political vehicles for maintaining control over the general populace. I'm not particularly radical (you've guessed that eh?), and when many of the laws were introduced I didn't really see how they would affect me. But as John Naughton points out the manner in which photography is now regarded as an illegal or subversive act does not reflect the type of society we expect in the UK.

It is not the groups who always mistrust the police that are a concern, it is when they lose the trust of the general population that problems arise. It makes all aspects of their job much more difficult, and ultimately that isn't good for any of us. If the police become divorced from the general public, and seen more as servants of large businesses and politicians, it will take a very long time, a lot of community inititiatives and lots of money to rebuild that trust, so my advice would be to stop and reconsider their role now.

Policing of demonstrations is now often under the guise of anti-terrorism which gives the police powers to do pretty much what they like. This is tempting – why be constrained when you can be free to do what you want? But they should resist the temptation to go to the anti-terror well too often. Trust in the police had been on the increase, and this after a lot of genuine hard work. Here's a simple rule they should bear in mind, adapted from running:

  • Trust is like muscle – it is hard to get and easy to lose.
  • Suspicion is like fat – it is easy to get and hard to lose.

After years of being watched and monitored tables are now being turned. Without the video evidence would there have been any enquiry about Ian Tomlinson? And like DRM, trying to control the use of video and photography is an ultimately doomed enterprise – it's too easy, to ubiquitous and too quickly disseminated. Paul Carr has a good piece on this, and how we'll all have to learn to accept there's no such thing as private any more, and why this may not be a bad thing.

So, overall what is all about? Technology and Trust, and the changing relationship between the two. We will have a new relationship with trust because technology demands it.


  • Michael the Hedgehog

    Did policing become political in the 1980s, or did industrial disputes in the 80s (most notably the miners’ strike) illuminate the point that policing is political? Remember that TV news footage of trouble at Orgreave in the miners’ strike was altered to suggest that miners had charged at police at first, when the reverse was the case. Thanks to Twitter and other media that citizens can instantly lay their hands upon, such a journalistic sleight of hand is now much harder to achieve.

  • Andy Williams (@llantwit)

    I agree with what you say about social and traditional media, but I’d throw another area of analysis in: news sources. Journalists usually don’t rely on their own first-hand accounts, in the main, and their commitment to objectivity means that they can’t give opinions on events. So they end up reporting on the opinions and actions of their sources.
    Traditional media are far more likely to rely on and trust those in positions of power and authority, and are consequently they’re also far more likely to quote them (hence the preponderance of cops and suits on the telly that day).
    The fact they rely on these official sources far more than other sources of news means these guys also had a huge amount of influence over the way the media framed the story that day – the emphasis on a big dust-up had been pushed by the Met press office for weeks before the demos, for example. The Met press office can be trusted, they have long-standing working relationships with journos, reporters are often too over-worked to be able to look for alternative angles, and so this kind of gloopy boring stodge is the result.
    They end up missing the main story of police violence completely, and only discovering it once it’s surfaced via citizen media days later. In one instance, ITN had even caught the battering of Ian Tomlinson on video itself and didn’t use it in its bulletins. They had to go back and find it in their own footage later on the week after the Guardian broadcast the citizen mobile-phone coverage of his push by the same policeman. On the day, Ian Tomlinson was a non-story because the very quickly assembled police PR line of his death by ‘natural causes’, and the violent bottling of officers trying to give him first aid was swallowed wholesale by news editors across the board.
    One of the amazing things about the web-enabled citizen coverage from that day is how it showed up the narrow range of news sources routinely quoted by big media and allowed to dominate the news agenda. TV news media were especially bad in this respect (The Guardian was a bit different in it’s range and depth, for example). You had a wealth of perspectives and first-hand accounts coming in from people actually experiencing things first hand – in essence being their own news sources. When you have enough of these saying the same or similar thing that can generate trust in their coverage (the wisdom of crowds, indeed).
    You mention that these accounts are biased in their way, too. That’s true. The big difference is that they wouldn’t claim to be unbiased. ITN and Sky News on the other hand do – they would always argue that what they give is balanced unbiased coverage. The web 2 citizen coverage on the day shows this up to be absurd. And it does this by giving news audiences a glimpse of the vast sea of relevant unofficial news sources not being tapped by most of the traditional media players during major news events.
    Thanks for your post – the politics of citizen media in this case are fascinating, I think.

  • Laura

    I’ve worked with activists in New York who have been using technology in interesting ways for years to mobilise people in peaceful protests. Some innovative methods of reporting facts included attaching cameras to balloons that could give an real idea of the numbers in the crowd and a cyclist who you could text message – his bike would chalk your message on the sidewalk.
    This article from 2004 is a good example of how technologies have been used to provide alternative reports to mainstream media, and how the intelligence gathered by activists can be used in legal cases to protect their rights but also aid the police in gathering intelligence:

  • Martin

    @Michael – yes you could say, well of course policing has _always_ been political. But I think when, as with the miners strike, we see it being used very obviously as a political tool against people then it enters a different domain.
    @Andy – you’re right, the objectivity stance is actually not neutral often, but is one that can be manipulated by those in positions of authority. The protests marked, for me anyway, a real historical moment when the conventional press becomes secondary because of the way they need to operate. This isn’t always the case, for some stories the ‘top down’ approach is best, but for these types of events, it seems that bottom up gave a truer picture of the day, and as you say, the traditional media have been playing rather embarrassing catch up ever since.
    @Laura – thanks, fascinating stuff. I think what we are seeing now is the next generation of this – it isn’t about activists but about the ubiquity of these technologies by the general population. As Clay Shirky argues, it’s when a technology becomes commonplace that it becomes really interesting.

  • Andy Williams (@llantwit)

    But we shouldn’t get carried away either, in my opinion. The democratic potential of increasing technology ownership and access to publishing/broadcast platforms is still largely only that: potential.
    There is a serious digital divide in terms of ownership, and more seriously, there is a digital skills divide which means that those who use web 2.0 tools, especially for news-related stuff, are in a serious socio-economic minority (also a gender minority – it’s stil mainly blokes of a certain age and class who submit online news related UGC).

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