Who benefits?

Always an important question to ask. 

In the few weeks prior to last weekend, the country had been remarkably united. There was near universal outrage at the trifecta responsible for (or culpable in) the phone-hacking saga; in order of public opprobrium the tabloid press, the police and the Tories. Murdoch was on the ropes, the deal for a takeover for the remainder of BSkyB on the backburner and serious talk of breaking up his empire. The Met commissioner had to resign and claims emerged that payments to police were much more widespread than previously thought. Cameron and Osborne were being pressed for precisely how much information they knew about Andy Coulson’s underhand activities when they took him on.

The riots have moved this story off the front pages. Under ‘burying the news’ see the sacking of the Met’s press chief yesterday, the arrest of the NOTW’s Mr Miscue (sic), and News Corp’s enormous profit boost in spite of the News of the World’s decline. It remains to be seen how much coverage James Murdoch’s answers to the select committee will get in the coming days. Yet this is only the half of it. The riots story – more precisely its sensationalization and prolonging – directly benefit each of the corrupted entities mentioned above.

The tabloid press (and Sky News, of course) benefit both by having a huge lead story (boosting circulation/viewing) and the fact that it presses all the right (populist) buttons. The Tories can bang their law-and-order drum, the only instrument loud enough to disguise the siren of socio-economic crisis. And the police have a perfect response to proposals for budget cuts. In fact, it seems they will attempt to lever an increase in powers and/or an upgrade in (militarized) equipment from these events. Instead they should be facing an enquiry into why the initial riot began, why fire crews could not be protected, and why looting proceeded unhindered in Tottenham and Wood Green (giving people everywhere the idea that they could do the same). The Riot Act is meant to penalise the police when they lose control of public order, yet it seems it will be used to try and spread the costs for the damage among the population more widely.

The underlying conditions for riots have been around for a long time – the press, politicians and police have little interest in tackling them. Once the manifestations began, though, sparked by yet another example of police deceit in the wake of a contentious killing, it has been in the direct interests of each of those discredited institutions to fan the flames. The press have given a particular narrative of events, one which is partial in both senses of the word. While some have addressed the deprivation in many parts of London which underpins the unrest, little is made of the massive distrust of the Metropolitan Police, a distrust they have earned themselves many times over; of the specifics of the protest which spilled over into violence in Tottenham, and how that happened; of the initially poor policing of looting; of the many types of looting going on subsequently (spontaneous, opportunistic, copycat, and, latterly, organised and vehicular).

Instead we are simply told that we are besieged by ‘feral’ ‘criminal’ ‘scum’.

The police have spun events to their own advantage without having proved competence or good intent, and taken the opportunity to crack a few heads along the way. They failed to protect those residential buildings and local businesses which people are now mourning – we now have thirty displaced families in Tottenham living off the charitable donations of the community. At the same time, one of the most laughable myths of the whole debacle is that the police are somehow afraid to take a ‘robust’ approach. Well, clearly. They must be absolutely terrified by the fact that over three hundred deaths in custody since 1998 have resulted in no police convictions, or that those who wrongly killed Jean Charles de Menezes were exonerated.

The Tories as a whole will benefit, though it remains to be seen whether Boris can wriggle out of this mess. Cameron can use the grotesque public demands for soldiers on the streets and a variety of beefed-up ‘protection’ for a clampdown on all sorts of things – protests, public congregation, judicial independence (or what remains of it) and possibly aspects of free speech.

It is a dangerous game though. In the West Midlands, an expected outcome is the revival of ethnically-based tension between black and Asian communities.* In London there have been several instances of EDL vigilantism, sometimes policed but sometimes left alone. While the authoritarian impulse caused by the spoon-feeding of right-wing tripe in print and on television will move the electorate back towards the Tories, it will also move some much further to the fringe right, particularly if the recession continues to worsen. And with a likely poll boost for the Tories coupled with Ed Miliband’s craven insistence that all this has nothing to do with the cuts, there is no reason why our own little structural adjustment experiment won’t continue.**

Of greatest benefit to this most opportunistic of governments and its media and police allies, this story has been successfully manipulated thus far to shift the focus of political blame from the corrupt wealthy (during the hacking scandal, and previously the banking crisis) to the excluded poor. And having a stolen TV or a pair of looted trainers doesn’t lift you out of poverty. It pains me to see the defining image of the Clapham cleanup being the young woman with a ‘looters are scum’ t-shirt. With that attitude the problem can never be fixed. Likewise the Metro headline ‘The Copycat Cretins’. As long as a society can comfortably refer to a section of itself as ‘scum’ or ‘cretins’ there will be terrible exclusion; it is circular.

*Incidentally I am uncomfortable with these terms, as I am with the deeply undemocratic (and somewhat racist) notion of ‘community leaders’. People talk about Tottenham’s ‘black community’ and its relationship to the riots but I see Tottenham and its many diverse residents as a whole. While I don’t know enough about Birmingham to talk about that case, I wonder whether drawing distinctions between ‘communities’ based on ethnicity is further flame-fanning.

**Though the government may fall if the economy continues to tank so badly and disorder on the streets spreads nationwide over a longer period.

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Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 9:07 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. And on that racist-vigilante-‘support the police’ interface, we have this: http://politicalscrapbook.net/2011/08/sean-boscott-racist/

  2. Good post. Follow the money…


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