Journalists surround a demonstrator outside Millbank tower
By Alex Wood
Following the fees demo there has been an outpouring of moral outrage from across the elite; from the media, police, politicians and union bureaucrats. Student activists seem generally inspired by the energy and boldness of demonstrators who occupied the Tories’ HQ, as well as the huge attendance and diversity of the demo. Yet on reflection, most students are disappointed to find the media focused on the dropping of a fire extinguisher and misrepresenting vandalism as ‘violence’, so as to portray the protest as violent beyond any proportion to reality.

The eternal problem for activists is the media seems to either ignore a protest altogether or ignore the message and focus only on protesters’ supposed ‘violence’, or occasionally whether the police response was too heavy handed (when it is impossible to deny police violence). This can be seen throughout history. Take the recent G20 protests, for example, nearly all the coverage focused on either perceived protester ‘violence’ or the police response. What can activists do, they’re damned to either being ignored altogether or being demonised and still having their message ignored?

First, we need to understand why this happens. Stuart Hall explains in Policing the Crisis that it is not simply down to some conspiracy theory of the media being owned by evil capitalists. The market means that the media has to speak the language of their audience; they must also be viewed by their audience as professional, independent and unbiased, otherwise their audience, who are not dupes, will reject them. It must also be interesting, i.e. topics which are ‘newsworthy’. Something is usually ‘newsworthy’ if it is new (this is pretty rare) or contrasts with the ‘consensus view of society’. A student protest is not particularly new and this can be seen in the evening editions of newspapers that had gone to print before the events at Millbank Tower. In these papers the coverage of the demo was relegated to the end of the paper and contained a few paragraphs, copy and pasted from the NUS press release.

However, if an event or act can be portrayed as being against the ‘consensus view of society’ it suddenly becomes very ‘newsworthy’, even if it is not new. In doing so the media must maintain its perceived professionalism, independence and non-bias. Stories need to rely on credible sources and when it comes to a disturbance the most credible are Scotland Yard, the Home Office and senior politicians (and in this case union bureaucrats). This elite is thus given the role of ‘primary definer’ of the issue. Of course not being seen as biased is necessary for maintaining credibility, so alternative views must also be represented, but this happens after the issue has been defined (if news isn’t from a credible source how can it be credible no matter how balanced). These secondary voices then are left to statements of “Yes but…”. Once the fees demo was categorised as ‘violent’ alternative views could only try to explain or play down the violence.

The media’s role is to communicate with their audience in a way which their audience understands. In using the elite as ‘primary definers’ the media essentially transforms their views so the general public can easily digest them; in this way a ‘consensus view of society’ is shaped, obviously this consensus view is not a real consensus (if such a thing exists) but merely the views of the elite recycled for mass consumption. In this way a cultural hegemony develops from independent, unbiased, professional media and inevitably protesters are either completely ignored or portrayed as violent and their message ignored anyway.

What then can we do? It is clear that direct action is the only way to gain corporate media attention but we also need our own ‘primary definers’. This means democratic, radical student unions, which represent grassroots activists, it means having radical politicians who fight our corner, and intellectuals who highlight alternatives rather than hiding in their ivory tower. The careerist Aaron Porters need to be replaced by a new generation of Tony Benns, Billy Braggs, Rudi Dutschkes and Ralph Milibands to defend direct action in the cultural sphere.