Ian Tomlinson and the tabloids

At around 7.30pm on Wednesday 1 April, a man caught up in the G20 protests despite not bing a protester, died. The coverage of Ian Tomlinson's death laid bare the inadequacies of the popular press in dealing with events such as this. The main and most obvious failing is the over-reliance of the press on official accounts, but there were other factors at play that led to the pretty dismal reporting. This abysmal coverage would probably not have been challenged in the tabloids had the Guardian not released video on Tuesday of Mr Tomlinson being assaulted from behind shortly before his death. Here is the footage, which isn't very nice:

The first official accounts of Mr Tomlinson's death asserted that brave police and paramedics were pelted with missiles while trying to save him. Such accounts were reported uncritically by the tabloids, and the Standard even went as far as embellishing the story, adding bricks to the missiles police were pelted with.

This is despite evidence showing this version of events might be unlikely emerging incredibly quickly, and despite the police giving incredibly unreliable accounts of events like this in the past. Justin over at Chicken Yoghurt was sceptical very early on, pushing eyewitness accounts that contradicted the official versions appearing in the tabloids. The tabloids themselves ignored these accounts up until the Guardian published the video footage, with the exception of the Mirror and the Daily Mail who both mentioned them the day before. The Mail's coverage, 'Newspaper seller who died during G20 protests was pushed back by police, say investigators' however, relegates the eyewitness accounts to halfway through the article, devoting the headline and opening paragraphs to claims by the IPCC that Mr Tomlinson had merely been pushed back by a police line.

Obviously, there is a problem that has been shown up here with relying only on official accounts. Perhaps it is only now that some in the press will learn from Forest Gate, Jean Charles de Menezes and possibly Hillsborough when reporting on tragic events that involve the police. Official accounts may be wrong. They may even be likely to be wrong.

The police is made up of people, and people are given to interpreting their own actions and those of people like them in the best possible light. Even if we're not talking about an evil cabal of spinning, smearing liars here (which we may well be), we are at least talking about people who will behave like people. They're just as likely to be unreliable as other witnesses, yet the others were pretty comprehensively ignored.

There is one big reason why these people were ignored and the papers were so quick to believe accounts of nasty people pelting brave officers. It may even have something to do with why the officer in question here decided he would clump a man, who had both hands in his pockets, across the leg from behind with his baton before shoving him hard enough to knock him over.

All the other press coverage about the protests painted protesters as the common caricatured stereotype of empty headed violent goons intent on causing mayhem for reasons they don't even know themselves. Even in its coverage of Mr Tomlinson's death, the Sun refers to protesters as 'yobs' and 'troublemakers', and desparately tries to distance Mr Tomlinson from them. The Mail includes a couple of helpful columns from its commentators, reminding us of how nasty and horrible the protesters are. Liz Jones's effort, headlined 'I hate these crusties, with their droppy dyed skirts and boiled wool cardigans' cheerily informs us that:
I hate crusties. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, these are people who wear stripy woollen hats even when it’s boiling. The men have beards; some of the women do, too.
Oh ho ho ho:
I wish the police had used water cannon on them, probably the first wash they’d have had in years.
Like a sticky fingered little kid with two bits of warm, differently coloured plasticine, Richard Littlejohn clumsily mashes protesters together with the Mail's current pantomime villain in 'Russell Brand turns up at a G20 demonstration - as the global village idiot', telling us:
Apart from picking a fight with the police and smashing a few windows, what did any of them hope to achieve? This wasn't about saving the planet, or bringing down capitalism, it was an exercise in self-indulgence.
So we can safely ignore them. That's a relief.

Both these articles and most of the other coverage describing the protesters came after the G20 protests, but without the reference to specific celebs they could have been written at any time in the last 20-30 years. They're all familiar to me from my days in the civil service when our buildings were disrupted by protesters. They were lazy caricatures then and they are now, but apparently people still believe them without reservation.

This is why most papers didn't bother reporting things that had been circulating on websites and blogs for days before the IPCC released some information and the Guardian released the video of Mr Tomlinson's death.

And what about the policeman who hit and pushed Mr Tomlinson to the ground? What was going through his head? It's impossible to say, but it's likely he thought Mr Tomlinson was a protester and had absolutely no idea that a shove might lead to his death. If he were only half as hateful as the sneering Liz Jones, he may have instinctively disliked the man and thought he deserved punishment. The caricature of protester is widely spread enough for him to have bought into it, especially as he would have to rationlise his opposing position.

That he was wrong about Mr Tomlinson being a protester isn't relevant. Like anyone else, the police should not be allowed to assault people who are not posing a threat, especially from behind. And, like anyone else, the police may be prone to do nasty things they wouldn't normally do if their target has been dehumanised and othered. From other accounts of the day, it seems that the treatment meted out to Mr Tomlinson wasn't unique.

The tabloids are not wholly responsible for the dehumanising and demonising of protesters in the popular consciousness, but they contribute to and perpetuate it in their race to reflect the views they think their readers already hold. Trying to keep up in the race means that the facts of Mr Tomlinson's death may well have been lost had the Guardian not published the video evidence. People would happily believe that these stupid and malicious thugs pelted brave heroes trying to save an innocent man's life, because stupid and malicious thugs can't be trusted but the police can.

Now, if not before, it seems that when something has gone horribly wrong in which the police are involved, their official accounts can't be trusted. In the future, no more weight should be given by the press to police testimony than anyone else's. It does pain me to say that, since I am someone who has come within a gnat's whisker of joining the police (Metropolitan, City of London and Ministry of Defence).

But the tabloid press will always privilege official police accounts, no matter how many times they are exposed as being unreliable. Especially when the people on the other side are part of - or at least a bit nearby - a group the tabloids treat as villains. So you better hope that someone with a camera is around if you get into a tussle with the police anywhere near Scousers, Muslims or protesters. (Or social workers, gays, left wingers and on and on and on).

And Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act should be revoked as soon as possible, but that's a whole nother story.

There's brilliant stuff about this all over the place, which you must have seen by now. Bloggerheads has more recent stuff, which I haven't read yet. Go and look.


eric the fish said...

I used to have a slight hand (sleight of hand) in defending the accused in Liverpool. It was often noted that the level of conviction was low and many believed this was due to perception that Dixon in the Box was not always telling the truth against Dixie in the Dock. From my less-than-scientific discussions, it became apparent that most people had been subjected to police dirty tricks or knew someone who had. The reality is irrelevant; perception becomes vitally important.

bristle said...

The Sun has been heroically risking the bends in its hasty descent of the depths today:

"unsteady on his feet through booze...refused to move...battling alcoholism...estranged from Julia...drink problem...lived in a hostel for the homeless...clearly been drinking...standing in the middle of the road blocking the path of a riot police van...just mumbled something and raised his arm a bit unsteadily. It was then it became obvious he was drunk because he wasn’t really coherent and couldn’t move well...He certainly wasn’t on his way home. He had no intention of going anywhere."

It was the Sun wot gotcha, Ian!

However, a runners-up prize is surely due to the Mail for its own curtain-twitchy moralising on 'IT worker Ross Hardy's pictures, which appear to be syndicated by MrPaparazzi, the bottom-feeding sleb gossip site set up by shock-snapper Darryn Lyons:

"drunken confrontation with police...deliberately blocking a police van before refusing to be moved on..."

FlipC said...

I don't think it's so much holding official police accounts in privilege, but holding all official accounts that way.

After all they can't be blamed for printing or repeating official accounts, but they can be for unofficial ones; so which are they going to favour?