Last night I was caught entirely off guard by an important and moving speech. I was attending a meeting at the National Union of Journalists headquarters in London about “reporting the riots”, when the football editor of The Times, Tony Evans, took to his feet.
It turns out Evans has a great deal more on his mind than football. He explained how appalled he was at the media’s coverage of the riots – and slammed journalists who have failed to criticise the government’s narrative that there was no underlying social, political or economic cause.
Calling for journalists to seek out the truth, Evans described how he himself knew what it was like to be part of an underclass. He confessed he had fought with police as a youngster and stole from shops – he knew, he said, how it felt to be demonised by the press.
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Luckily, I managed to get a partial recording of the speech. Transcribed below, it began with Evans referring to a recent episode of BBC’s Newsnight, during which former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie dismissed any attempt to understand the wider context of the riots...
... The presenter turned to Kelvin Mackenzie and said to him, "don't you think we should try to understand these riots?"
He said, "no I don't think we should". And there we have it. The lack of understanding; the wilful ignorance. To try and come to terms with what's caused this trouble in our society and this alienation where one large section of society just doesn't want to think about the people who are involved in it [the rioting]. And wants to write them off, criminalise them, and put them in to a sort of box where they don't have to be thought about.
I think that is what has characterised the coverage of the riots. I think it has been a particularly grim period for journalism. It was led that way, in many ways, in the initial outburst of violence by the 24hr rolling news.
I found it staggering, the way news presenters were editorialising. They were showing film of what was going on in Tottenham, and they were saying: "there is no political element to this, this is just vandalism, this is just people looting" ... without any sense of what the background to this was. Without any attempt to put it in its context.
We saw Sky News reporters walking down the streets, filming people on their phones and saying, "I come from round here, I can't believe what I'm seeing, are you proud of yourself?" As if they were headmasters.
That's not journalism. Journalism should be the pursuit of the truth and the pursuit of knowledge. And we weren't seeing knowledge there. We were getting the vicarious thrills of being in the middle of a riot. The Daily Mail's view? "Give this man an award". I don't think it's award-winning journalism personally – because it told me nothing.
It told me nothing because I've been in a riot. I've fought with policemen. I've kicked in shop windows. I've stole from shops. Alot of people haven't, but I have. And I understand the frustrations that come from being in that underclass, where you're written off, where you're given no opportunities. And you're demonised. You're demonised by the media and you're demonised by the political system. It was 30 years ago, but I felt the same way they [the rioters] did.
The way the media was quick to put it all down to a sense of consumerism. "They've all got Blackberrys". Well, a Blackberry doesn't cost very much actually. But I'll tell you what – what alot of the kids who where there [rioting] don't have is expectations. The poverty of expectation, the poverty of belief in what you can do with your life...
But of course, the newspapers were more concerned with taking the opposite view. The Daily Express – the headline – "Flaming Morons". Which says to you: these people don't deserve to be treated well, they don't deserve to be regarded as human beings. And all through that whole week of rioting... the narrative was all about that. It was all about criminality. It's all about not being able to explain, about not being able to understand. As if this came all out of the blue and surprised us.
This has been building for four or five years. And the only people who appear to be surprised about it are journalists and politicians. So we have this situation where the government now is allowed to move the dialogue on and suddenly blame gangs. And the newspapers are rushing to report this, and agree with it.
In every time of economic turmoil, where poverty is building, there have been riots over the years. There has also been the instinctive urge to blame gangs. It goes back to the 1870s and the 1880s and the High Rip [gang] in Liverpool. So they [gangs] are easy targets.
And what it does: you don't need to get beyond the surface, you can just point fingers. And this is what's disappointed me from the newspapers especially in the last few weeks.
I can understand the superficiality of television. But you know, I can't understand that newspapers, where you've got time, you've got the chance to talk to people, the anonymity that's guaranteed in print, that no one’s gone out to talk to the people who were doing this, who were out there.
... Sky News ran a piece with four kids, where they discussed the reason that they rioted. And they were very articulate about it. They talked about how they had attempted to fit in to normal society, but had been turned back at every turn. You know, it's easy to understand. But again, that piece was undermined by the payoff, which talked about criminal behaviour. If this was about criminal behaviour, if this was about violence, if this was just about feral kids running out of control, we'd see it every weekend.
We saw spontaneous outbursts of it because this society's mantra is "there is no society". Why would you expect these kids to care about people around them?
And yet, there was no sense of blaming the politicians for this environment that they've created. It's all about punishment. It's all about victimisation, it's all about marginalising people who've got the least voice. That's what's really disappointed me. And I don't see it getting any better.
Unfortunately I don't think there's a will to understand in this country. And I also think there is an instinctive fear in some journalists – quite alot of them – to actually confront the preconceptions of the mass of the British public.
This is a time when journalism has been trusted probably about as little as it's ever been trusted. And what people don't want to do is say to the people who say "they're louts, send them to the army, hang them, shoot them", no, you're wrong, think about it. It's easier to go along with public perceptions...
But that's not our role. Our role is to come up with the truth. And I don’t believe we've got to the truth in the last few weeks.