Equating Grenfell protesters with rioters reveals just how far removed the media is from reality, writes KEITH FLETT
THE tragic and quite possibly criminal events at Grenfell Tower in Kensington brought a predictable reaction from the gutter press.
The Sun reportedly sent a reporter to pose as a relative of a victim to gain access to a hospital ward. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, claimed to have identified the man whose fridge it suggested had started the fire.
It wasn’t long, however, before more serious questions arose well beyond yellow journalism.
As anger rose at the lack of government response to the tragedy, both at national and local levels, protest marches were organised both in central London and in Kensington itself.
The march in Kensington in particular attracted media attention. It was reported that protesters had “stormed” Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall with a series of demands that they wanted the local council to respond to.
In reality, as one of the protesters pointed out on social media, the Town Hall is a public building and they had gained entry to it by the usual method of opening the door. No storming had been required.
As the protest continued, media commentary started to focus on whether or not there would be a riot and what a bad idea riots are. Clearly these commentators actually believed the Kaiser Chiefs song that riots can be predicted. They cannot.
What can be predicted is that on most occasions, which appear to those in authority and those not involved as being likely to conclude in a riot, they do not.
This is because while the gathering of people who may potentially riot is mostly spontaneous, on most occasions there is a core of organised political direction present.
The fact that the media often reports riots as being mystifying events simply reflects that they are too far away from reality to understand who and what is behind them.
The classic riot, dating to the pre-democratic period of the 18th century was over the price of basic foodstuffs or their quality.
As the historian and socialist EP Thompson noted, here the strategy was clear. The aim was precisely not to riot but to give the appearance that unless the demands of protesters were met then a riot might occur. It was a very successful way of winning concessions.
Another related question occurs. The protesters who were at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall were mostly described as just that but several commentators suggested that what was involved was the “mob.”
The use of the term “mob” has a long history dating back to the conservative writer Edmund Burke who used it to describe those who made the French Revolution in 1789.
In Burke’s usage the associations are essentially with criminality and conspiracy. In more recent times that has provoked considerable historical literature.
George Rude identified the use of “mob” as being reactionary and suggested that a much less loaded word to describe those who engage in protests is “crowd.” His book The Crowd in History details his approach.
Despite being a chronicler of riots EP Thompson was slightly less sure, pointing out that while crowds often gathered for progressive ends, this did not by any means rule out more reactionary gatherings.
He had a point. Its difficult to think that the Sun and the Daily Mail would be anything less than enthusiastic about 18th century “Church and King” protesters for example.
That of course is not what is happening after the Grenfell fire and it is important to underline that those who are protesting are not a “mob” but rather they are making a point democratically where democratic processes have fallen short.