As the bicentenary of The Guardian approaches, Des Freedman examines its contradictory attitude towards social change
The Guardian’s coverage of protest and direct action is a significant marker of its wider attitude to social change. For a title that emerged, according to its own mythology – as a response to the ‘Peterloo’ massacre in August 1819 where the authorities killed at least 18 people attending a rally for electoral reform and trade union rights in Manchester – one would expect support for mass mobilisations to be in its very bones. The truth is a little more complicated.
First, while John Edward Taylor, the man who went on to found the Manchester Guardian two years after Peterloo, did indeed condemn the violence of the yeomanry that day, he attributed the violence to a few ‘bad apples’ and criticised the ‘presumption, vulgarity and violence of some self-styled reformers’ as equally culpable. Taylor and his allies campaigned for a public inquiry that would embarrass the government but differentiated themselves from the radical voices that were demanding widespread political reform, including universal suffrage.
Jump forward two centuries and consider The Guardian’s coverage of the angry protests in Bristol against the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that is squarely designed to restrict the right to protest and suppress dissent. Following violent scenes at the initial protest on Sunday 21 March, The Guardian amplified police and government sources, focusing heavily on home secretary Priti Patel’s condemnation of the protest as the result of ‘thuggery and disorder by a minority’. The following day, it described the protest as a ‘riot’ and featured photographs of participants that police wanted to speak to in relation to the event.
The Guardian, 22 March 2021
On Wednesday that week, the paper featured a story, based heavily on a broadcast interview with the chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales who described the ‘horrendous violence’ faced by the police who were ‘battered and bruised, in some cases physically’. The report features four separate police sources and not a single representative of the protestors.
The Guardian, 24 March 2021
By Thursday of that week, however, Avon and Somerset police had retracted claims that officers had suffered severe injuries, including broken bones and a punctured lung, on the Sunday protest – false statements that were widely published by an eager media corps, including The Guardian.
At this stage, the tone of The Guardian’s coverage started to shift. By the following weekend, the paper had published a series of articles that gave voice to the protestors themselves and challenged the police’s account of the three rallies that had taken place the previous week. A lengthy story by Tom Wall and a comment piece by Matty Edwards (of the community-owned Bristol Cable) provided extensive counter-narratives to the earlier reports and located the protests in relation to a long tradition of radical activism in Bristol. A further report that weekend shared the news that a Daily Mirror journalist covering the protests had been attacked by police. From being ‘under siege’ on Wednesday, the police were now ‘under fire’ for allegedly assaulting a reporter. The damage, however, had already been done.
The Guardian’s instinctive support for the ‘official’ side of the story – followed by more critical accounts in the days after – speaks to the existence of a ‘protest paradigm’: a form of journalism which conventionally accepts establishment sources, focuses on the ‘violence’ of the protestors and the ‘defensive’ actions of authorities, and marginalizes the wider reasons for the protest being called in the first place.
This connects to a broader conundrum in which The Guardian finds itself: that support for ‘liberal’ causes is in its DNA (or rather its mission statement) but not if this involves actual challenges to the status quo. It is one thing to back the right to protest in principle but, it seems, another to support protestors who take direct action to demand that this right is maintained.
We can see this tension played out throughout the Guardian’s history when it comes to popular mobilizations and radical protest. This is especially the case in its attitude to the action of ordinary citizens taking militant action to challenge unjust laws.
For example, the Guardian largely supported the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s but became nervous when it moved into a more confrontational phase with the emergence of the black power movement. In its editorial reflecting on a major civil rights march in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966, it concluded that:
“If the civil rights movement sticks to extremism in words, there is no cause for alarm. It is just another weapon in their rather limited armoury. But if the more militant mood means a move away from nonviolence, it is nothing more than a gesture of despair. The Negro protest movement will be cornered in the United States as it already has been in South Africa and rendered impotent.”
(The Guardian, 28 June 1966).
The Guardian criticised the Vietnam War but was less patient with those who sought to take to the streets of London to protest against it, once more identifying protestors as the violent protagonists and police as ‘provoked’ into responding forcefully to marchers outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1968.
“Demonstrators engaged police – mounted and on foot – in a protracted battle throwing stones, earth, firecrackers and smoke bombs. Plastic blood, an innovation, add a touch of vicarious brutality. It was only after considerable provocation that police tempers began to fray and truncheons started to be used, and then only for a short time. The demonstrators seemed determined to stay until they had provoked a violent response of some sort from the police, and this intention became paramount once they entered Grosvenor Square.”
(The Guardian, 18 March 1968).
Responding to the massacre by British paratroopers of 13 unarmed Republican demonstrators in Derry in 1972, the paper acknowledged in its report the following morning that ‘it is too soon to be sure of what happened’ but still published accounts that privileged military sources.
“The army has an intolerably difficult task in Ireland. At times it is bound to act firmly even severely. Whether individual soldiers misjudged their situation yesterday, or were themselves too directly threatened, cannot yet be known. The presence of snipers in the late stages of the march must have added a murderous dimension. It is a terrible warning to everyone involved.”
(The Guardian, 31 January 1972)
In each of these cases, The Guardian had some sympathy with the ‘causes’ with which the demonstrators were identified, but not with their actions. The newspaper resorted to reproducing official sources and diminishing alternative perspectives in the crucial periods immediately following the events.
Indeed, on the day of Britain’s biggest ever demonstration – the protest against the Iraq War on 15 February 2003, which attracted up to two million people in London alone – it simply chose to keep the march off its front page while some of its rivals led with the story and provided maps and schedules in order to increase participation. Instead, The Guardian relegated news of the protest to a small article on page 5 which included 69 words from Downing Street sources in comparison to 21 words from Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition which organised the march.
The Guardian claims to embody progressive values and, with some 160 million monthly readers across the globe, is a key site of left-of-centre news, comment and investigation. Yet, when it comes to purposeful and, in some cases, angry protests against injustice, imperialism and racism, its reflex position appears to be one that amplifies official sources and denigrates the actions of participants. Celebrating the right to protest while simultaneously dismissing or even condemning protests themselves when they do not conform to The Guardian’s preference for moderate tactics and non-violent action (even in the face of real provocation) positions the paper not just as an indecisive ally of social change but as an historic bloc to precisely that change.
Des Freedman is the editor of Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian (published by Pluto Press on 20 April 2021) and co-organizer of the forthcoming conference, ‘Liberalism Inc: 200 Years of the Guardian’ on 23/24 April 2021. This features keynotes from former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, former editor-at-large Gary Younge, the Palestinian academic Ghada Karmi and the founder of Declassified UK, Mark Curtis. Free registration is available at https://hopin.com/events/liberalism-inc-200-years-of-the-guardian.
This is a longer version of a blog originally published by Pluto Press and reproduced here with their permission.
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Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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