The presentation of the report coincided with the anniversary of the riot in Tottenham that sparked unrest on a national scale. Paul Lewis had tweeted from the front line of the riots in three cities, gaining 35,000 new followers as well as receiving a host of award nominations for his reporting. And yet Lewis was dissatisfied with the theories that purported to explain the events and argued that what was needed was more reliable research – research that he went on to help carry out over the following six months.
In conducting the study Lewis says “I discovered things about journalism” as well as “the riots themselves.”
The study uses confidential interviews with 270 people who were directly involved in the riots. The majority of the interviews were conducted in communities around the UK. A further set of interviews took place in prison with people convicted of riot-related offences. The study also involved a separate analysis by academics at Manchester University of a database of more than 2.5 million tweets connected with the riots.
The foreword to the study by Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and the director of the London School of Economics, Professor Judith Rees describes the motivation for ‘Reading the Riots’, which was the need for “high-quality social research” amid “a number of very significant gaps in public understanding”.
Of course, events of this scale pose huge challenges to media, which must attempt to balance speed with accuracy. Furthermore, as Paul Lewis points out: “in the immediate aftermath, people who had committed serious crimes were going to be reluctant to speak. It takes time to develop trust, and I think it was always going to be easier to speak with those involved weeks later.”
“Part of the reason few rioters were interviewed at the time,” says Lewis, “was they were hard to find – and hard to convince to talk. For those of us covering the riots, it was often too risky to approach people, identifying ourselves as journalists.”
First-hand, authentic voices become even more significant in the reportage of large-scale social movements which, in order to achieve balanced coverage, must consult people directly at the source.
With some exceptions, it was the tone of the media coverage in the aftermath that posed the biggest problem. The report alludes to the political reaction to the riots, which was frequently characterised more by rhetoric of criminalisation than by evidence.
The introduction to the study states that: “A major political debate about the riots and the appropriate policy response quickly got under way, but in its early stages it is probably fair to say that it was characterised more by rhetoric than evidence.”
“What was missing was solid evidence, particularly in connection with the rioters themselves. What led to the disturbances? Why did people riot, or loot? What was in their minds as they did so?”
The need for this kind of study is paramount when we think back to the initial, and perhaps most profound example of inaccurate reporting surrounding last summer’s events.
In the first reports of Mark Duggan’s death – the 29-year-old who was shot by police in Tottenham on August 4, 2011 – the police said that he was armed and involved in a shoot-out. Subsequent research casts doubt on whether any kind of shoot-out took place. There has also been no evidence yet to prove, as was initially reported, that the bullet that was lodged in a policeman’s radio had been fired by Duggan. Reports that Duggan was a drug dealer and gang member have also been repeated and strenuously denied by his family.
In the conference report ‘Media and The Riots: A Call For Action’, NUJ President Donnacha DeLong says:
“One of the worst parts of the post-riots coverage was where the content of newspapers came directly from the police. It was about wanted lists, it was pictures of people, newspapers were doing the police’s job for them. Instead of analysing and going deeper into the story and finding out why it happened, they were simply helping the police arrest people.”
The reports of the alleged Mark Duggan shoot-out were not the only incident in which the media failed to accurately represent the events that took place last summer, rather it initiated a stream of what The Times’s Tony Evans described as “a particularly grim period for journalism.” Ordinarily the football editor for the famous British national, Evans spoke away from his usual beat at a meeting at the National Union of Journalists headquarters about the problematic role played by the media in the reporting of the riots.
Another initial report suggested that gangs had played a significant role in the violence of last summer. Evidence presented in ‘Reading the Riots’ shows that in fact “gangs behaved in an entirely atypical manner for the duration of the riots, temporarily suspending hostilities with their postcode rivals […] On the whole the role of gangs in the riots has been significantly overstated.”
On August 11, 2011, David Cameron said that “Gangs were at the heart of the protest and have been behind the co-ordinated attacks.” The initial figure released by the Metropolitan Police of gang members arrested in London was revised from 28% to 19%, which eventually dropped to 13% nationwide.
Cameron said he thought it “simply preposterous for anyone to suggest that people looting in Tottenham at the weekend, still less three days later Salford, were in any way doing so because of the death of Mark Duggan”. In contrast 75% of the 270 people interviewed for ‘Reading the Riots’ thought that the shooting of Mark Duggan was an “important” or “very important” cause of the riots.
When Cameron delivered his speech in Oxfordshire in the days following the riots he said, “Those thugs we saw last week do not represent us, nor do they represent our young people – and they will not drag us down. These riots were not about government cuts: they were directed at high street stores, not Parliament. And these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.
“No, this was about behaviour, people showing indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint.”
Cameron’s words were echoed in the media coverage in the aftermath of the riots.
The Sun’s coverage on August 8 stated “The mob that turned the centre of Tottenham in London into a smoking ruin were not seeking justice. They are criminal thugs who were hell bent on theft, arson and violence.” On August 10 the Sun’s front page read ‘Shop a Moron’ and invited readers to name and shame rioters. The Daily Express headline on August 8 read ‘Flaming Morons’, while The Daily Telegraph ‘Rule of the Mob’ was accompanied by the Daily Mail’s ‘The anarchy spreads’. On August 11 the Daily Express splashed with ‘Sweep Scum Off Our Streets’ and the Evening Standard ran the headline ‘London’s Shame’.
This same tone was present across the “24-hour rolling news” which accompanied the riots. Tony Evans said that he: “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.”
He continued: “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 a lot 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.”
When I asked Paul Lewis what he thought the apparent lack of media interest in the political causes of the riots was down to, he said:
“I think that in the immediate aftermath of the riots, there was a climate that prevented any serious debate about possible causes. Understandably, people were shocked to the core by the horrific disorder on that scale. I think that led some – wrongly, in my view – to confuse attempts to explain what had happened, with efforts to justify it. It is disappointing that some still hold that view 12 months later.”
The ramifications of the riots continue to be felt a year on and investigations into the relationship between the reportage of the riots and the government’s youth and welfare policies are ongoing.
Imogen Tyler, a lecturer in sociology and author of the forthcoming book ‘Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain’ says:
“One year later we can begin to see how the representation of the riots as the riots of the underclass has been exploited by the Coalition Government to elicit consent for the shift from a protective welfare to penal ‘workfare’ regimes.“
Indeed, as Paul Lewis points out, the riots “provided a confirmation of political views.”
One year on, studies such as ‘Reading the Riots’ help us to assess the performance of the media in reporting the unrest, its cause and its impact. The report underlines the need for journalists to engage further with primary sources and to base reporting on comprehensive data.
Musician Plan B, who has been vocal in his views on the riots and has been involved in a new campaign urging Londoners to reconsider their views on young people pointed out in his TEDXObserver speech “there is a demonisation of the youth throughout the media. And people are falling for it, because if you’d had no direct contact with the kids that I’m talking about how the hell can you judge them? Because you’re only judging them based on something you read in a newspaper.”