Protests and print: what I learnt from ‘Grants Not Debt’

discusses his experience of the Grants Not Debt demonstration and how it was subsequently reported by our national print media

When I first heard about the Grants Not Debt demonstration in London planned for the 4th November I was sceptical. I harboured all the obvious doubts; that the protest would be futile, and that it might attract trouble-makers rather than demonstrators. Although I wholeheartedly believe in the principle that education should be free, I doubt whether it is feasible at this moment in time. Nevertheless, in the past 12 months I’ve met far too many people my age who have been deterred from higher education for fear of the life sentence of debt a university place demands. The abolition of maintenance grants will affect a close friend of mine and, regardless of its supposed virtues, it will discourage yet more underprivileged young people from higher education. I’ve also been uneasy about the way our politicians and my generation seem to view education, particularly the perception that it is merely a means to a better salary. Education is so much more than that. It’s about encouraging critical thinking, social participation and creating an educated population for the betterment of all society.

a society without protest is a dead society

Despite these convictions I remained sceptical. I take an interest in politics, as we all should, but I am by no means an activist and so travelling to London seemed daunting. What won me over was a sense of duty; regardless of their questionable impact, demonstrations are a necessary component of a conscious and active society. Indeed, a society without protest is a dead society. And seeing as I had yet to attend a demonstration in the UK, I felt compelled to go. Furthermore, I knew it might be a chance to meet some politically like-minded people, something I’ve found quite difficult studying at what I’ve often heard described as the most apolitical university in the country. What’s more, YUSU did an excellent job as organisers: a £10 return to London is a bargain.

So after successfully convincing myself and my flatmates, Daniel Lewis and Chris Bower, we found ourselves making the short walk up University Road at six am burdened with hastily-assembled placards and joking about the four and half hour coach trip that lay ahead. After a sleepy trip down South, our sardonic but friendly bus driver warmly welcomed us to what he called “Hell”, and we spilled out into a brilliant November afternoon ready to join the protest on Malet Street. The planned itinerary was for some rousing speeches, including some words from Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, to fire us up before we set off through the capital. Our excitement was soon dashed however as the organisers failed to provide a half-decent PA system. Even though I was only 20 metres away all I heard from McDonnell was something about how this was to be a peaceful protest and the odd remark about “solidarity”.

Although I was excited to be a part of the protest as I looked around the crowd, there were reasons other than the dodgy megaphone to feel somewhat disillusioned. I quickly lost track of how much crass and childish pig-related paraphernalia I saw and once the initial amusement had died down I couldn’t help but feel irritated every time a chorus of “Tory Scum” rang around me. I don’t think Tory voters are scum; I just fundamentally disagree with the government they voted for. To be sure, these are problems that plague most protests; large crowds are not known for encouraging individual and articulate expression. Except, perhaps in placards. Irrespective of the large cardboard piggybank someone was holding up behind me, the protest had some brilliant placards. The classic ironic jibe “Down with This Sort of Thing” satirising the stereotypically reserved and well-behaved nature of us Brits brought a smile, but there were more serious ones too.  Several “Fees Must Fall” banners poignantly expressed solidarity with student protests in South Africa, a few contributions echoed our own placard “Education is a Public Good, Not a Commodity” and we saw plenty of references to ourselves as the debt generation.

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image: Tuva Hope

Despite the problems, once we began marching it was hard not to feel empowered. This truly was a national demonstration; organisers claim that over 40 universities took part. Walking through the crowd I met students representing the universities of Edinburgh, Warwick, Winchester, Manchester, and Coventry as well as London institutions like Goldsmiths, SOAS, King’s College, Brunel and UCL. The atmosphere was friendly and peaceful; I even talked to a personable police liaison officer who told me about the strains Tory austerity is having on our police services. We passed by the pillars of our democracy: Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, the Home Office and finally the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It was here that the disturbances that dominated newspaper headlines began.

We were at the very front of the demonstration when we saw around 40 well-padded police officers surge through the crowd in response to smoke bombs that had been set off about 100 metres behind us. According to police, this was in response to eggs and paint bombs being hurled at them. Some of my friends followed the police and watched as they pushed protesters towards the epicentre of the trouble and try and form a kettle (the police tactic of quarantining a section of a crowd, often for a long time, in the hope of preventing anti-social behaviour). It was at this point that some scuffles broke out between police and a small group of protesters, some of whom were carrying anarchist flags and did not appear to be students.

Fear of being kettled was on everyone’s minds and tensions were high

Wanting to avoid trouble my friends and I regrouped away from the action and together we watched as the police held several hundred people for about 10 minutes. Fear of being kettled was on everyone’s minds and tensions were high. Suddenly the containment broke (allegedly protesters pushed through police lines) and we saw hundreds of people running down the street, hotly pursued by police. In the chaos, everyone panicked and the entire protest ran towards Victoria Street, breaking with the agreed route and bursting onto streets that had not been closed off, much to the bewilderment of many Londoners.

It was at this point that I was separated from the rest of the group and that the protest disintegrated. What followed for me was a rather strange hour wandering around the streets looking for my friends and talking with interested members of the public who were broadly supportive of our cause. “Good for you for protesting, there’s a *uc*-tonne of things wrong right now” one middle-aged women told me, adding that she would join demonstrations more often if it wasn’t for police tactics.

Despite the day’s excitement it was a pensive and solemn journey home. I was initially buoyed by the fact that one of our banners made it onto LBC Radio’s website but I felt somewhat discouraged that the BBC News at seven, eight and 11 o’clock prioritized frivolous human interest stories over our demonstration. Slumped at the back of the bus, my friends and I fell into conversation with some other students and we talked honestly about the effectiveness of the protest; our doubts and aspirations; the remnants and relevance of class politics; the key experiences which had formed our political convictions, and the future of the Left in Britain.

he advised us to get organised and never give up the fight

As we neared York, one of our bus drivers, the sardonic one, made his way up the aisle and after little coaxing told us passionately about his life experiences and political views. As he spoke of the miners’ strike it was plain to see his very real hatred of the Conservative Party and just how raw the memories still are for him. It was humbling to see a burly Yorkshireman so worn down, but there was still some fire in his eye when he advised us to get organised and never give up the fight. As I watched the self-professed rebel make his way back down the aisle, I couldn’t help but feel dismayed at how unrepresentative our government is for millions of Britons.

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image: Tuva Hope

This gloomy feeling soon turned to frustration the next day as I browsed through the national newspapers. The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, predictably enough, all painted an image of out-of-control violent youths descending on the streets of London. The Sun even hinted that the “violence”, a definite hyperbole, had been in response to a call-to-arms given by McDonnell – a suggestion that is simply ludicrous. Even if we had been able to hear him, I highly doubt McDonnell’s speech would have incited a riot.

The Times was the most infuriating. Their article featured an almost militant photograph of protesters clad all in black and surrounded by flares with a placard in the centre which read “Rise Riot”. It also printed the Metropolitan Police Service’s claim that there was no containment, something eye-witnesses such as myself can disprove, before concluding with an ominous warning by a Chief Superintendent to those attending the Million Mask March planned for the next day. Although I see the logic of concluding an article about a protest by addressing an upcoming one, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a sly ploy to equate our largely peaceful demonstration with a strange, meaningless and nasty evening of anti-social behaviour.

The Independent’s brief but largely accurate coverage marked an improvement. Their assertion that 10,000 students took part struck me as overenthusiastic – to my mind there must have been 3,000 of us at most. However, the pictures of police battering protesters and angry students wearing pig masks were problematic and unrepresentative. Even The Guardian, a newspaper known for its youthful readership and centre-left credentials, focused almost entirely on the “violence” and featured an image of police jostling with protesters. Perhaps this is hardly surprising, as commercial products newspapers will always focus on violence.

for the vast majority of protesters their reasons for demonstrating were sincere

People may find my criticisms exaggerated. Online coverage of the protest, particularly by The Guardian, was more positive and after all the papers didn’t print any lies. However, I am convinced that the print media have deliberately tried to undermine the legitimacy of the protest through their reporting. It is clear that the protest had its flaws, but the fact that all our major newspapers chose to focus on some scuffles involving a tiny percentage of protestors, many of whom were not even students, is not only disrespectful to the thousands of peaceful demonstrators but misleading to the public.

In any reporting of an event photographs are crucial; they frame one’s perception and remain with the reader long after the words have evaporated. Photographs of clashes with police officers and students wearing pig masks are damaging as they create a deceptive subtext: that the demonstration was a meaningless gathering by naïve and belligerent young people intent on public disorder. This is false. Having attended the demonstration, I can confirm that for the vast majority of protesters their reasons for demonstrating were sincere. I saw that the protest was overwhelmingly peaceful, that the police’s tactics exacerbated tensions, and that they were subsequently dishonest about their actions.

It is perhaps the fate of all young people who have the courage to express their political views to be slighted and patronised by older generations. Nevertheless, it is incredibly frustrating to see our national print media actively trying to reinforce condescending stereotypes of young people as aggressive and thoughtless. It demonstrates that our media, like our current government, is not interested in engaging with grievances that many young people share only on marginalising and ridiculing them. When reporting on an event, good journalism should strive to give the public as impartial and accurate a description as possible. It is not a journalist’s job to use factual reporting to try and mould public opinion; that can come later in comment and opinion pieces.

the print media have deliberately tried to undermine the legitimacy of the protest through their reporting

Last year’s general election, coupled with the growing independence all young people experience at university, has illustrated to me how flawed and one-sided our media is. However, the way this demonstration was portrayed has made me realise the scale of the problem, the subtleties involved in public manipulation, and how totally removed reporting can be from real-life experiences.

I believe that British democracy is weak and that the battle of our generation will be to strengthen it.  If we want to do so, along with reforming our archaic electoral system, we must look at ways of reforming our media. An informed voter may not require higher education but they certainly need a robust and diverse media to help them make proficient decisions at the ballot box. I’m glad I attended the Grants Not Debt demonstration. It taught me that it is not just education that is a necessary component of a healthy democracy; our media must be as well.

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Sam and friends at the protest. Image: Miguel Rodriguez

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