Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riots, rolling news and responsibility: some reflections

Firstly, it struck me that there seemed to be very little in the way of an organised political agenda in what I was spent most of last night watching (apart from the politicians taking the opportunity to score points off each other with comments about tans and sun loungers and, occasionally more ideological observations). What I saw seemed more about opportunistic consumerism. As the Hackney resident in the extensively re-tweeted clip accused the rioters, “we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause we’re running down Footlocker and thieving shoes”. Granted, there were references to Cameron and student fees scrawled on the wall behind her, but that these groups of (mainly) young people were taking this opportunity to stock up on designer goods and must-have gadgets made me think that, rather than striving to bring about fundamental social change, there was the implicit assumption (expectation, requirement) that their own communities and society in general would soon return to a state in which those items would again have some kind of status worth. Little point in parading the latest 4G phone or boasting a 50” TV if civil unrest brings down the national infrastructure including telecommunications and power. Rather, the items being opportunistically looted were the items that carried some kind of worth ‘before’ and that they could be reasonably confident would do so again ‘after’. Relative deprivation in action, perhaps, but not an attempt to challenge the fundamental underpinnings of our society, to rail against capitalism or (and this might be a little more controversial) to protest at ‘the cuts’.
Secondly, I found myself reflecting on the watching experience itself. The irony of the BBC News channel blaming social networking sites for spreading news of violence and “potentially violent groups of young people”, yet not once reflecting on the effects of rolling 24hours news reporting struck me. As did the irony of finding myself entering something along these lines as my status update on Facebook. To someone so inclined, the possibility of being Breaking News on one of the many channels offering us the crisis in minute-by-minute realtime could, it seems feasible, be the spur needed to head out into the streets, set a fire, and see how long it took the Sky News helicopter to find them. The reporting of copycat violence in other UK towns didn’t once reflect on the source of the information that could be copied.
Of course, these observations skirt around the meatier issues of causation. I have used the term ‘so inclined’ (above) carelessly perhaps, whilst uncomfortably aware that these are the real issues here – and the ones less easily reflected on and put into words. Are the police part of the cause or part of the solution? Is the anger of these young people directed at them as representatives of an institution or as representatives of the state, or society in general? Are they simply the ones on the ground, and present (or not present if you believe some of the reporting) when other issues boil over? If you were to ask a looter or rioter engaged in the act what their motivations were, would they have any? And would the absence of any clearly articulated motive prove that this was random and wanton, or would it signal the lack of educational opportunities that both underpinned their anger and denied these individuals the skills to enunciate their grievances? Is it a coincidence that many of these images are so redolent of scenes from Grand Theft Auto (and here I know I am getting into uncomfortable territory). Are these apparently motiveless acts actually desperate attempts by the powerless to exercise power for even the briefest of moments – destined to be extinguished along with the fires they set.
Depending on what you read, and where you read it, the problem is Conservative policy, a legacy of New Labour, poor parenting, blocked opportunities, immigration, and (occasionally) the death of Mark Duggan. To many it seems that this is to be taken as an opportunity to trot out some well-rehearsed grievances about the state of the country, the youth of today, the decline of old-fashioned values, whilst for others (e.g. those using Twitter and Facebook not to co-ordinate destruction but to marshall clean-up operations) it requires a stout defence of community, a determined effort to deny these events the status that others see them as having.
Either way, we are currently in some kind of peculiar limbo as we wait for the rioters to sleep off their nights’ activities, for dusk to fall again, and for the cogs of political decision making to slowly crank into emergency action. Meanwhile I am left with the uncomfortable sense that the unprecedented nature of the events (and potentially the response being considered in Westminster) is as much about the unprecedented nature of the multi-media and communications context as it is about the unprecedented nature of the broader social climate.

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