People Power

Public, peaceful protest is one of the most powerful ways of drawing media attention to a cause. From the Greenham Peace Women to the students in Tianmen Square, when the people took their grievance to the streets, the media has taken it to the world at large. But what happens when the negative publicity generated for the activists is greater than the exposure they seek for their cause?

By Isabel Hopwood

The reason for all public demonstration is to influence others’ opinion by spreading your own. Favourable media coverage is therefore key to any successful protest. Campaigners for gay and womens rights chose the Grammys as the backdrop for their demonstration about the allegedly homophobic and misogynist content of award winner Eminem’s lyrics. The press pounced and the protest was reported in every national UK paper. However, reports in the online and magazine music press noted that his songs also contained pejorative references to the police, sundry authority figures, pensioners, teachers, friends, his family and even himself. The coverage not only highlighted the protesters’ argument as ill-considered, it also did little to damage Eminem’s reputation as a misunderstood bad boy. If you can hear a ringing in your ears, it’s the tills at HMV.

Cute signs and big crowds no longer cut it for a press gorged on sound-bites; as the Grammy protesters found out, a reporter no longer prints the views of the picket verbatim. A newsworthy protest needs spin. Beyond a flawed argument, the biggest obstacle to objective portrayal is the protesters themselves. Take the World Trade Organisation demos in Seattle; column inches devoted to the appearance of the protesters exceeded those considering their arguments and opinions.

Human beings are tribal, be it geographical or sartorial. If we can’t ignore tailoring preferences, imagine the barrier imposed by philosophical differences? Fear sells more copies than fact, and 'city swamped in sea of anarchy' shifts more than 'protest leader calls for trade reforms'. Perceived threat is also greater when faced with an anonymous crowd – during the M27 protests, all media coverage was hostile until an accidental spokesperson stepped forward in the shape of eco-warrior Swampy. Although this 'personalisation' of the protest led the Conservative press to re-examine the M27 activists’ argument more favourably, it is a moot point whether tabloid fixation upon this individual’s hair and lifestyle detracted from the issue-focused coverage the protest might otherwise have received.

Sometimes, the organisation of the protest itself lends the papers an 'us and them' angle for reporting. During the anti-capitalist demos of 1999, broadsheet newspapers sympathetic to the cause commented on the sinister edge that the lack of public figurehead gave the events.

The Criminal Justice Act in the UK also sounded the death knell for co-operation with local authorities when planning demonstrations. The 10,000 J18 activists who brought London’s financial mile to a standstill two years ago used the internet to secretly spread assembly details. But outwitting the Metropolitan police so successfully is a bitter victory, illustrated by the 14,500 officers on duty and stand-by for the May Day 2000 protests. The forces of law and order do not react favourably to proof of incompetence.

A crude media measurement of a protest’s significance has always been bums on streets, or size. Many different environmental and human interest groups joined forces for the J18 demonstrations, but rather than strengthening the message, they rather rendered it incoherent. As some spoke to the press about trade reforms and consumer awareness, others spoke of 'smashing ... doors [of City banking buildings], invading property, burning effigies..., crashing accounting systems.' * The message turns into a mess.

So is all public gesture doomed to misinterpretation? No, the reason we protest publicly is to influence others’ opinion by spreading your own. But information doesn’t always equal demonstration; and success doesn’t have to be measured in thousands, as James Mawdsley illustrated during his campaign for human rights in Burma. Briefly, Mawdsley was imprisoned in Burma for 17 years for handing out leaflets that were critical of the country’s brutal military regime. Compared to today’s headline-grabbing activists, this pedestrian protest would have garnered little coverage, were it not for the following reasons.

Firstly, although one could disagree with his opinion, the argument for his behaviour stood up to media scrutiny. That Karen, Shan and Karenni were being tortured and massacred, and he felt this was wrong.

So what spin to put on the story? Potential leftie lunatic Mawdsley was, disappointingly, a university-educated 27-year-old whose parents had worked for the British army. With the 'us and them' angle seemingly redundant, the Burmese regime became 'them' and James, in his ethical protest, represented 'us' in the broadsheets.

Although Burmese human rights organisations exist, Mawdsley’s lack of explicit affiliation to anything but his opinion kept his message clear and his position unthreatening. He was also aware of his position as unofficial figurehead for the Burmese rights movement in this country, and considered the impact of his words and actions carefully. 21 articles covering his protest appeared in the Guardian alone during the 14 months that he was imprisoned, and this publicity gave pressure groups in the rest of the world the leverage to voice their concerns in the wider press. As he said after his early release in 2000, 'It was a risk, but it was a calculated risk. It paid off'. **

But if the mob no longer gets results and the headlines come at considerable personal sacrifice, what for the future of public protest? Luckily, Kalle Lasn of Adbusters has it covered. Adbusters, the organisation and bi-monthly magazine, takes corporate consumer culture on using its own tools; the subvertisement. Subverts produced by Adbusters (slick and provocative parodies of advertisements for such consumer giants as Coke, Nike, McDonalds) takes the revolution directly to our armchairs.

Read by 100,000 internationally, Adbusters magazine does not issue a code for living. Instead, through articles and artwork, it seeks to provoke thought and discussion among its readership at grass roots level about the ethics and sanity of a society obsessed with consumerism. As such, the magazine is an excellent reference material for the Adbusters story, contact details or 'culture jamming' activities round the world. The crisp and well-indexed website illustrates the serious intent behind the Hilfiger pastiches; Lasn wants the information to be an accessible resource to anyone drawn in by the clever juxtaposition of consumer dream and civil reality.

Public protest isn’t dead; it’s very much alive. But the methods for manipulating the media have moved on. It used to be that people said, 'it’s not what you say, it’s what you do.' Now it’s both.

* The Observer, 31 October 1999
** The Guardian, 3 November 2000
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