Inciting Violence: Irony and the English Riots

Ironies abound in the media reaction to the English riots that erupted between August 6-10.

It was widely reported that two young men acting independently – Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22 – had been sentenced to four years in prison for trying to incite riots via Facebook in the Manchester area. This ‘despite both being of previous good character’, and despite the fact that their Facebook entries – viewed by a few hundred people – failed to generate a single rioter. Farcically, the only people waiting for Blackshaw at his gathering point were the police.

The four-year jail sentences were harsh indeed, as the Guardian noted:

If the two Cheshire men had left home and actually taken part in a riot, it is likely they would have been charged with violent disorder. The average sentence passed on the 372 people convicted of violent disorder in 2010 was just over 18 months. The 1,434 people convicted of public order offences last year got, on average, two months inside.

Normally, to qualify for a four-year sentence, a convict would have to kidnap somebody (average sentence 47 months in 2010), kill someone while drink driving (45 months), or carry out a sexual assault (48 months).

Clearly, judges felt that even failed attempts to incite disruption via social media were worse than actual participation in the riots.

Writing in the Daily Mail, columnist Melanie Phillips located the cause of the riots in:

… fatherless boys who are consumed by an existential rage and desperate emotional need, and who take out the damage done to them by lashing out from infancy at everyone around them.

This vicious behaviour is fostered by ‘a world without any boundaries or rules. A world of emotional and physical chaos. A world where a child responds to the slightest setback or disagreement by resorting to violence.

And who can doubt that compassion and restraint in the face of disagreement offer the best hopes for a peaceful world? The 11th century Buddhist poet Ksemendra recalled the wise counsel offered to one enraged king:

Lord, do not talk like this. If you return anger for anger, anger increases. If you give hate in return for hatred, you will never be rid of your enemies. Would you put out a fire by covering it with wood? It will always rekindle… If you meditate on tolerance to overcome anger, all will become your friends.  ((Leaves of the Heaven Tree, Dharma Publishing, 1997, p.333))

Earlier this month, Phillips commented on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks:

The real problem with the US and UK reaction to 9/11 was that they did not follow through… we should have gone on to deal with Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Saudi as well.

Did she mean ‘deal with’ their concerns and grievances in a just and even-handed way? Should the US and UK have recognised their own wrongdoing, their own responsibility for generating hatred? In clarification, Phillips quoted herself from September 2002:

The US hopes that sorting Saddam will deliver to these other states the simple message: unless you desist from terror, you’re next.

A world ‘without any boundaries or rules’, in other words, where unilaterally ‘resorting to violence’ and ‘lashing out’ is the natural response.

Journalists like Phillips, who use national media platforms like the Daily Mail (circulation 2 million) to agitate for war at a time when the decision lies in the balance, are typically garlanded with awards, not sent to the slammer.  After two years spent cold-selling Blair’s war on Iraq, David Aaronovitch, then of the Guardian, won the What the Papers Say Columnist of The Year Award for 2003. In the same year, following a similar pro-war performance, the Independent’s Johann Hari was made Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards (to his credit, Hari has since recanted his support for the Iraq war). Phillips was awarded the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 1996.

Politicians do even better, of course. Last month, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Tony Blair, now the Middle East Quartet’s Special Envoy, was to receive an award ‘to express Israel’s appreciation for his efforts toward Middle East peace’. A decision worthy of a different kind of Orwell Prize. Meanwhile, Channel 4 reports:

Since resigning in June 2007 Tony Blair has financially enriched himself more than any ex-Prime Minister ever. Reporter Peter Oborne reveals some of the sources of his new-found wealth, much of which comes from the Middle East.

Michael White And ‘The Big Bloke On The Next Floor’

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, Michael White, assistant editor of the Guardian, savoured the prospect of the hardship awaiting jailed rioters, including the Facebook Two mentioned above. Why?

People write all sorts of really ugly and stupid things on Facebook, Twitter, email and other anti-social media platforms (including this one), and it’s time they realised that they matter.

True enough, although the same can be said of journalists, as we have seen, including White himself. At a crucial time in January 2003, he co-authored a Guardian piece that hailed Blair as he ‘gave MPs a bravura performance in defence of his [Iraq] policy’. (( Michael White and Julian Borger, ‘Blair wins time over party divisions on Iraq with bravura performance to MPs,’ The Guardian, January 16, 2003))

The reporters failed to mention that, ‘bravura’ or not, Blair’s speech was spectacularly dishonest. They added instead: ‘it was noticeable that when Mr Blair delivered a powerful peroration in the Commons the cheers of Labour loyalists greatly exceeded the heckling he had earlier got from his own side’.

Certainly, the Facebook Two sought to inspire social disorder, but this kind of stenography to power habitually performed by mainstream journalists has facilitated the destruction of literally hundreds of thousands of human lives. Is this mere hyperbole? Do journalists really have that kind of power? It is clear to us that they are able to shape public opinion and so make war possible. George Monbiot wrote in 2004 that ‘the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job.   ((Monbiot, Our lies led us into war, The Guardian, July 20, 2004))

White’s outrage was directed at small fry reaching a tiny audience: ‘every time I see a nasty piece on new pix, CCTV footage or film of brutal incidents on the street… I hear the R-word [retribution] tip-toeing across my brain.

I want to see riot louts punished and, if punishment also helps them turn around their otherwise futile lives, then good.

He recognised that the punishment was sometimes harsh:

… four years in prison for trying to organise a riot in Northwich or Warrington (no one turned up) is a bit excessive… Yet I’m not sorry at the thought that Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan… and Jordan Blackshaw woke up in the slammer on Thursday remembering that, no, it’s not all a bad dream. It could be like this for the next 18 months, lads. And what if that big bloke on the next floor takes a shine to you?

This gleeful hand-rubbing at the threat of male rape as welcome punishment surely also qualifies as ‘ugly and stupid’.

A reader, Murau, commented beneath the article:

Men in prison. Only subject area where jokes about rape are considered acceptable.

Another reader, Forthestate responded:

You’re quite right. It’s also disturbing that in these not infrequent, rather gloating references, there is an almost tacit assumption that rape is an acceptable part of the punishment. If it’s so widespread that it regularly produces this unseemly speculation perhaps there should be some proper journalistic attention devoted to it.

On September 14, Channel 4 News reported:

Those jailed following the riots are being victimised by existing inmates because of the decline in comfort, according to the relative of a teenager detained in Portland prison for an offence unrelated to the riots.

Channel 4’s source added:

People are having their association time cut down to an hour a day – or possibly less. I’ve heard that some of the rioters have been attacked out of sight of the wardens – in the showers.’

We asked White to comment on these reports. He responded:

Sorry to hear that, but they did think they’d get away with looting unpunished. There’s a lesson in that.

The US human rights organisation works to challenge the idea that rape, including male rape, in prisons is somehow normal and even acceptable. Their website comments:

Cases of sexual abuse in detention are not rare, isolated incidents, but the result of a systemic failure to protect the safety of inmates. Victims of prisoner rape are left beaten and bloodied, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe psychological harm. Once released – and the vast majority of prisoners do eventually get out – they return to their communities with all of their physical and emotional scars.

The Italian activist and film-maker Gabriele Zamparini invited to respond to White’s comments. They replied:

As you point out it is a very disturbing example of the tendency to joke publicly about and diminish the problem of prisoner rape. (Forwarded to Media Lens, August 22, 2011)

The corporate media evaluate the actions of the powerful and the powerless by different and conflicting moral standards. The powerful are judged on the basis of who they are rather than of what they do. No matter how plainly individual leaders and parties have lied, no matter how cynical their motives, no matter how many deaths they have caused, they continue to be treated as fundamentally respectable and trustworthy.

This ‘respectability’ is a function of media power as it interacts with state power. It is a form of propaganda support that is structural, all but unconditional, in essence guaranteed. The results were described by  Greek historian Thucydides:

The strong do as they can, while the weak suffer what they must.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.