The “middle class mob”: press coverage of Saturday’s UK Uncut action

Discourses around protests develop pretty quickly such that it's tricky to try to disrupt them. It took a real concerted effort on the part of activists to change the discourse around the G20 London summit in 2009 from protester violence to police violence. I vividly remember my anger as the media, having been barred from staying at the Climate Camp in Bishopsgate, remained blissfully ignorant of the police violence that took place well into the night as protesters were aggressively cleared from the area. Sadly it took the death of Ian Tomlinson and a relentless activist media campaign to force narratives other than the one given by the police into the public spotlight.

The protest actions that took place during this weekend's March for the Alternative look likely to force a repeat of activist pressure on the media. Having only arrived back home last night from London, I didn't see much of the media coverage of the protests as they were happening. What I'd heard from friends who'd been watching the coverage didn't sound good. So I decided to carry out a quick media analysis of UK national newspapers.

I was particularly interested in the way newspapers covered the UK Uncut occupation of luxury store Fortnum & Mason. The store is owned by Wittington Investments, which has a 54% stake in multinational Associated British Foods. By sending large sums of money interest-free into a Luxembourg holding company before having it sent straight back with interest charges, ABF avoids at least £10m worth of tax through offsetting interest payments on profits. It's this tax avoidance that encouraged UK Uncut to make Fortnum & Mason its 'secret target' at 3.30pm on Saturday 26th. Hundreds occupied the store for hours before police, having said they wouldn't arrest anyone if they left the store, proceeded to handcuff 145 protesters and charge the majority with aggravated trespass.

I was one of hundreds of people who first made it into the store in order to stage the sit-in. We were loud, angry and overwhelmingly peaceful. Shoppers looked on bemused as we made it clear through leafleting, speeches and banners why we were there and what we wanted: 'Pay your tax!' Knowing I had a bus to catch I managed to get out the building an hour or so before the arrests began. Of the 201 arrests carried out by the police that day, 145 of them were of people peacefully sitting in a luxury grocery store. Of the 149 people charged, 138 were from Fortnum & Mason. I think this in itself raises uncomfortable questions regarding police and political priorities.

So how has the national press portrayed this action? At the time of writing, LexisNexis lists 53 national newspaper articles from Sunday and Monday referencing “Fortnum”, of which 36 are relevant original articles. The overwhelming majority of these articles paint a negative condemnatory image of the sit-in.

The Sunday papers were quick to do two things: first, to link the action at Fortnum & Mason to portrayals of violence and property damage in other parts of central London; and second, to imply the sit-in was little more than the work of either mindless youths or black-clad anarchists. The Mail on Sunday described how a “mob ran amok” in the store, with “[b]lack clad anarchists… shout[ing] abuse at customers [with] tirades about class war”; its evidence of violence in the store was however limited to a description of Easter bunny baskets being “pushed over and spill[ing] on to the floor”. Harry Mount, also writing in the Mail on Sunday, was not alone in linking the occupation to more violent actions at other stores, all of them the work of “thugs, vandals and a clueless pack of self-righteous protesters”. While the Sunday Times argued the protest at Fortnum & Mason was “hijacked by the anarchists”, most papers were happy to describe the sit-in itself as an extremist or anarchist operation, with all the negative connotations thereof as a result of coverage of other actions. The sit-in was frequently listed amongst “a string of actions by anarchists” who were “bringing chaos to Britain's busiest shopping street”, according to the Sunday Telegraph front page. Far from principled protesters, those inside the store were “thugs” (Sunday Express), “yobs” (Sunday Mirror) and “a violent minority of anarchists who went on the rampage” (The Observer). At best they were protesting at Fortnum & Mason because of a “supposed tax dodge”, at worst because they were a “middle class mob [whose] families normally shop there”. The word most associated with the sit-in was not 'tax' or even 'protest'; it was “violence”.

Monday's national papers fared little better, though there were at least a couple of opinion pieces published of people who took part in the sit-in. They were however buried in the middle of papers. The opening pages were given over to the anger of retailers and fears of further anarchist plots (The Daily Telegraph), along with lead editorials condemning protester violence. The Times argued those in Fortnum & Mason “inten[ded]… to disrupt lawful protest”, their actions representing “a self-indulgent betrayal of those they claimed to represent”, leading the paper to conclude “they should be treated as the vandals and hooligans they are”. The Telegraph was filled with accounts of anarchist “smash[ing] their way” into “stores and hotels including Fortnum and Mason”. The Daily Mail was just as inflammatory, with Melanie Phillips arguing the march had been “hijacked” by those targeting “conspicuous symbols of wealth” such as Fortnum & Mason. Those who did so, Phillips claimed, were “a rag-tag bunch of self-styled anarchists, far-Leftists, squatters and students”. Phillips also argued UK Uncut itself represented the upper-class nature of the protests, while also saying the group was inspired to “try to bring commercial London to a standstill” by “their belief that Britain is at a pre-revolutionary moment… which they hope spells the death throes of capitalism itself”. Janet Street-Porter did not display much more sympathy than that, arguing that “[o]ccupying Fortnum & Mason and attacking The Ritz hotel smacks of class war, pure and simple”. UK Uncut, she says, are “misguided boneheads” who “hijacked a march which reflected ordinary voters' legitimate concerns”. The Independent displayed no qualms in quoting The TaxPayers' Alliance, widely accused of being a Conservative front group. The Alliance's director claimed UK Uncut needed to be “more rigorous” in its targeting, having carried out its actions “on the basis of dubious reports of tax dodging, and seem more interested in moralising than getting a tax code that might actually limit avoidance”.

Once again, papers described the occupation variously as the act of “[a] 1,000-strong mob” (The Sun), “rioters” (The Times), “violent anarchists” (The Daily Telegraph), “hoards” (Daily Mail), “militants” (The Independent), and “a bunch of black-shirted thugs intent on rampage” (The Mirror). The action was again linked to accounts of violent actions elsewhere in London, and a picture was painted of the UK Uncut action as just one result of a homogeneous bloc (sometimes “black bloc”) which had moved from one target in London to another.

Police descriptions of thuggish violence were infrequently questioned or balanced by accounts from protesters, and questions regarding the tax avoiding strategies of Fortnum & Mason's owners were rarely explored. So far there has been barely any major national newspaper coverage of police tactics during the occupation, with only one eyewitness account in The Independent noting that while police officers inside the store promised protesters could leave without interrogation, once outside “riot police pushed those who existed into a small area where they were unlinked by force, photographed, arrested and led away”, leading protesters to feel “they had been duped”. The same article was also rare in noting that a spokesperson for Fortnum & Mason had said the damage caused to the store by the occupation was “minimal”.

The events of Saturday 26th should be the start of a new phase of critical interrogation of the necessity of cuts and the realities of taxation. It's shouldn't be an opportunity for the police to gain new powers against protesters. Like the actions of the police at Trafalgar Square, it's going to take time for the unquestioned police-fed discourse of UK Uncut's actions this weekend to be challenged publicly. It's also probably going to take concerted pressure on the part of activists.

Us mindless yobs certainly have our work cut out for us.

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