Images of Violence

Phillip Whitehead

  • The Media and Political Violence by Richard Clutterbuck
    Macmillan, 191 pp, £15.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 333 31484 0

As the sullen summer of ’81 ends, we know that we shall remember it for images of violence: a soldier writhing aflame on the streets of Belfast, rioters on British streets using petrol bombs, and two images of the British bobby – bruised and frightened men cowering in a blinded phalanx under riot shields, and the kicked-in doors and sore heads of Railton Road. It has all been glimpsed through the looking-glass world of television, which many have been tempted to enter. The debate about ‘copycat’ riots has been joined: it follows long and anguished argument about the extent to which violent or aberrant behaviour seen on the box replicates itself among the viewers.

This debate has a sub-plot. Is the violence being laid on, by shadowy figures who know that appetite grows with the eating, and use the media to win an audience for the theatre of the street? Are the media compliant, or worse? Who is using whom? What has happened to the agents provocateurs in balaclavas whom our newspapers claimed orchestrated the recent riots? Those familiar with his earlier work will not be surprised to find the prolific General Clutterbuck producing a new work on the role of the media in political violence. Unfortunately for him, his book went to press before our long and sullen summer, so this intrepid monitor of the initialled armies of the WRP, SWP and IMG is not able to analyse their role in the recent troubles. If you want the evidence that it was Vanessa Redgrave in a Gucci balaclava who dunnit, you will be disappointed.

What Richard Clutterbuck has done here is to rework the themes of his earlier books, Britain in Agony and Kidnap and Ransom, in order to focus on the involvement of the media, and their ultimate responsibility. There is the same scarlet and black cover, with its images of violence and mayhem. There are many of the same case-histories – Saltley, Grunwick, Lewisham, the Schleyer kidnapping – together with some new ones. They are followed by what seems to be offered as a reasonable man’s guide to living with the media, and some pretty strange ideas about how they should be made to live.

We have recently seen Lord Scarman poking about like some wise old lizard in the smashed sitting-rooms of Railton Road. Three years ago, Richard Clutterbuck asked this judicial veteran of Grunwick and Red Lion Square what he thought would be the likeliest causes of political violence in the years ahead. Unsurprisingly, Scarman opted for racial conflict and unemployment, which the author brackets with political terrorism in Northern Ireland in his examination of the effects of media coverage. He does not like what he is made to see: ‘The media magnify the corrupt policeman, and they are sometimes unscrupulous in exacerbating the violence and even risking lives in order to get reports of good news value.’ Like the scorpion, it is in their nature – but need they sting the frog of the free society which carries them?

I find the General’s suggestions for sheathing the sting unconvincing, but he is right to show where it strikes. The media do live under intense, continuous pressure to deliver the most gripping story, the best pictures to ‘hook’ the news. In that closed professional world, getting the camera at the rear of the Iranian Embassy, or the best shots of the punch-up in Grosvenor Square, makes all the difference between promotion and obscurity. So the television men are frequently ambushed by those who can manipulate the event they are filming – from the SWP at Hendon to the IRA at Carrickmore. After the latter event, Mr Callaghan said in the House of Commons: ‘it is not the duty of the media to stage-manage news, but to report it.’ This is true enough, but does not address the problem of how news should be reported when it results from a staged hijack, kidnapping or riot. Where the news organisations are open to criticism is their overemphasis on the violent or the negative, playing along with predictions of trouble which are designed to heighten tension.

In fact, as Clutterbuck concedes, the use of the media by extremist groups who orchestrate violence has not much helped these groups. SWP field commissars like Chris Harman and Steve Jeffreys secured such a bad name for the Trots in umbrella organisations like the Anti-Nazi League that their influence was greatly diminished. Nor have they been able to take control of the street disturbances of 1981. Retrospective ‘action replays’ of violent demonstrations, like the World in Action investigation of what happened in the heart of the Southall riot when Blair Peach was killed, have assisted public understanding of how force is used – and abused – on the spot. What is more worrying, as the disturbances become progressively more violent, is the extent to which the watching society becomes desensitised, and some of its members more eager to emulate what they see. It is not necessary to see it as simply as Milton Shulman has done in a recent comment on the riots – ‘TV was the aphrodisiac and the riot was the orgasm’ – to accept that there are connections. Dr William Belson, Professor Eysenck and others have shown that repeated exposure to violence on television does make it more likely that some of the watchers will act violently themselves.

Major-General Clutterbuck does not enter this area. Dr Belson crops up in this book only in reference to his survey of public attitudes to the Metropolitan Police in 1975. It would be interesting to know how far the groups of the political fringe have analysed this trend towards a greater tolerance of violence, and how they propose to use it to destabilise society. They will obviously be active in encouraging the attempt to alienate the community from the Police, following the tactics which the IRA has used with some considerable success against the security forces in Northern Ireland. Clutterbuck’s consideration of this is again the victim of unfortunate timing. Writing before the skilful and unscrupulous use of the hunger strike by the IRA, he says that, from 1974 onwards, even in hard-core Catholic areas, the IRA ‘were at best tolerated, sometimes feared, and generally hated’. By turning their violence against themselves, and making sure it was their ordeal, not their their murders and maimings, which was publicised, the men in the Maze have altered that. The Police are not yet perceived as an occupying army in our own troubled cities, but it is disturbing that the worst riots have occurred and recurred in areas known for high-profile Chief Constables, aggressive policing, and rumbles of discontent about deaths and injuries in custody. Writing before these events, Clutterbuck is more concerned to discover if there is a concerted attack on the Police, with the collusion of the media. ‘Six years ago 10 per cent and today perhaps 15 per cent of the public are hostile to the police.’ he writes, quoting the Belson survey. Those who are ‘articulate in their hostility’ are mostly ‘a small minority of university students and graduates, some of whom overlap the punk philosophy’. He accepts that ‘the rotten apples’ should be picked out of the basket and examined by the media, but quotes approvingly the hostile reaction to this by Commissioner McNee and that tireless self-publicist Chief Constable Anderton. A headline of undisclosed provenance, ‘Police Kill 274,’ is used as though it was typical of the media coverage of the controversy about deaths in police custody. The subsequent findings of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which put the matter fairly in perspective, were widely and well reported.

So where is the ‘concerted attack’ which Major-General Clutterbuck speaks of? In misgivings about the use of the SPG, and the ‘Sus’ law, or criticism of ‘Operation Swamp’? These may be examined when the Clutterbuck opus is next up-dated. In this book, he falls back on the eroding effects of television drama and documentary. Heavy fire is concentrated on Gordon Newman’s four-part series Law and Order, which he dismisses as agitprop written to order for a producer who ‘went too far’. The whole affair was ‘a calculated attempt to discredit the police and the law’. What is not put into any sort of context here is the overall balance of programming within which this drama series was shown, with its little cluster of crooked cops and prairie lawyers set against a mass of favourably perceived images of these two professions. Clutterbuck goes on later to comment, accurately, on the wholesome publicity generated by collaborative documentaries like Police – Harrow Road and Sailor, and in the fictional world of Rumpole and Danger UXB. He does not mention the immense difficulty of getting something like Law and Order through the system of BBC upward reference, the long delay in repeating it, and the hostile reception it will be guaranteed at Board of Management level and at the level of the General Advisory Council (to which the General belongs).

The book ends with some very rum suggestions. They are too much for Sir Robin Day, who writes the foreword, and they are too much for me. After some anodyne advice to the forces of light that they must be at least as adept as the forces of darkness in using the media, the Major-General suddenly flips. He calls for an Institute of Mass Media which would require membership of ‘everyone involved in the editorial process’. Its code would outlaw conduct likely to put lives at risk or facilitate the escape of persons wanted for criminal offences, and proscribe disobedience of police instructions where the police state that lives are at risk. Anyone found guilty would be forbidden to practise in any mass medium! Chief Constables would be empowered to proclaim their own Local States of Emergency, for up to six hours, without reference to anyone. There are few things more repugnant in a democracy than the notion of a press on a short halter, which is why the Unesco proposals on the international licensing of journalists are causing a storm. I can think of nothing more likely than this proposal of Clutterbuck’s to worsen relations between the media and the forces of law and order. He would do well to look at the new Broadcasting Complaints Commission, and see whether he can find there a remedy for biased and malevolent reporting. Together with a reformed Press Council, this could offer the redress of grievance without trying to expel a reporter from his profession.

British democracy is not terminally ill. Diseased in Northern Ireland it may be, and subject to spasmodic nervous breakdown on the mainland: but the mass media are neither agent nor cause of that. Most reporters and editors know when they are being exploited, and to what end. It is not how they report any individual act of political violence which disturbs me, but what the slow poison of an unremitting exposure to violence as a kind of norm may be doing to all of us, be it served up as fact, fiction or faction. Clutterbuck will have to trawl much wider than the Trots if he is to find the guilty men. It is the general effect of violence on politics, with overt political violence still playing only a small part, that threatens us all.