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Two sides to police story

Posted on 20 April 2009 | 11:04am

I’ve talked before about how sometimes a prism forms over a story, so that after a while only one side gets heard. It happens most often to politicians, usually those in power, most intensely when a situation develops with all the ingredients to show them in a bad light. But enough of Damian McBride.

It seems to be happening to the police as well. Anyone with anything bad to say about their handling of the G20 Summit – or, even better, with mobile phone footage to show the badness – will find a ready and willing media and political audience. But any balance in the coverage seems to be being lost.

It is true that the vast bulk of protesters were peaceful. It is also right that there should be an inquiry into the treatment of Ian Tomlinson, and into allegations of violence by police against protesters. It is right that Parliamentary committees are taking an interest in broader issues of public order policing.

But it is also fair to point out the scale of the challenge the police faced on the day, and the fact that most did a difficult job well. 

You sometimes hear civil liberty campaigners complaining that we live in a police state. The fallout from the Summit suggests strongly otherwise. The police, it seems to me, are the ones facing the most intense questioning and under the greatest pressure, far more than those who, also surrounded by people taking pictures on phones and camcorders, were committing acts of criminal damage by smashing in the windows of a bank. If the prism were in a different place, people would be asking what was happening to the investigations into that.

Back to the comparisons with politicians. There are bad ones amid the good. It does not make them all bad. And if we all end up thinking that all politicians are terrible people, all cops are bent or violent, all social workers are useless (more of that around today I see), all teachers politically correct, all businessmen only interested in getting rich, and most journalists thinking the only story worth writing is one which shows one or all of the above in a terrible light, we risk painting a far more negative picture of our society than truly it deserves.

There has to be some relationship of trust between police and public. Of course the police, every single one of them, has to help in that. But the public has a role too. In recognising the breadth of challenges they face. In supporting them in their basic aim of preventing and dealing with crime. In recognising too – not least in the area of race relations – that where there have been problems, they have made real efforts to address them.

It is not very fashionable to say any of that at the moment, because of where the prism rests. But I was struck, and in part moved to write this blog, by a letter in The Guardian today which ends ‘On 18 April you ran a front-page article and photograph about the death of Ian Tomlinson and then inside there was a double-page spread, again with photographs. In contrast, the sad death of PC Gary Toms, who was injured on 11 April in the course of his duties, merited only a 7in column on Page 10. This shows the other side of policing and, in the interests of balance, more could be made of this. An emphasis on the risks police officers take and the fear a lot of them must feel would perhaps partly explain, although certainly not excuse, the outrageous behaviour of some of them at the G20 demonstration.’

Morale in the police is unlikely to be terribly high as a result of the G20 fallout. But is worth remembering that the prism can change, albeit slowly. Two pages back from the letter, Jackie Ashley is singing the praises of Peter Mandelson. That really was a surprise.

  • Em

    Some cops are bad but we should remember that some cops are good? Ok.

    It shouldn’t be surprising to you that some tragedies have better P.R. than others. Why are we so moved by the Shoah but not by the Armenian genocide?

    I’m not sure one prism is better than another. It is a tragedy every time a policer officer dies, and when a man dies at the hands of a police officer it’s an entire society that is at fault and at risk. I see myself as the guardian of my fellow human beings, cop or not, but I’m more concerned about the victim who wasn’t carrying a stick and who didn’t have all the apparel, training, and weight of the law behind him. I tend to side with the underdog, but that’s just me.

    Friend copper of mine loves it when public and the media attacks racism, brutally and all the negatives in the force which, according to him, are mostly attributable to the old guard. This isn’t the kind of culture that the “kids” can change from the inside at as reasonably fast pace. So, I’d like people to keep in mind that external pressures can serve not only to save lives in the public but save the lives of other policer officers and improve their work within the force.

  • Alina Palimaru

    The G20 police stories were framed this way because those were the only stories that would grab attention and sell papers. If it bleeds, it leads! This angle developed in the anticipation of the protests, and on the day of the events it was quite obvious that a situation that brings tree-hugging protesters and cops (associated with the establishment) together would elicit public sympathy for the protesters. As such, any policing incident would be magnified to overwhelm every other variable that contributed to the incident. In this case, too many recalcitrant cops, overreacting to anything the ‘innocent’ protesters did was the official line.

    The papers are writing stories to suit the emotions of their targeted crowds. Today, it’s bad cop day taken to extremes. Tomorrow, if a policeman dies in the line of duty, it’s national hero day taken to another extreme. The reasonable middle-ground vanished. As you pointed out AC, the same is applicable to social workers. Just like a mob, press coverage has abandoned reason in favor of visceral fluctuations between “long live!” and “down with!”

  • Eve

    Couldn’t agree more re: the police. My younger sister (lets call her Helen) is a member of the Police force in Northern Ireland (the PSNI to give then their official ridiculous title – what is it with Northern Ireland and acronyms?). She is dedicated, hard working and absolutely loves her job. She does it with integrity and pride. The recent killing of a Police Constable and 2 soldiers in Northern Ireland has yes scared her but it hasn’t stopped her from leaving her house every morning, checking under her car with a mirror and getting the hell on with it. She even managed to turn teaching her husband to check under his car with a mirror into a thing of farce and, typically Helen, a very funny story. Having grown up in Belfast I’ve most certainly witnessed my fair share of bad behaviour by the police which is why I was so pleased and proud when Helen joined – we needed more people like her. Everywhere does. Yes incidents such as the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson should be reported upon and seriously investigated but lets not demonise all police, they do a difficult job (especially that day) and an awful lot of them, in my opinion, do it very well. I dread to think what all the negative press is doing to the efforts to recruit young, educated people but I’m pretty sure it hasn’t helped. I suppose that’s the point I’m trying to make to all the negative commentators. Put bluntly if you’re fed up with bad police then stop discouraging good people from joining. Finally I’m guessing all those doing the bitching at the moment at certain times in their lives have been mighty glad to have them on the end of the phone or on their streets I know I have.

  • rod whiting

    You make an interesting point here. I was accused of toadyism for taking a similar line on my programme. The story becomes a focal point for antipathy towards authority generally and people feel empowered by joining in the clamour for heads to roll. I imagine the lynch mobs in the Wild West felt the same. There is such a thing as due process. The problem is however, people have lost faith in it after blatant abuse of due process by (I’ll be even-handed here)successive governments.

  • Brian Hughes

    It’s a curious reversal of the media prism during the miners’ strike. Then the police were generally portrayed as our brave boys holding the line against protesting thugs. Perhaps that marks some sort of progress but a more likely driver at present is that bashing the police by implication also bashes the Labour government.

    I guess the simplicities of the prism stem partly from the pressures on those in the media as much as from mankind’s desperation to simplify everything. Life can perhaps appear more comprehensible if all policemen are classed as x, all politicians y, all celebrities z, all bankers w, all journalists v etc. etc.

    The less you know of someone the easier it is to categorise and/or stigmatise them. By contrast the people we know well are almost impossible to categorise.

    Most members of our species are not very rational (he types and thereby neatly categorises more than eight billion of his fellow humans)…

  • Mark M

    re: Disproportionate media coverage

    Consider how many column inches go into detailing successful police operations. Very few indeed. If the police do a good job then they are not noticed, that is how it should be.

    If a policeman is injured in his line of work, he gets a mention. In proportion to the amount of column inches taken by day-to-day police work, it is quite a large amount of coverage.

    The Tomlinson case got lots of coverage because it wasn’t ‘criminal killed by brave police’, it was ‘police attack bystander – leads to death’. It also received coverage because the police lied about what happened, and have changed their story four or five times, basically whenever evidence comes out to show they are lying.

    If you really think that isn’t worthy of column inches then you are scarily deluded.

  • Em

    Alina, I have marched for what I believe in and no term could describe me less accurately than “tree hugger”. You can’t blame people for condemning police officers and social workers wholesale when you do the same for protesters. Also, I disagree with your assessment that “tree-huggers” always get good press. Quite the contrary. And, you are right, the press loves to cover the pump and fanfare of a police officer’s funeral.

    To pick up on your phrasing, one day the public is blamed for being numb and indifferent, the next day they are accused of overreacting and indulging in their own indignation. The death of Ian Tomlinson was indeed outrageous and it would have been a sad comment on our society had people not been appalled by the death of Baby P.. I agree that outrage is sometimes misdirected, I understand that social workers are over-worked and underpaid. That being said, it’s clear that something went awfully wrong and those accountable should face the consequences of their (in)action.

    It’s not just the press that targets its crowds, we readers choose the sources we read (and may I add that you and AC are whole responsible for making me read tabloids ;-)), and the sources I choose did not blame all social workers for that tragedy.

    I support Labour but I’m not going to pretend that this government, its policies, police officers and other “interveners” are anywhere near perfect.

    Going back to AC’s point about the police state: in a convo last week, I told a friend how in NA, the idea that a police officer would be charged for manslaughter so readily is unimaginable. I would expect the police P.R. machine to go on the attack & blame the public with their usual lines “you hate us until you’re in danger and you need us”, “we put our lives on the line every single day for you” and the other emotional blackmail cops use when they feel a vague of public discontent raise against them. Here, the cop would get away with it. Friend said, “true, but here we don’t get detained without charge for 90 days (sic) and our every moves aren’t photographed 300 times a day.” Touché.

    The extension of incarceration without charge was demanded by the cops. As they become all powerful, police officers shouldn’t turn around and whine because they are under greater scrutiny. The more power they hold, the more accountable they should be and the less we should tolerant of their mistakes.

  • Caroline Hett

    I have just picked myself up from the floor after fainting….I agree with everything you say about balance and the dangers of sweeping generalisations.

    I know you are not a politician, but if you were required to cosy-up on Andrew Neil’s (‘This Week’) sofa with a Tory, who would you choose? And why?

  • james

    I’m afraid you’ve missed the point – the prism for most stories of this type is formed by video (ideally mobile phone) footage, which is what gets viewers, and the media forms the story to fit the footage. If there had been no footage of the G20 protests would any of this had been news? Of course not. If instead there existed footage of the protesters spitting unprovoked on the police, would the story have been about the police bravely standing tall to protect democracy against the anarchist mob? Of course it would. The slant in the prism is caused randomly by the nature of the footage, nothing more, nothing less.

    Not sure about the readacross to politics. It’s all very well to say that all politicians shouldn’t be tarred by Damian’s brush, but Damian was not some random SpAd – he had a seat at the top table. The risk to Labour is not that people think that all politicians are bad, but that the PM’s judgement is faulty in employing him in the first place.

  • gavin montana

    i am in the middle of the blair years and was wondering if alistair thought that david milliband would of been a better successor to tb, after tb style of pm i myself would of preferred someone live david milliband to take on david cameron rather then gb who i thought made a better chancellor then pm

  • James Legge

    While no one would think that the Police Officer who attacked Mr Tomlinson should be treated to anything less than the full extent of the law, I wonder why the “fundamental questions” are only being asked on the side of the authorities.

    It seems to me that those who organise large prostests and therefore necessitate a large police presence, need to look at their own practices as well and ask how they are helping the situation and society as a whole (which they would claim is their aim). When the excercising of a democratic right is placed in direct opposition to the security of a city, then real compromise and subtlety is required. While we will rightly demand these attributes from our Police force, we can only hope that they are exhibited by those demonstrating.

  • CPW

    Alastair, would you mind awfully shoving that prism of yours where the sun doesn’t shine. It’s an empty and boring catch-all that describes nothing more than your own ignorance. Where the hell is the insight and perspective one might expect of someone with experience of the upper echelons of public and PR life? All the prism leitmotif tells us is that you havent a bleeding clue what sets news agendas and how public oponion is actually formed.

    Anyone who wants insight and informed analyses of the G20 protests and its attendant policing should watch Charlie Brooker’s News Wipe, BBC4. One the main reasons that focus has fallen on the police as it did on the general meandering and sporadic violence of the crowd was because there is no intellectual appetite in this country for debate of consequential narrative. The news networks – especially Sky news – believe their audience has the attention span of a gnat and none its intelligence. Indeed, on the day good old Tony Benn was the voice in the wilderness, suggesting to Sky News’s Dermot that they should perhaps train their cameras on some of the speeches.

    They didn’t. They persisted with Skycopter and Skyboat – it fed an appetite, but not an intellectual one. And so we’re left with one dead newsagent and a few police shambockings. No wonder the public are confused and angry.

    Give the story perspective and it obviates that bloody prism of yours.

  • Terry Evans

    AC come on now. The story that gets the coverage is the one that the editors think we all want to read. We are all manipulated by the media. There are so many people out there who believe what they read and a story of bad cops beating up innocent bystander walking home from work,gets the juices flowing more than brave cop slayed in the line of duty. We have the media we deserve when our best selling newspapers are comics promoting topless celebrities rather than proper news.

  • Brian Moylan

    It’s not the first time that the police may have overstepped the mark in policing a summit of this kind. I will agree that a difficult job has to be done, but some images speak too well for themselves.