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"Scuffles broke out"

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"Scuffles broke out" - press coverage of 'demos' 1973 and 2010

"Helmets flew and scuffles broke out" - that was the most striking common phrase from the press coverage of political demonstrations in 1973, the year I began my research on that subject. Judging from the press coverage of the student demonstrations against the government's removal of the cap on tuition fees here in the UK, nothing has changed. See for example the coverage in The Independent"Worst violence contained on national day of protest"

The broad ideological position on political demonstrations still holds in the minds of Britain's reporters: demos amount to misguided political activity which fails to achieve its objectives and which always leads to violence. That fundamentally reactionary position seems not to have changed in the last 37 years. The demonstrators, however middle-class and "largely peaceful", always ultimately lose control and a "mob vents its fury on an empty police van". Driven by emotion, they are always "angry", thus failing to see the eternal merits of going through the established political channels of parliamentary democracy.

In this case, of course, the irony is that during the election, a key mechanism of parliamentary democracy, the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, had opposed the raising of tuition fees. So much for established political channels!  They allow politicians to make electoral promises and flagrantly break them a few months later because it suits their political careers. No wonder the students demonstrated on the streets as opposed to lobbying their MPs!  Although it was reported that some students' organizations will try to unseat Mr Clegg at the first available opportunity, they will undoubtedly have to wait as the parliamentary system makes little provision for breaching electoral promises. 

Perhaps though, in recognition of the continued failure of the system of parliamentary democracy to regulate the poor moral behaviour of politicians with their high expenses and low commitment to truth, the reports should have read:

Helmets remained fast and scuffles were rare as middle-class youth expressed its anger at the Lib Dems' failure to stick to their word on tuition fees. A few people were knocked around a bit but basically the Lib Dems' lies will go unpunished - until the next election.

Things do change a little though.  No helmets flew on this demo: both sides wore crash helmets, tightly strapped on with modern professionalism. And females were far more predominant than ever: the Independent's story featuring a photograph of an angry helmeted female giving the single-finger salute, North-American style to our nation's finest. She may of course have been an overseas student from North America, given that fewer English students can afford to go to UK universities these days.......

Colin Sumner, Editor.

See his "The press censure of 'dissident minorities': the ideology of parliamentary democracy", written with Simon Sandberg, in C.S. Sumner [ed.] Censure, Politics and Criminal Justice. 1990 Open University Press.


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