Journalists love a good protest. Even when they don’t happen. Recently they have been at the front line of the middle east protests, they were in the thick of the student protests and they seem to play a bizarre role in the way movements develop. Protestors get excited by the presence of cameras (as do most of the general public) and often become wilder and more provocative in the knowledge that they have a wider audience. In the age of rolling 24 hour news we can also expect news crews to hover about near the more extreme ends of a protest trying to capture something juicy for their viewers. Indeed I was present at last years student protest in London and at the ‘fire extinguisher’ incident at Millbank. This utterly stupid incident, the poking of Camilla and other acts of vandalism were repeatedly shown on the news and coverage was dominated by these isolated events rather than the fact that tens of thousands of protestors were pleading with their government to think twice about their rash policy decisions on education for future generations.
I am not naively suggesting that news broadcasts should avoid these events (that would be dull), merely they should try to present them in a balanced way. Having said this, I believe that the existence of live news streams has created compulsive viewing. I now watch news to see what might happen as opposed to seeing what has happened. It is a bit like staying up til 3 in the morning watching Big Brother to see if Chantelle and Wizzo fondle each other in the outhouse jacuzzi (I made those names up as I haven’t watched it for years). But the idea of news before it has happened isn’t actually news and shouldn’t really be broadcast on a news channel.
I have watched live coverage over the last few weeks of protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and I have clearly tuned in at all the wrong moments. Far from the highlights package of the days events that you get in the 10 O clock news – I seemed to tune at the more mundane moments - a few people were standing near a camel, a man smoking a cigarette, a white man in flannel trousers. Maybe this is bad timing on my behalf, or maybe I should just wait (like we used to) for things to actually happen and for journalists to provide an insightful report after the incident has occurred.
I do not wish to downplay the role of the journalist or broadcast media in protest. They often play a vital role. In the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 the foreign media acted as a catalyst for the escalating protests and gave protestors an international platform on which to voice their concerns. The foreign press had all arrived in Beijing to cover the Soviet presidents Mikhail Gorbachev’s state visit. The presence of the foreign media encouraged the protestors to play up to the cameras and capture the attention of their world audience. The media savvy students created huge embarrassment for the government by writing banners in English and creating symbols that an international audience would instantly recognise such as the Goddess of Democracy. The Tiananmen Square protest was huge and involved students, writers, some Communist Party moderates such as Zhao Ziyang and most importantly workers. It has been argued that the workers joining the movement was a crucial factor in bringing about the government’s violent reaction.
This is why I believe that the protest movement in the middle east will not spread to China. Both the people protesting and the situations are different. As well as demanding political reform, many of the protests in the Arab world have centred on job creation and anger at long term unemployment. The Chinese government does have cause for concern over rising inflation, however, it does not have the same stagnant unemployment seen in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The media nonetheless, seems convinced that protest will spread to China. With their cameras poised, they waited this weekend on Wangfujing street, one of Beijing’s major shopping thoroughfares to report on the rumoured “Jasmine Revolution.” ‘Protests’ also apparently occured in other cities in China. the Guardian reported that:
‘Shanghai police used whistles to disperse a crowd of around 200, although it was unclear if the people were anything more than onlookers. It said officers detained at least four Chinese citizens in the city and two others in Beijing. It was not clear, however, if those detained had tried to protest’
photo of entirely different protest unrelated to this article (standard practice -see below)
This is hardly ground shaking stuff. The protests that didn’t happen(?) were reported/initiated by US based blog Boxun who claim that their site has been under cyber attack in the last week. Their website contains a series of youtube clips of people standing around and staring at police and military cordoned off areas. It is not really clear if any protest actually took place. The protests were meant to be a response to the state’s increased suppression of human rights activists and bloggers who have been suppressed. The telegraph are also reporting on the “Jasmine revolution” in Beijing, although their leading photo is bizarrely one from Taiwan. They state that crowds of people were dispersed by street cleaning vehicles and that reporters from the BBC were ‘bundled into a van by police’. I guess we can assume that we wont be getting any rolling news pieces then? The telegraph’s photo is not the only example of deceptive photos. Anti CNN suggest that a number of news organisations have been ‘borrowing’ photos from other protests and claiming that they are part of the ‘Jasmine Revolution.’
The heightened police and military presence could indicate a growing fear amongst government officials, or it could not. Journalists in China, both domestic and foreign have always had limited access and the government are particularly sensitive if a journalist even catches a whiff of unrest. Excessive human rights abuses by the Chinese government are reported in foreign media but often this leads to Chinese accusations that the foreign press only focus on the negatives in China: a sort of nationalist self-defence mechanism. Heavy military and police presence on the streets of the capital do not indicate that there is growing unrest. It may just be a flex of muscle to show that a ‘blog uprising’ does not scare it.
Either way it is certain that ‘protests’ are a hot ‘trending topic’ at the moment so even protests that don’t happen are going to get serious news coverage.