Kate Boardman

History and English Joint Honours

03.A05. Debate

The Dissent of Man: The Evolution of Media Protest


In recent years the UK has witnessed swathes of anti-cut demonstrations. The most recent protest against the Government’s controversial Bedroom Tax saw the mobilisation of over thirteen thousand people in fifty separate locations voicing their dissent. Despite being largely ignored by mainstream media the grievances of the protestors were put under the spotlight by an intense social media campaign. Kate Boardman gives a snapshot of our nation’s history of protest – from its roots in the pamphleteering of the past – to the modern age of the web, the advent of Citizen Journalism – and beyond.

Early days – Foot Slogging and Pamphleteering

Popular protest has always played a big part in shaping British history. When ‘Freeborn John’ Lilburne took up his cause for liberty against the dictatorial Oliver Cromwell he faced floggings, exile and ultimately death in a jail cell for his campaigning. The use of unlicensed publishing and gruelling tours delivered his message to the public but the process was laboriously slow and it would take years for the seeds of his vision to grow. Eventually more efficient methods of printing would make pamphleteering easier but radicalisation still required high profile leaders – figureheads who could organise, make key speeches and give protest that personal touch.

In 1936 The Jarrow March (or Crusade) organised by the National Unemployed Workers Movement set off to London in a bid for recognition and respect for people living in extreme poverty. Armed with an 11,000 signature strong petition, distinctive blue and white banners and the voice of their impassioned MP Ellen Wilkinson the marchers were generally well received en route by sympathisers. However, despite the organisers success in raising funds for the campaign and its cross party appeal and Ellen’s eloquent dialogue, no specific proposals were forthcoming from the Prime Minister. The use of newsreel and newspaper reporting during the Jarrow Crusade was largely positive. Coverage of the march described it as being ‘apolitical’ and well organised. However the relationship between mainstream media and protest has not always been quite so congenial.

The impact of crude sensationalism and alleged press bias during the 1984-85 Miners strike still resonates to this day. For the most part television and media threw its weight behind the Government. The Miners had limited resources with which to address these issues although some did go on to write memoirs.

Power to the People – The Birth of Citizen Journalism

Around the end of the 1990s however, thanks to people’s increasing access to the capabilities offered by the internet a whole new movement of Citizen Journalism began to emerge. In 1999, Indymedia began its mission to ‘get ordinary people to report events that mainstream media failed to cover.’ The birth of video activism was arguably the catalyst for a new approach to mobilisation and protest. The gauntlet was thrown down against media bias as Joe Public utilised new tools to organise, communicate and report on civil disobedience campaigns and street actions. The aim of social media is to inspire and motivate individuals to leave the comfort of their sofas and meet up with like-minded individuals (i.e. strangers) for a common cause. The proliferation of YouTube videos and the recent trend of vlogging transmit important information regarding core principles and tactics. Facebook posts and Twitter feeds have the power to spread action orders like wildfire.

It is easy to believe that, with all our modern technology, Governments should be quaking in their boots but society mustn’t lose sight of the fact that there still needs to be physical leadership. Campaigns that initiate precipitously are generally doomed by their lack of coherence and many descend into violence. The London Riot of 2011 initially began as a protest against the shooting, by police, of a Tottenham resident. News spread quickly via social media and the use of Blackberry mobile devices but, with no clear leadership or dialogue, mobilisation descended into madness. Riots broke out in London and several major cities and the original aim, a demand for an enquiry into police tactics, was drowned out by acts of violence, looting and murder. Mainstream media lapped it up and the issue of social media censorship became a hot topic.

Censorship and the Blogosphere

Censorship is nothing new when it comes to media protest. Every assault on power and privilege since the middle ages has met with repression and censorship together. ‘Freeborn John’ Lilburne was flogged and imprisoned for publishing his demands for religious freedoms and an end to the censorship of books and newspapers. Now, after over three hundred years of free press in the UK, the recent ground rules agreed for a new press code in the wake of the 2011 Phone Hacking Scandal are causing confusion amongst bloggers. Many bloggers use their sites as platforms to challenge Government policies, educate their readers on vital issues and mobilise people to action through petitions and protest. The concern is that some of these blogs could be misconstrued as inflammatory due to the strong personal views of the writer and commentators and, as a consequence, become a victim of the restriction of free speech. There have already been dubious prosecutions of Twitter and Facebook users whose expressions of free speech have been reclassified as ‘grossly offensive electronic communication’ and other offences as outlined in the Communications Act 2003.

Next Step?

So how would social media restrictions affect the organisation of protest? What is the next step? Speakers Corner in Hyde Park is still used to engage passionate debate and is symbolic of Britain’s centuries old commitment to freedom of speech but could we really go back to the slow and time consuming method of pamphleteering, mailing lists and gruelling tours? It’s difficult to imagine social protest under a restricted media, and what of the figureheads? Where will we find the John Lilburn’s and Ellen Wilkinson’s of the future if they are made to wear the equivalent of an online gag? Answers on a postcard please.

Image © Charlie Milsom

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