Saturday, March 26, 2011

UK media tries to come to grips with massive protest in London, a reaction to deep cuts in government spending

The media knew that there were plans for a large rally today in London to protest the deep cuts implemented by the Tory government of Prime Minister David Cameron, but the size and emotions on display today has caught reporters by surprise. Organizers originally hoped to draw more than 100,000 people to the protests, but estimates by UK media outlets have been as high as 500,000.

The BBC has used "more than 250,000" to describe the size of the crowds today in London, while the loyally conservative Telegraph has said 400,000 turned out today, while also emphasizing the attacks to businesses that have followed the original march. The more liberal Guardian used "around 500,000" to estimate the crowd, and has sometimes used the term "anarchists" to describe many of the violent incidents.
In all cases, the journalists covering the event have been surprised, even shocked, at the size of the march and rally. BBC political reporter Brian Wheeler told his colleagues writing at the Beeb that "the noise in Whitehall was deafening as thousands of protesters banged drums, blew whistles and shouted anti-cut slogans, slowly making their way towards Trafalgar Square. The crowds were booing as they went past Number 10 (the Prime Minister's residence), but the demonstration was good-natured and friendly."

The first reports, around 2:00 London time, centered on the rally at Hyde Park where Labor Party leader Ed Miliband spoke to the crowd, condemning the cuts of the majority party. "Unemployment is never a price worth paying. The next generation should never have their hopes sacrificed on the altar of dogmatic deficit reduction," The Guardian quoted the opposition leader.

Within an hour, however, the first reports of violence were being reported, with Paul Lewis of The Guardian reporting of an attack on a MacDonald's (sic) and a luxury car. By 7 this evening (4 ET) Lewis reported that Lillywhites, a sports retailer in Piccadilly Circus, was on fire and that "the situation is now getting dangerous." (His report was later retracted, as the fire was not at the retailer, but elsewhere and was quickly put out.)

Meanwhile, the New York Times not only did not consider the story worth featuring on its website front page, but the lead story on its "Europe" page was Qaddafi Forces Pull Back as Rebels Retake Ajdabiya -- it should have been that Libya had magically been incorporated into Europe. (Update: At 4:40 ET, the NYT finally posted a story about the protest in London originating from the Associated Press.)

The situation was no different at the Washington Post as it also did not include a story either on its website front page or in its "Europe" section, leading witha story about Chechnya, again showing that US editors are geographically challenged -- worse, the story had been posted 21 hours earlier.

(At CNN's website, the story was downplayed, though a story could at least be found in its "World" section.)

My Twitter feed was not well configured to follow the events today. Eventually I was able to zero in on the hash tags #March 26, #UKuncut, #demo2011 and others in order to read comments and get links to pictures coming from on the ground in London.

I also learned that there has been some communications between the Metropolitan police and the protestors through Twitter, and interesting evolution of the social networking tool.

Not to make light of the protest, but here were a few amusing Tweets (familiarity with London might help with a couple of these:

Rubbish demo - couldn't get a decent signal for tweeting all day. Just too many people.

Another: Fornum's protestors, Please leave the cheese counter alone.

And: Best placard so far: 'There are two things I don't like about Nick Clegg (the head of the Liberal Party): his face'