The two words that political leaders, and none more than Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, have resorted to in the wake of the riots that have spread throughout England since unrest in Tottenham last Saturday night, are “simple” and criminality”. If criminality ‑ a word I find semantically similarly appealing as, say, “hateality ‑ describes the state of being criminal, then the latter of these two terms is a hollow tautology that states nothing more than the obvious fact that crimes were committed. However, nothing about these crimes is simple. In fact, to start gaining an understanding of the riots, we need to grasp the multicausality of events of the past week. Here are some preliminary theses on its causes:
- The UK riots, in their sum rather than the individual instances in various London boroughs, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, were first and foremost a media event. An event in which rolling news came into its own. Images of a burning furniture store in Croydon, a police car being attacked in Tottenham, hooded youths in Chalk Farm, another fire in Ealing – all repeated on loops to provide the dramatic background scenery to eye witness reports via mobile phones ‑ provided endless coverage, yet little depth of understanding. Yet, in doing so, the news coverage itself become constitutive of the riots ‑ though not in the way the simplistic but popular phrase “copycat” suggests. Rather, in the interplay between spectacle and performance that Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) described over a decade ago, mediated representation and audienceship become part of the repertoire of our everyday life performances. The televisual image and its public consumption and re-enactment become part of a cycle in which one premises the other. In its form, though not its content, the UK riots thus arouse out of an interaction between televisual representations and on street actions; and the remediation and coordination of such performances via social media and mobile messaging were thus akin to other media events such as the 2006 World Cup and Public Viewing.
- The marker of the riots in the interplay of in situ and media event is thus that they are demarcated from the ordinary. The event, by definition, is a diversion from the quotidian rhythm of everyday duties and practices. For all brutality and arson, if one was to code the few voices of those participating in the riots heard in media reports, one cannot escape the theme of the carnivalesque – with two 17 year old girls from Croydon interviewed on Radio 4 at 9 a.m. happily parading a bottle of looted rose wine after a sleepless, drunken night, which they had described as a party with “free stuff”, perfectly capturing the temporary escape form the dominant social and material order that made this Carnival of Violence and Looting so attractive to many of its thousands of participants across the UK.
- The notion of “free stuff” – similarly reflected in the account of the BBC reporter in Manchester who after having been asked if he was heading to the sites of further riots was followed by streetwise locals who were equipped with bin bags to carry looted goods quickly realised they and the media had a common target ‑ was another frequent and near omnipresent theme of the riots. The scale of such looting, and the quite possibly accurate hypothesis that many riots were driven by the attempt to create opportunities for looting, are individually acts of greed and uninhibited material desire but in their sum a reflection of the triumph of materialism over all other values – linking these consumerist riots seamlessly to the key causes of the other dominant news theme of recent years: the credit crunch and banking crisis.
- Yet, none of these points can begin to explain the levels of violence sometimes directed against the police, banks or the media as representatives of the stauts quo but more often seemingly indiscriminate in nature. This breakdown of civility is one in which the most adequate assessment of the role of the media is to acknowledge their wider relationships in what Bronfenbrenner (1979) identified as the micro, meso, exo and macro systems of childhood and adolescence in which print and broadcast media play an important, but far from exclusive role in exosystems, just as social media have become part of the mesosystems. But simplistic media violence debates, as much as those focusing on a decline of parenting skills fail to account for the interdependence of school, family and wider social life, and fail to offer an adequate response to the interplay of these systems.
- However, alongside all the above reasons, anger fuelled the riots and looting and the frequent violent conduct in particular. Those on the political right have been keen to emphasise that much of the rioters’ conduct was apolitical, an analysis that is hard to disagree with. Yet, the rise of this form of the postmodern, apolitical riot, lacking the political trajectory of previous forms of civil unrest such as the 1981 Brixton riots, is neither a cause for gloating nor celebration. What has largely been missed in the broadcast and print media coverage of the riots is that the disenfranchisement of those demonstrating their anger from wider political processes and a sense of public sphere and democratic space, does not mean that such anger lacks causes that are both ideological and political ranging form wider questions of social inequality, injustice and poverty to the narrowly political such as the austerity drive and dramatic reductions in public spending. Witnessing sections of society who lack the fundamental vocabulary of political protest is a stark reminder that merely building media literacy reaches too short. When anger can no longer find a constructive trajectory, it translates into the indiscriminate, random and futile postmodern violence that becomes an aim in and for itself – and to which there hence can be no remedy, no meaningful political answer: because it cannot even formulate the challenge it poses.
- Since the zenith of violence on Monday night, the focus of news coverage has increasingly shifted towards police tactics. Resources evidently appear to have played a role. Those familiar with policing practices internationally, will also note some of the idiosyncrasies of British policing, such as not using water cannons for crowd control. Those with experience of living in London and other British metropolitan areas will have first-hand accounts of a policing culture that is often experienced as a “can’t do”-service by citizens. While all this may be true, such debates illustrate many traditional mass media outlets’ failure to engage with the causes of the riots and instead mistaking failures of policing in containing the symptoms of the riots for an engagement with their actual causes.