I have read a lot of tweets and articles today expressing disgust and surprise at the way in which many TV news channels and radio broadcasters have appeared to take the cops' side in the aftermath of yesterday's student protests. (We expect our printed media to give a skewed version of events and therefore show less disgust or surprise at their taking sides, I suppose.) I think there are a few reasons why this might be.
First, you have to look at the way in which journalists work, and a lot of this isn't their fault so much as a fault of the way in which live news is put together. In a fast-moving situation like a riot, how can you tell what's going on where, if you don't have people right in the thick of it? Sure, there were hardy souls flashing their press cards down there, and wearing their protective hats as if they were about to be shelled in Yugoslavia, bless them; but one person on the ground can't get much a feeling beyond what he or she can see with their own eyes. They're as limited as we are.
Then there's the idea of whom to believe in the midst of all the confusion. Journalists are taught to trust official sources, like cops, and to give more weight to their evidence than to just Joe Public. So if you have a situation where a lot of cops and a lot of plebs are coming into conflict and you didn't see it yourself, how do you know what's happened when you can't be in two places at once? You have to take someone's word for it. Whose word is more trusted? Well an official source like a police spokesman carries more weight than just 'some protester who happened to be there', so that's what you go with. The establishment has the benefit of their sources being more trusted in these situations. Of course, police are just as capable of lying as anyone else, but we journos are trained to be more trusting of them than plebs. That may be right or wrong, but that's how it works.
When a cop comes on the radio, for example, and expresses pleasure that police didn't put some bullets into protesters, and that somehow they should be patted on the head for having not slaughtered a few angry students, that's just another example of the trusted source. Who wants to speak to a protester who was there? We've got a high-ranking somebody here, who wants to put their side of the story - the higher the rank, the more trusted they can be, the more weight their view carries.
Then there's the idea of the helicopter shot. It's pretty deceptive when you look down on a riot situation; it's very different on the ground. Just as you can look at a Formula One car on TV heading straight towards a camera and it looks like it's pootling along at 30mph, an overhead helicopter shot distorts the speed and intensity of what's going on down below. You don't get a good idea of the sheer size of a police horse, for example, compared to a human being; nor the sheer scariness of when such a big animal goes skating down a tarmac road on metal hooves. Once those things get going, it's pretty hard to stop them. And what looks like a slight tap from a helicopter can be a serious deal.
From an overhead camera shot, a few people chucking big-but-lightweight plastic barriers might seem hugely aggressive, while a few seemingly slow-moving police horses doesn't seem that big a deal. It's only if you're down there yourself that you can judge the intensity of these things. Now I'm not saying that the violence is only one-way in these things, and far from it; I'm just trying to point out that the camera doesn't always give the whole picture.
There's also the idea that one act of violence wins TV news. Burning something or smashing something gets you in the papers and on TV; marching up and down for five hours peacefully might get you ten seconds at the end of the bulletin. It's one of many reasons why these things do erupt into violence, because petitions to Downing Street and writing to your MP only achieves so much when the Prime Minister won't listen and your MP is being whipped into line. People don't always go to direct action as a first resort. The simple sadness is that if you want to get noticed, break things, smash things. Worry our future queen. That gives you tons of publicity. Hours of good-natured protesting in which no-one gets rowdy? Not so interesting for TV news, or papers.
What we're beginning to see with these protests is the way in which immediate media like Twitter can convey something other than the official sources - the voice of the people in the thick of it. You don't have journalists worrying about whether a lone protester's eyewitness account is as trustworthy as a top-ranking police officer giving a statement at a news conference; you just get some more accounts from more people who are at the heart of it. We can take it with a pinch of salt, of course, as we might do with any news item, but there are more voices on a medium like that expressing their own views of what's going on. The voices add up. The photos and eyewitness accounts add up. You have to take the TV news in tandem with the accounts you see on Twitter, live tweeters who are there and taking photos, and elsewhere to take a fuller picture.
Eventually, another side of the story approaches. You get details of police injuries first because the police give them out first; eventually, you find out how many protesters get injured, and it's often many more. You start hearing stories about someone being dragged out of a wheelchair; someone else getting hit over the head and ending up in hospital. It starts to trickle out. Reporters give more personal accounts in colour pieces that give more of a flavour of what's going on.
The reason why many people see the coverage from the BBC and others as biased, I think, is because of that demand for immediacy, and the reliance on the trusted sources above all others - which when you've got protesters and police, means the police get the primary focus during all the excitement, and the kettled protesters' stories only seep out much later, once newspapers have gone to bed and contemporaneous news bulletins have been broadcast. I don't think the BBC are biased in their coverage but I can see why it may appear that way. I think all we as punters can do is realise that no news outlet can give the full picture of a fast-moving story, know that information only comes from one side of the riot shields in the first instance, and look for other media including social to fill in the gaps in what we're seeing.