The Guardian’s coverage of protest is a significant marker of its wider attitude to social change. For a title that emerged, according to its own mythology, as a response to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 where the authorities killed at least 18 people attending a rally for electoral reform and trade union rights in Manchester, one would expect support for mass mobilisations to be in its very bones. The truth is a little more complicated.
While John Edward Taylor, the man who went on to found the Manchester Guardian two years after Peterloo, did condemn the violence of the yeomanry that day, he attributed it to a few ‘bad apples’ and described the ‘presumption, vulgarity and violence of some self-styled reformers’ as equally culpable. Taylor and his allies campaigned for a public inquiry that would embarrass the government but differentiated themselves from the radical voices that were demanding widespread political reform, including universal suffrage.
Two centuries and consider the Guardian’s coverage of the protests in Bristol against the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that is designed to restrict the right to protest. Following violent scenes at the initial protest on Sunday 21 March, the Guardian amplified police and government sources, focusing heavily on home secretary Priti Patel’s condemnation of the protest as the result of ‘thuggery and disorder by a minority’. The following day, it described the protest as a ‘riot’.
The Guardian, 22 March 2021
On Wednesday that week, the paper featured a story based on an interview with the chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, who described the ‘horrendous violence’ faced by the police who were ‘battered and bruised, in some cases physically’. The report features four separate police sources and not a single representative of the protestors.
The Guardian, 24 March 2021
By Thursday, however, Avon and Somerset police had retracted claims that officers had suffered severe injuries, including broken bones and a punctured lung, on the Sunday protest – false statements that were widely published by an eager media corps, including the Guardian.
By now, the tone of the Guardian’s coverage started to shift. By the following weekend, the paper had published articles that gave voice to the protestors and challenged the police’s account. A lengthy story by Tom Wall and a comment piece by Matty Edwards (of the community-owned Bristol Cable) provided counter-narratives to the earlier reports and located the protests in relation to a long tradition of radical activism in Bristol. From being ‘under siege’ on Wednesday, the police were now ‘under fire’ for allegedly assaulting a reporter. The damage, however, had already been done.
The paper’s instinctive support for the ‘official’ side of the story – followed by more critical accounts – speaks to the existence of a ‘protest paradigm’: a form of journalism which conventionally accepts establishment sources, focuses on the ‘violence’ of the protestors and the ‘defensive’ actions of authorities, and marginalises the wider reasons for the protest being called in the first place.
This connects to a broader conundrum in which the Guardian finds itself: that support for ‘liberal’ causes is in its DNA (or rather its mission statement) but not if this involves actual challenges to the status quo.
We can see this tension played out throughout the Guardian’s history when it comes to radical protest.
For example, the paper largely supported the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, but became nervous when it moved into a more confrontational phase with the emergence of the black power movement. In its editorial reflecting on a major civil rights march in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966, it concluded that:
If the civil rights movement sticks to extremism in words, there is no cause for alarm. It is just another weapon in their rather limited armoury. But if the more militant mood means a move away from nonviolence, it is nothing more than a gesture of despair. The Negro protest movement will be cornered in the United States as it already has been in South Africa and rendered impotent. (The Guardian, 28 June 1966).
Similarly, it criticised the Vietnam War but was less patient with those who sought to take to the streets of London to protest against it, once more identifying protestors as the violent protagonists in a march outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1968.
Demonstrators engaged police – mounted and on foot – in a protracted battle throwing stones, earth, firecrackers and smokebombs. Plastic blood, an innovation, add a touch of vicarious brutality. It was only after considerable provocation that police tempers began to fray and truncheons started to be used, and then only for a short time. The demonstrators seemed determined to stay until they had provoked a violent response of some sort from the police. (The Guardian, 18 March 1968).
Responding to the massacre by British paratroopers of 13 unarmed Irish Republican demonstrators in Derry in 1972, the paper acknowledged in its report the following morning that ‘it is too soon to be sure of what happened’ but still published accounts that privileged military sources.
The army has an intolerably difficult task in Ireland. At times it is bound to act firmly even severely. Whether individual soldiers misjudged their situation yesterday, or were themselves too directly threatened, cannot yet be known. The presence of snipers in the late stages of the march must have added a murderous dimension. It is a terrible warning to everyone involved. (The Guardian, 31 January 1972)
Then, on the day of Britain’s biggest ever demonstration on 15 February 2003, the protest against the Iraq War which attracted up to two million people in London alone, it simply chose to keep the march off its front page while some of its rivals led with the story and provided maps and schedules in order to increase participation. Instead, the Guardian relegated news of the protest to a small article on page 5 which included 69 words from Downing Street sources in comparison to 21 words the Stop the War Coalition which organised the march.
The Guardian claims to embody progressive values and, with some 160 million monthly readers across the globe, is a key site of left-of-centre news. Celebrating the right to protest while simultaneously dismissing or even condemning protestors when they do not conform to the Guardian’s preference for moderate tactics and non-violent action (even in the face of real provocation) positions the paper not just as an indecisive ally of social change but as an historic block to that very change.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London and the editor of Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian. He is co-organiser of the forthcoming conference, ‘Liberalism Inc: 200 Years of the Guardian’ on 23/24 April 2021. This features keynotes from former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, former editor-at-large Gary Younge, the Palestinian academic Ghada Karmi and the founder of Declassified UK, Mark Curtis. You can register for free here.