Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Illegitimate Delegitimisation of Legitimate Protest

Whether you accept global climate change to be a greater threat to 'our way of live' than terrorism or not, whether, like me, you believe that drawing too much attention to the relatively small contribution to man-made carbon emissions air travel makes is rather like barking up the wrong tree, it is nonetheless shameful how a group of non-violent protesters at and around Heathrow have been maligned for expressing what they believe in.

In this 'single-issue democracy', where actual participation in the wider democratic process is not very a la mode, where the rather trivial pursuit of escapism is deemed more rewarding (in more than one sense), where you could easily start to believe that centuries of struggle to obtain and secure our democratic rights were almost a waste of time, those who wish to express their opinion peacefully should deserve our respect, whether we actually agree with their positions or not. Below is a piece that illustrates that many in our society will still try and stifle democratic protest if such dissent is deemed 'inappropriate' or 'inconvenient', even if such attempts at silencing require resorting to exaggeration, distortion, fabrication and outright lies and deceit...

Attack of the baby eaters

Shameless exaggerations of the climate protesters' dastardly plans have left us baffled at the camp

George Monbiot

The allegations have been plaguing the Heathrow climate camp all week. They began in the Evening Standard: "Hoax bombs to cause alerts. Assaults on airport fence ... Protest leaders calling themselves 'The Elders' advised 'clashes with police will happen'."

When I was asked on to Newsnight to discuss the issue of whether climate change is a greater threat than terrorism, we kept being dragged back to the hoax bombs. The story was later picked up across the media, including appearances in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, and by Friday had been embellished with some lurid new quotes from the Metropolitan police in the Daily Express, which warned: "Extremist yobs hijack airport demo in plot to cause mayhem".

All this has left us at the protest camp scratching our heads. The actions planned for tomorrow have been discussed openly at huge meetings. But nothing even resembling the schemes proposed by the Evening Standard has even been mooted. The campers will certainly be breaking the law by taking direct action - all protests can now be deemed unlawful - but they will be governed by strict non-violent principles.

There are quite a few of us veterans here but age, sadly, confers no privileges: the camp is non-hierarchical, and no one has heard of "The Elders". There are plenty of anarchists, but the last thing they want is a ruck with the police, not least because - armed with nothing more than a sheaf of scientific papers - they would lose. As for scaling the perimeter fence, it has been ruled out on the grounds that we would probably be shot. Invading Heathrow's massive runways would put the lives of thousands at risk.

So where did the story come from? It was, or so the byline claimed, written by Robert Mendick, the Evening Standard's chief reporter. One of the campers phoned Mr Mendick and asked him what was going on. "I'm very constrained about what I can say for various reasons," Mr Mendick replied. "Suffice to say I understand what you're saying and I can't go into it. Er, and I would further say it's, er, not something I was actually massively involved with and, er, I'll leave it at that." "What do you mean?" "... I really can't go into it."

So what does he mean? Why is Mr Mendick unable to say where the claims in his story came from? How did he manage to write an article that he was not "massively involved with"? Is there a computer programme at the Evening Standard that composes reporters' articles on their behalf? I left messages for Mr Mendick yesterday but was unable to speak to him.

Protests like this have two peculiar vulnerabilities. One is that anyone can claim to speak on their behalf, either in person or online, whether or not they are involved. The other is that anyone can say anything about them without fear of being corrected, let alone sued: accusations can be levelled at the collective that could not be directed at any of its members. As long as the claims remain in the plural, they can be stretched as far as public credulity will allow.

During one roads protest in the 1990s we were accused of stabbing guards with hypodermic needles filled with blood, setting pit traps lined with metal spikes in the hope of catching and killing the police and arming ourselves with catapults and crossbows to take out the contractors: all nonsense, of course. Yet when some of us were hospitalised by guards (alongside several others, I had a bone broken during an unprovoked attack), most of the newspapers wouldn't touch the story for fear of being sued by the security firm.

Scare stories about anarchist baby eaters are as old as protest. We can't prevent their publication - all we can ask is that you read them with the scepticism their authors failed to employ.


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