24/7 News nudges BBC into hype over student riots

 

Great shots of a nasty riot and the stills are a picture editor’s dream. Being at the focus of the students’ wrath inside the besieged Palace of Westminster tempted the normally judicious Nick Robinson (rightly warning here that the story won’t go away you know) into overegging it on the 10, when he said ( I only slightly paraphrase).

A few hours ago this was about winning a vote on student fees, which the coalition duly did. But a day is a long time in politics. This one will be remembered as the day the government lost control of the streets.”

You’d have thought the people’s  Soviet was about to storm the Winter Palace. Perhaps being couped up inside for hours made it feel it felt like that. Outside in Parliament Square, being hemmed in a kettle for hours made it feel like that too, and they reacted according to script.

The Storming of the Winter Royal Car was an unexpected bonus and the picture editor’s nirvana. This tempted the BBC News channel and Sky (who had better pix first) into a frenzy of alarm about the “royal breach of security” which the normally level- headed June Kelly told us was ” the real story.” What would  have happened if the paint was ” something worse?” Ah the old worse case hypothesis, so beloved of 24 hour news.

Royal security might have been better served if they hadn’t driven Charles and Camilla through an angry crowd in the customised Rolls limmo with the royal arms badge on top, with especially big windows to allow adoring crowds a good look at the royals waving to them inside. –  or in this single case to let  less adoring  crowds identify who’s inside easily and  try to kick the doors in.  Put them in an armoured Jaguar with smoked glass and -who knows? – they might have got off unidentified and unscathed.

What a tough job for the police. One day a policeman pushes a frail man over who dies and he’s crucified as the pictures are played over and over. Another day and the police are slammed for failing to get a grip. Both criticisms may be valid of course but you can see the dilemma, What investigators in a sterile atmosphere later find it hard to capture is the force of pressure and rage that can push a man to lose control for a second or make police commanders fearful of putting their careers on the line.

Does the presence of live TV make demos worse? Demonstrators may jeer louder when they’re on live but the real damage seems to be done mostly off camera and by people wearing masks, suggesting they come prepared to make trouble. It’s an anachronistic question anyway as we all have our own cameras now. Sometimes though, the weight of day-long coverage and the unfamiliar sight of real people behaving badly can overbalance the sanest of reporters.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London