Why are demos and riots breaking out all over? It’s the economy stupid. But Newsnight’s Paul Mason has a contemporary twist, writing in the Independent to give a taster for his book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions’
Velocity of information matters as much as action itself. It is striking how badly the incumbent elites in each case totally lose the information war. Whether it’s Greece, Turkey, Egypt or Brazil the unspoken truth is it is hard to gain a voice in the official media unless you are part of the in-group. This creates the mindset that drove Egyptian TV to ignore Tahrir, and Turkish TV to replace 24-hour news with cookery programmes as the fighting raged outside their studios. But it doesn’t work. People have instant access not just to the words, stills and videos coming from the streets, but to publish it themselves. As a result, when crisis hits, the volume of “peer to peer” communication – your iPhone to my Android, my tweet to your uploaded video – overwhelms any volume of information a state TV channel can put out.
(Is Paul hinting that our own dear BBC – his main employer – is failing to do its job properly?)
Did we not see this happening in miniature with the running flags protests in Belfast? But hold on, is this really as new as all that? Call me parochial but the running protests in Rio, Istanbul, Cairo and so on remind me of nothing so much as our student protests in 1968 and 69 until more sinister forces took over. These like the phenomena Mason identifies today were at first rebellions of the middle class disenfranchised, the under or un-employed and the plain stirrers-up which swept Europe at the time, long before the IT revolution. The phone, the inky duplicator and instant RT networks were quite good enough to spread the word. During the Prague spring of 1968 it was TV that was subversive just by staying on air from moveable locations, long before sat vans.
And we can go further back, to post war surges, to 1848 and 1830 and the French revolution itself about which Tocqueville wrote that revolutions happen among people on the rise and in a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.
Whatever the technology it was the idea that used to count for most, even above tactics . Once protest was clearly ideologically labelled. One of the oddest phenomena of today is the lack of an ideological driver against globalisation, Big Brother scrutiny, the bankers, the incompetent bureaucracy, you name it.
Today what do street protests stand for? Are they the flurries before the tsunami? Or human surges that burn themselves out? The lack of ideology makes it even more difficult to respond, as we see governments caught on the hop floundering and exposed all over the globe. If only it were possible to identify the tipping point, when protest becomes anarchy or revolution. The cause, the political context and above all the outcomes, all matter more than the technology that fuels them. Although I do wonder how events would have turned out if we had had 24/7 live news in 1968 and 69.
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