First and foremost I want to set these blog posts into some context.
I posted previously about The Met's use of staged or managed events at the second student demo as part of its communications strategy and suggetsed I might write a follow-up post to examine some of the Met's more conventional PR tactics to shape media coverage and public opinion.
Also, as part of my PhD I'm planning on using my blog as a way of keeping notes and sharing thoughts that will come in useful as my research progresses. These posts are part of that iterative process.
In addition to the above, these posts will also hopefully serve as a handy – if modest and incomplete – reference guide for journalists to help them undertand and decode some of the communications tactics employed by the Met and thus potentially improve the depth of questioning and breadth of coverage.
Part 1 – How 'framing' media stories is used for effective political policing
In US academic, Robert Entman's, book on the way issues or stories are 'framed' (that is how relevant information is gathered and edited into 'news') by the media he asserts that by establishing the terms of a potential story, strategic actors (in our case, the Met) can command and control the way the subsequent news is perceived and – more importantly – how it continues to influence future stories.
Specifically, in Projections of Power (2004) he outlines what Curran (2002) calls the "definitional power" of the media:
"A dominant frame [i.e an official way of interpreting information] in early news coverage of an event can acticat and sprad congruinet thoughts and feelings in individuals' knowledge […] that guides responses to all future reports. First impressions may be difficult to dislodge." p.7 [my emphasis]
This theory can be used to explain the PR tactics adopted by the Met even before a demonstration takes place who you will often find issuing a briefing to 'define' the direction of the media narrative.
This happened ahead of the most recent student demonstration on 9th December where Commander Bob Broadhurst, the head of the Met's public order branch, told media they were expecting the student demonstration to be violent.
It also happened ahead of the 2009 G20 protests in London when weeks before planned demos Superintendent David Hartshorn, who then headed the Met's public order branch, exclusively told The Guardian the Met was: "preparing for a "summer of rage" as victims of the economic downturn take to the streets to demonstrate against financial institutions."
With hindsight these examples offer a useful opportunity to interpret the way they potentially shaped public perception of events.
Take the recent student demo as our first case study: telling the media they were execting violence firstly activates in the public's mind that the demonstration is goin to be violent. Whether it ever turns out to be or not this perception and mindet towards demonstrators is established. Secondly, it acts to legitimise police violence because, as the Met has aldready confirmed in advance, it was expecting violence so any brutality on its part must be a response.
This technique neatly reverses cause an effect of violent public order situations and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Met.
The ' helped significantly by the news management technique of 'embedding' journalists within forces to help ensure the event is interpreted from a specific perspective – despite the best aims of 'objective' reporting.
Another 'set piece' in the police's PR toolkit to help 'frame' news from within protests or public order situations is the use – and reporting – of injuries.
**Before I go any further, please note: I am not excusing or valorising any kind of violent behaviour or resultant injury to anyone. I am trying to explore and explian how injuries that happen within tense situations can be used to establish a particular perception in the media.**
The reporting of injuries can be used both qualitatively to reinforce the notion of 'violent demonstrators' and 'police as victims' and also quantitively to show how much of a battle the police won/lost (depending on the public's wider perceptions post-event).
As an example of the first tactic see this quote from a police spokesperson from Nottinghamshire police during the demonstration at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in 2009:
"Throughout the day officers have been assaulted but police remain in control of the site. We have one officer who sustained head injuries at the protest. He was airlifted to Derbyshire Royal Infirmary where he is being treated. His wife has been made aware but we have no update on his condition.
"One protester also received treatment on site by police officers and was taken away by ambulance. His condition is unknown."
It would later transpire that the office didn't sustain a head injury – which, of course, was good news.
What is noticable is the formal and melodramatic reporting for the injured police officer (e.g. "his wife has been informed") that's clearly missing from comments about the injured protester – along with a more complete total of injured protestors which was much higher than 'one'.
Now, this may seem rather extreme: exploiting injuries to shape media covergae, but wider context and examples will hopefully illustrate the point further.
The injured officer airlifted to hospital was actually treated by a medic that was protesting on the day. From tweets at the time and emails I've seen subsequently it would appear that at the time the officer was being treated it was apparent that he was unlikely to be suffering from head injuries, as the hospital or police later confirmed.
The Guardian – as I understand it – was party to the development in the story, but of course by then it was old news and the public's perception had been set.
A further – and by now, infamous – example of the quantitative use of police injuries in PR is Kingsnorth Climate Camp.
During the 2008 Climate Camp gathering police used extreme measures to intimidate protestors, such as sleep deprivation and excessive stop and search activity. In addition, police revealed to the media and Parliament that a total of 70 officers had been injured during the police operation.
It wasn't until a FoI request from the Liberal Democrats that it became apparent not a single injury was sustained from protestors; rather records showed injujuries were mostly toothache, diarrhoea, cut fingers and "possible bee stings".
I won't labour the point, but you get the idea that by the time the reality of the situation has unravelled it's old news and the public perception has been crystalised.
For a good overview of examples of this, specifically related to climate change and climate justice campaigning, see Kevin Smith's post for the Guardian's CiF blog.
The next post in this series will look at post-demonstration tactics, the use of language and perhaps look at some of the additional reasons for the effectiveness of police PR and media management, e.g. the formalised news production processes and cultural values of the media.
Curran, J. (2002). Media & Power. Routledge.
Entman, R. (2004). Projections of Power. University of Chicago Press.