Journey to Justice

How we talk about protest matters

By Charlotte-Rose Kennedy

As a linguist, I care greatly about language – it’s a means by which we shape opinion and convey ideas. In relation to protests and social movements, language is of particular importance; it’s a means by which support is rallied and wants are communicated. Language is also the means by which the public learn about protests and social movements, especially through press coverage, which plays a substantial role in giving protesters a platform to amplify their voices. 

However, traditionally, mainstream media coverage does not favour protests and social movements. Delegitimising and marginalising coverage usually dominates reporting which may be detrimental to the success of a protest and could have negative effects on democracy. For an example, let’s look at one of the most controversial social movements in the UK and how it is represented in the press: Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR advocate for environmental justice, and use non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse. Their civil disobedience tactics have been very provocative – from gluing themselves to trains to blocking streets – and the topic of numerous articles in the press. In 2019 alone, 1302 articles were published in the daily national UK press in response to the XR protests. Often, these articles treated XR protesters as a threat to the police and public, and called for harsher punishments for protesters. For example, The Sun reported that XR are: 

A real drain on the resources of a police force that should be dealing with the murderous knife epidemic among our children. […] These protests were a massive job-shredding, economy-damaging, air-polluting, chaos-causing catastrophe for the capital. And the police treated it as though it was the Notting Hill carnival.
[The Sun, 21st April 2019]

XR are represented as causing chaos and draining resources, and as such, are distracting the police from dealing with ‘the murderous knife epidemic’. The police are criticised for treating the protest ‘as though it was the Notting Hill carnival’ suggesting they should have implemented tougher sanctions. This narrative can be seen consistently throughout 2019s press reporting of XR: protesters are a drain on police resources, because of that violent crime continues, and because of that the police should punish protesters.

On 14th October 2019, the Metropolitan Police did implement harsher measures – they imposed conditions on XR under the Public Order Act 1986 in response to calls for a police crackdown. The ban restricted where and when protesters could carry out their demonstrations despite XR being a peaceful, non-violent group. While the ban was ruled unlawful on 6th November 2019, much of the reporting turned to the police calling for protest laws to be strengthened: 

Police said today the law under Section 14 of the Public Order Act was 30 years old and needed urgent updating to cope with modern protests.
[The Telegraph, 6th November 2019]

Paradoxically, the embarrassing defeat for the Met may bolster its case with government that the public order laws need updating to cope with modern protest, and that such changes are urgent. Sources say the government has been pressing police to take more robust action.
[The Guardian, 6th November 2019]

Unfortunately, as a result of this, more robust action is being taken. This spring, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was introduced in direct response to protests such as XR as a means of limiting their size, noise and even ‘annoyance’, and introducing harsher punishments for protesters. Although the Bill has been regarded as anti-democratic by many, it has the support of the House of Commons who recently voted it through its second reading by 359 MPs. 

While I’m not suggesting the press reporting of XR protests alone led to the introduction of this Bill, it is important to note the role the press have in shaping public opinion. Unfavourable and hostile reporting can reduce public support for protests, lower mobilisation, and allow the government to pass increasingly restrictive legislation to limit protests without public backlash. 

It is therefore of the utmost importance we recognise the power language has in shaping opinion and conveying ideas – especially when the ideas conveyed contribute to the marginalisation of our democratic freedoms.

Charlotte-Rose Kennedy is a PhD student at Nottingham Trent University and was on placement with Journey to Justice as part of the Economic (In)Justice team and continues to support the project as a volunteer.

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