No reasoning about the riots

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It is now four months since the English riots caused an estimated half a billion pounds worth of damage to cities across the country.  Now the second round over who is to blame, what caused the riots and what actually happened, is just beginning. 

At the time the reaction of media and politicians riots was damning. David Cameron called the disturbances “criminality pure and simple”, while a Sun poll showed 33% of respondents thought the police should be able to use live ammunition to deal with the rioters. 77% supported calling in the army. In October, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke told the Conservative Party Conference the riots were due to a “feral underclass” in Britain, citing figures that showed more than three-quarters of those arrested had prior convictions. MP David Lammy called the rioters “mindless, mindless people”.

And yet this violent rhetoric does not stand up to considered analysis. With the release of a number of reports and investigations into the riots and their causes, we see a more nuanced picture emerging.

According to a joint LSE/Guardian report this week anger towards the police was a key factor in causing rioting, with a staggering 85% of rioters citing policing as a cause for the disturbances. This is in line with the argument made by leading crowd psychologists Professor Stephen Reicher and Dr Clifford Stott in their new ebook.

According to Reicher and Stott, the individual in a crowd does not lose their identity – the ‘mad mob’ hypothesis – but takes on legitimate community grievances. A National Policing Improvement Agency Report has gone so far as to argue that “treating people with respect” is key to giving the police legitimacy and so reducing crime: a bit of politeness may have helped prevent the riots. 

Perhaps contrary to Cameron’s “pure criminality”, there is also a strong correlation between poverty (the second biggest factor cited in the LSE/Guardian study) and rioting. According to the independent Riot Communities and Victims Panel, 70% of those brought before the courts lived in the 30% most deprived postcodes in the country.  Even Ken Clarke’s figures – while correct – are not representative. As Reicher points out, most offenders were caught with the aid of CCTV footage. Clearly those known to police were most likely to be picked up. 

How come the views we saw in August are now being countered by the evidence? Firstly, the media gleefully played on people’s fears. We could watch constant footage of policemen being caught out, of rioters ransacking buildings, of violence and destruction at every street corner. Newspapers even reported on vigilante groups being formed to protect shops. From the news, it was felt that the police were helpless to stop every street falling to anarchy. Yes, the riots were big. But the media’s approach sensationalised them magnificently.

The politicians seized on this. The riots were a wonderful political tool: it could support any theory you like, because nobody really knew what was happening, or why. For David Cameron, it was a vindication of the ‘broken Britain’ hypothesis – and the perfect platform from which to justify sweeping government cuts. After 12 years of soft-touch Labour rule, Britain had lost its moral compass. For the Opposition, it showed the cuts were too fast, too deep, and people were rebelling against a state happy to leave them behind. At the time there was no evidence particularly to support either party’s account. But both the Government and the Opposition presented their accounts as unadulterated fact.

The picture is clearly more complex than was portrayed. Speaking to the BBC, Reicher said, “if you hear a simple explanation to such events, it’s an over-simplification.” He has a point. Good science and good evidence – the tools that could be used to understand events like then riots – were allowed to fall by the wayside in favour of sensationalism and gory political rhetoric. Now, four months on, we have to reassess the reactions of our politicians to what happened, in the light of real information. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen in the news: after the bright pictures of burning buildings and riot police, and the fiery rhetoric they excused, stepping back and saying “maybe the picture we portrayed wasn’t entirely accurate” helps nobody’s ratings. 

Perhaps the saddest comment of all was Reicher’s response when asked if his research would have any effect; “the first question is whether our research will be heard.” So when the St John’s JCR stood up for the President of their college and head of the UK Statistics Agency two weeks ago, after he was branded a ‘Labour stooge’ by Boris Johnson, they were taking a more important stand; for reasoned analysis and science over rhetoric and political manoeuvring. Perhaps if this point of view had been taken at the time of the riots, what would have emerged – rather than talk of a feral underclass – would have been an acceptance of the time it takes to understand a complex event, an in-depth analysis of its causes, and government action to prevent its recurrence.

Somehow, with the combination of an insatiable media and the politics (and politicians) it creates, this seems unlikely.



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