NEWS Of The SQEWS
A look at the news, opinions and skew-whiffs as presented by the British Press.
Squall 6, Spring 1994, pg. 9.
“We want to discourage the young mother who turns up with child in arms on the town hall steps expecting the council to be able to help her,” said Wandsworth Council leader, Edward Lister (Daily Mail 20/9/93) and “How do we explain to the young couple who want a home before they start a family that they cannot be rehoused ahead of the unmarried teenager expecting her first probably unplanned child,” lamented the crocodile-tear stained Sir George Young (Observer 10/9/93 Tory Conference).
One in three squatters are families and a large section of the travelling community have children! ….So what?
Of course Michael Howard claimed part of the scapegoat for his own brief, accusing the already dazed single parents of providing the breeding ground for criminals: “So called progressive theories in the Sixties and Seventies made excuses for crime and seemed to blame everyone apart from the criminal,” he scoffed. “Some parents neglected the difference between right and wrong, and part of the story is the decline of the traditional two parent family.” (Observer 10/12/93.)
“Find your own home”
The Daily Telegraph
The usual array of official-line media, familiar with helping the British public swallow Government policy, hardly knew how to present this to its readership. How do you make a blanket condemnation of lone parents sound like humane politics? How do you prepare a readership for “FIND YOUR OWN HOME, LONE MOTHERS TO BE TOLD.........Next month ministers will release proposals that will mean an end to the automatic right of the homeless to council housing.” (Daily Telegraph 19/12/93.)
“encourage single parents to stay with their families”
The Daily Telegraph
The Tory press wriggled but managed to fall in line with: “The Government’s radical re-think of housing policy reflects concern that too many homeless people are currently able to take ‘short cuts’ to housing. The likely effect of the change in law would be for single mothers to be housed in temporary hostel accommodation rather than be found a permanent home. The Government hopes that changing the rules will encourage single parents to stay with their families. Changing the law could save public money,” (Daily Telegraph 8/10/93). And under the headline “TORY PLAN CURBS ON LONE MOTHERS' HOMES”, The Daily Mail suggested that these proposals will “stop single mothers from jumping the queue for council housing” even reminding readers that Wandsworth, the Tory council who are to pilot the scheme, has “set a consistently low poll tax”. Oh that’s alright then.
The media debate surrounding single parents took up much of the aftermath of Tory conference coverage.
“Time to squash the squatters”
Squatters and travellers, although far from ignored in Michael Howard’s ‘27 scapegoats for crime’ speech, did not receive a mention until the following month with: “Time to Squash the Squatters: The Government is finally taking action against squatters, Rachel Kelly writes. But is it right to turn them into criminals?” (The Times 13/10/93). The article quoted Lou Crisfield, a SQUASH spokeswoman, who reminded everyone (again): “The numbers won’t go down; squatters do not have an alternative. The Government did not match its proposals with announcements of plans for new hostels and extra resources.”
But as always with the press, it is consistency of coverage that is important. The views of a newspaper’s readership depend on which angles occur again and again. These are the impressions that are fortified. Impressions that become opinions that become die-hard beliefs.
“Squatters demand up to £2,000 from owners”
For instance, although Rachel Kelly might well have written what, for The Times, was a sympathetic piece, she seems to completely ignore her own observations only a month later in the same newspaper. “Horror stories in which squatters take possession of luxurious London Mansions have grabbed the headlines and helped to focus the Governments’s attention. Some squatters are thought to be encouraged by a ring of organised criminals. The squatters are said to move into empty homes and then demand up to £2,000 from the owners,” she berserked (Times 5/11/93). So what happened to her in the month between these two articles, that should lead her to flee from her forays into real investigation, back to the safe editorial waters of the stereotripe? ....A Tory editor and a Home Office press release, that’s what...
At 5.05pm on November 3rd 1993 a call was received from a journalist to say that the Home Office had hurriedly organised a press conference for the following morning. The purpose of the briefing was to announce details of the Government's intentions on squatting. SQUALL, in anonymous guise, rang the Home Office Press Department and was told that there was indeed a press conference the next morning, but that only eight named correspondents were invited. “How did you find out?” the Home Office spokeswoman asked. “We only rang the media 10 minutes ago.” After explaining that I was a journalist interested in Homelessness, she said she would try to get me a place at the briefing and would ring me back either that evening or early in the morning. She did not ring. SQUALL then rang the Home Office Press Department again and asked a different spokesperson why notification of the press briefing had only been arranged half an hour before the Home Office had closed on the previous day, and who the eight named correspondents were. The spokesperson claimed not to know the name of the Home Office press officer I had spoken to the night before, or who the named correspondents were. Upon being asked why the press conference had been organised at such short notice he said: “I don’t see why you want to know this information.” Eventually he said he would find out and ring me back. He never did. SQUALL then telephoned Alan Travis, the Home Affairs Editor at The Guardian and asked whether they had attended. He said that he had been there and, although he could not remember exactly how many members of the press were at the briefing, it was the usual assortment that you might find at any Home Office press conference. The hasty arrangement was, he said, a feature of Home Office press conferences since Michael Howard had become Home Secretary. In his opinion it is designed to thwart any protests or the attendance of journalists other than those working for the top nationals.
“Eviction is not the solution”
That day the SQUASH telephone lines went berserk as the audio-visual media wanted instant live interviews and the press wanted information and nice neat little sexy soundbites for their news pieces to be published the next day. The Rutland Park Mansions posse had also set themselves up in an organised way, enabling their informed spokespeople to provide interviews and, very importantly, a topical example of an existing squat. As a result, the audiovisual media, almost without exception, came out with very squatter-friendly angles.
The following day's press coverage also contained some gratifying surprises, particularly in The Independent. In the last News of the Sqews (SQUALL Issue 5) it was reported how The Independent had claimed: “Every place occupied by a squatter means another family condemned to the misery of bed and breakfast accommodation”. (Independent 8/6/93). Well with a summer to think about it and plenty of lobbying from SQUASH, a U-turn was in order and “WHY EVICTION IS NOT THE SOLUTION” was the headline given to the new editorial line.
“The proposed new law is unnecessary. Instead of concentrating on a serious policy initiative, the Home Secretary has offered a knee jerk reaction to a Tory myth…. The greatest failing of Mr. Howard’s approach is that he has not acknowledged that squatting is a symptom of homelessness.” (Independent 5/11/93) The editorial and the accompanying positively angled news feature, subtitled; “Home Secretary’s measures are condemned as ‘draconian’ by representatives of homeless people” (with more quotes from SQUASH), were greeted with a resounding ‘nice one’ in the SQUALL media department.
“A knee-jerk reaction to a Tory myth”
The Daily Mirror also hauled itself from the expected line and ran; “War On Squatters Is Snub To The Homeless” quoting a squatter who had just moved into a derelict and vandalised empty home in North London. “We got a skip and cleared it all up. Nothing really good happens when a place is left empty.”
The Financial Times (5/11/93) soberly pointed out that “The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, warned that the (proposed) new possession procedures were open to abuse, with occupiers and tenants only able to challenge proceedings after they have been evicted.” Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph (5/11/93), in a sedately anti-squatter piece, still found space to quote Andrew Simms from SHELTER: “Further criminalising squatting is likely to increase homelessness,” and Joe Oldman from CHAR: “This will throw more homeless people on to the streets because many squatters have no alternative but to squat.” Of course The Daily Mail (5/11/93) didn’t agree with the housing experts: “For the ironic but emphatic truth about squatting is that it has not reduced the level of homelessness. By frightening off landlords it has actually increased it.” We expected nothing better from the bluest of them all, but ought to mention that their Home Affairs correspondent Tony Doran, talked to a SQUASH spokesperson and said he would write a different piece to the usual Mail line. In fact the usual Mail line is to drop anything that its editors do not agree with, and so it was with Doran’s story and by-line (name). Michael Flaherty at The Daily Express, however, managed somehow to circumvent the editors’ guillotine and provide us with a humorous piece of editorial schizophrenia. Flaherty like Doran, deciding to investigate rather than pontificate, had rung both SQUASH and Rutland Park Mansions to hear the other side of the usual story. As a result his piece described “signs everywhere of work (Rutland Park) - painting, cleaning, replacing window-frames and panes. In the garden, flowers have been planted and the squatters take it in turn to cut the grass. They have even put up swings for local children.” And all this sitting amidst a double page spread headlined: “The modern scourge” (Daily Express 5/11/93).
The response of the press to the Home Office statement provided the first chance to review whether a summer of campaigning had actually had any effect on the media’s almost ceaseless regurgitation of the stereotripe. Anyone who read the Issue 5 News of the Sqews, will know that the last major batch of media coverage concerning squatting followed a leak to The Mail on Sunday (5/6/93) of impending legislation. By and large it was all pretty grim, whereas it has to be said that this time around, there is more evidence that certain journalists are investigating the issue and that certain editors are allowing the results of these investigations to be published.
“The modern scourge”
The Daily Express
As already mentioned, the part played by the Rutland Park Mansions in the improved coverage was considerable. The press gravitated towards what was described as "the biggest squat in Europe", looking for representatives. The Daily Mail, of editorial course, saw it all in the light of how much the squatters were costing the public tax-payer, “£100 a Day To Keep Squatters Out Of Flat: How They Spend Your Money.” (6/10/93)
“Fifty Years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers and, as George Orwell once said, ‘Old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’... Britain will remain unamendable in all essentials.”
John Major, April 1993.
For reasons only known to themselves, Brent Council hired out a security firm for “more than £100 a day”, to prevent the forty-second flat in the mansions from being lived in, when all the other flats were already occupied. The fact that English Heritage sided with the squatters was something that merited only a brief mention at the end of the article. This has to be considered a seasonal demotion as, come June 21st, English Heritage are headline material concerning Stonehenge…. Pick and choose, pick and choose.
“300 riot police smashed their way in”
The Daily Telegraph
As reported in “Rutlanders’ Last Stand” on page 24, the Rutland Park Mansions saga came to an abrupt end when “Three hundred riot police smashed their way into the Victorian mansion block at 5 am.” (Daily Telegraph 13/12/93.) The press were informed that “what appeared to be a booby trap had been found at the top of the stairwell - a claim squatters denied” (Guardian 13/12/93). In fact not only did the squatters deny it, they actually took the press into the building and showed them the so called ‘booby trap’. It consisted of wooden storage boxes that had been in the stairwell for years. None of the media reported this except The Daily Mail which, as usual, added its own insinuations. “The squatters said the alleged trap - a board, balancing between second-floor bannisters and scaffolding and piled high with objects taken from skips - was a storage area.” (The Daily Mail 13/12/93)
The Unofficial Homeless
|People sleeping rough||up to 8,600|
|Single people in hostels||60,000|
|Shortlife housing tenants||64,500|
|Single people in lodgings||77,000|
|Repossessed home owners||151,200|
|Private tenants without long term security||317,000|
|Hidden homeless people||1,200,000|
|Source - Shelter|
Of course it was a surprise to the police and bailiffs alike that there were any media there at all. A secret 5am Sunday morning eviction in Willesden was almost certainly designed to avoid both adverse media coverage and protesters (rather like a Home Office press conference). On that cold Sunday morning, around forty people made it up to out-of-the-way Willesden to stand with the squatters and register their protest.
Another example of this growing movement of ‘people action’ was at the recent M11 protest (covered at length in “Roadhouse Blues” on page 13 this issue). Suffice to say that, although the Sweet Chestnut in question no longer sucks in our CO2 to give us fresh air, it has born fruit: “a telephone tree of 200 people who are said to be on call to defend it (081530 5709 for details).” (The Guardian 19/11/93.)
“Protesters were punched slapped and kicked”
“Two hundred police, 150 security men” arrived at the site and “protesters were punched, slapped and kicked as they were dragged away.” (Guardian 8/12/93.) The Evening Standard, not known for sympathising with such cases, described the police violence with eye witness accounts: “Clem, 23, with blood pouring from her mouth, said: ‘I had already been dragged out by my hair and when I tried to stop a policeman dragging someone else he punched me in the mouth. Another woman said: I’ve never seen anything like it, it was totally brutal”. (Evening Standard 7/12/93)
The large, in most cases colour, photographs in The Evening Standard (7/12/93), The Guardian (8/12/93) and The Independent (8/12/93) told their own story: One now bedraggled looking Sweet Chestnut which, after 250 years had only a few minutes of life left, surrounded by 140 uniformed police - bleak, stark and sinister.
Signs of a positive media swing towards an acknowledgement of some of the cultural aspects of squatting have also been in evidence lately. One of the biggies was a one page spread in The Independent (12/11/93) entitled “Tribal Britain”. The article was written by Camilla Berens, a freelance journo who produces her own underground magazine - ‘POD’, (see the contacts pages of SQUALL). The article looked at various DIY culture groups, including the once-squatted-now-licensed Cool Tan Arts Centre in Brixton. It also gave a number of other squatter art posses a name-check; the Conscious Collective, LS Diesel, Hackney Homeless Group, Zero Gravity and Exploding Cinema.
The Mail on Sunday (of all papers!) had previously run a fashion article headlined: “Crusty Crescent” in its the magazine section, accompanied by the sub-title: “It was once a row of very fine houses owned by very fine people. Now the squatters have moved in. But a better educated, nicer bunch of squatters you could not wish to meet.” (Mail on Sunday 17/12/93)
Lifestyle supplements have far less editorial restrictions than the main parts of the paper but it still registers as a contender for top irony that the most anti-squatter newspaper in Britain should allow such an angle space to breath. But just to bring us down to earth, the local newspaper ran an article on the same set of squats headlined: “Unpleasant Crescent as Angry Tenants Slam ‘Squalid’ squatters” ….sigh. (Hackney Gazette 12/11/93)
“Many people in Britain feel disenfranchised”
The Guardian have also published a couple of tribal Britain articles recently, the largest of which was entitled “Rave New World” (12/12/93) and is the winner of this issue’s Jewel-in-the-Mud Award on Page 23. The other piece was another excellent feature on the indigenous tribes of the world written by George Monbiot, a well known author of anthropological books. He saves the conclusion of the article for his concern for the indigenous British:
“Many people in Britain feel disenfranchised: they believe they have no means of influencing the people who govern their lives. The response of thousands is rational: they have withdrawn from the state to form tribes.
The clothes, customs and music of New Age Travellers, the Dongas, rave and art tribes are the cultural symptoms of an attempt to leave the nation and recover the means to self government. In many cases their efforts are confused, half-hearted or short-lived, but they reveal a real desire for some of the autonomy we have lost. By taking to the road or moving into the woods they are making what amounts to a unilateral declaration of independence.
The Government, for which - like most governments - withdrawal is little short of revolution, has responded with new laws. The Criminal Justice Bill effectively prohibits Britain’s current forms of tribal organisation. This is unwise. As examples from all over the world show, people will fight to the death to preserve the right to govern themselves.” (Guardian 7/1/94)
“Riot is the language of the unheard.”
The Evening Standard
Another bizarre example of a supplement section completely contradicting the stance taken by the main part of the paper, came in the form of Emma Brookers’ article in The Evening Standard Magazine (21/1/94). The article, a colourful three pager, described how the “squatters occupying Brixton’s Old Dolehouse are standing up for arts and entertainment”. Shane Collins, the Green Party’s Euro candidate for Inner London, who works down at CoolTan is quoted: “In an area where there is high unemployment and few public resources, we give ourselves something positive to do. Without that, people are going to get more and more frustrated and, at the end of the day, riot is the language of the unheard.” One of SQUALL’S editors also points out in the article that “the political climate here makes it very difficult for (cultural) groups like that to operate.”
Brooker’s piece goes on to describe the legislative missiles targeted on squatters and concludes: “I can’t help feeling that London will lose out if the kill-joys in the Home Office get their way.”
Since the last issue of SQUALL there has been very little national press on travellers. A few articles alluded to ‘aggravated trespass’ proposals but seemed to stress its use more against hunt saboteurs. Hence: “Howard set to crackdown on travellers and hunt saboteurs.” (Evening Standard 5/11/93) and “Howard backs hunters with new law.” (Independent on Sunday 7/1/93) (see ‘Law is a Cabaret Old Chum’, page 4).
One local piece sent to SQUALL by a traveller from Totnes had Anthony Steen, Tory MP for South Hams, trumpeting for local populism with: “The money spent legally aiding travellers could have built them a massive block of flats” and that travellers had a “very self- centred view of life which decent honest members of the community have to pay for.” (WM News 12/11/93)
In the parliamentary guide to MPs, Steen lists his special interests as “the environment, community, youth work and conservation”, all of which are features of travelling people, were they only allowed a moment of un-evicted peace. But we do have to remember that no ‘special interest’ usurps vote-hunting as an MPs favourite hobby (For an idea of how the South Hams voters view travellers - see “Landowner Battles for ‘Underdog’ Travellers” in SQUALL Issue 5).
Certainly the voluminous 15 pages of land and anti-traveller clauses in the Criminal Justice Bill, far outweigh the coverage travellers have received in the national press these last few months.
The sheer size and diversity of the Bill means that a wide range of issues are competing for media time. This will mean the case against the criminalisation of squatting and the anti-traveller legislation may be heard even less frequently over the coming months.
However, it does also have to be said that as well as the notable improvement in the treatment of squatting by the press, the audio-visual media have been even better. Perhaps by moving so quickly from slating squatters and travellers onto single parents and then all ‘priority need’ homeless people (in a new green paper - see ‘We Lose’, page 36), the Government have demonstrated undeniably (again!) that what they are after is still the old cliche of scapegoats and not solutions…. and let’s just say they have a rapid turnover. News of this media-politic is spreading, and more and more people are witnessing it for themselves.
There are at present a fair number of Documentary makers from the BBC, ITV and some independents, researching and developing programmes on squatting and travelling. There is also an expression of frustration amongst journalists who have spoken to SQUALL, that editorial briefs on what can or cannot be published are seriously affecting their ability to report exactly what their investigations uncover. Whether or not the pressure of this frustration will result in consistently better coverage and less regurgitation has yet to be seen. As already mentioned, the unopposed passage of this part of the Bill depends entirely on die hard anti-squatter and anti-traveller myths. Only consistently different coverage can hope to affect this.
News Of The Sqews - A Travel through skew-whiffs as presented by the British press - Squall 5 - Oct/Nov 1993