News Of The Skews
A look at the skew-whiffs of the British press.
Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pp. 10-11.
At the end of last year, both The Guardian and the Independent carried a review of the year in pictures. Of all the photographs that were used, only one image was published by both newspapers. The picture was taken in Hyde Park, during the trouble that came at the end of a demonstration against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill back in October of last year. As you can see from the reproduction opposite, the photograph shows a police charge on horseback, seemingly attacked by a number of protesters carrying sticks.
Was the picture, which both the Guardian picture-editor Eamonn McCabe and the then Independent Magazine picture-editor Colin Jacobson describe as a “medieval battle scene”, truly representative of a year of strong opposition to the Criminal Justice Act?
SQUALL spoke to both McCabe and Jacobson to find out why they chose such a picture to represent the year. We also present two other pictures that tell a slightly different story to the one suggested in the content of the photograph they showed.
For Colin Jacobson the picture “summed up and symbolised a year of diverse protest, everything from motorways to civil rights.” Whether or not it was reflective of the proliferating non-violent forms of protest seemed less of a consideration. “You have to look for pictures that are going to stay in people’s minds, that don’t necessarily make a value judgement,” he says.
However, the caption accompanying the version of the photograph did seem to qualify the picture with an undeniable value judgement.
“THERE’S A RIOT GOING ON” bellowed the headline. “Four years ago, it was the poll tax battle that brought violence to the heart of London. This year, on an October Sunday in Hyde Park, a demonstration against the Criminal Justice Bill turned into a pitch battle, with rioters throwing broken bottles and iron railings and the police reciprocating with baton charges.”
The dictionary definition and obvious implication of using the work reciprocation clearly suggest the heavy handed police activities on the day were a reply to, rather than a provocation of, the violence that ensued at the end of the demonstration.
Although Jacobson considered that it wasn’t clear from the photograph “whether the police are charging the protesters or the protesters are charging the police”, the inferred slant given by the caption is less ambiguous.
Eamonn McCabe could not remember the name of the Bill against which the demonstration took place. However, he did consider that “every 50 or a hundred years, things change in the policing and governing of people. It seemed to me to be an image that said: ‘Are the police really gonna take over now?’. There’s something about the small guy up against the power of all those horses.” Whether or not it was a fair reflection of anti-CJB protests was something McCabe said he didn’t know about. To be fair to both Colin Jacobson and Eamonn McCabe, their job is to choose memorably powerful photographs. In particular, they are both considered by photographers as picture editors with a higher than average attention to the art of photography.
“The primary motive was the quality of the image, it was visually stunning,” says Jacobson. “It was fresh and different, dramatic and confused, quite extraordinary. Almost a medieval pitched battle.”
“There’s the power of the horse,” says McCabe. “The fact that it’s blurred and moved makes it more powerful. It has such a medieval feel.”
The accompanying caption in the Guardian talked of “the thousands of photographs taken by professionals and amateurs. The one that stands out was taken by Andrew Wiard.”
Wiard’s photograph was in fact one of a set of previously unpublished prints, sent out by the Network Photo Agency specifically to meet the end of the year press-photo market. Asked about why he had not tried to represent the vastly more proliferating imaginative non-violent protests that occurred last year against the Bill, Jacobson was of course thinking of image (it is the picture editors job to do so).
“We could have used other images from Claremont Road or Twyford Down, but these would have been a bit predictable. So much of that stuff had been used and the subject was too familiar.”
In fact, when Jacobson was still at the Independent, the word amongst freelance photo-journalists, was that he considered “new-agey stuff’ to be a “tired angle”; including in his list of disinterests, the Claremont Road eviction. Colin Jacobson has now left the Independent in order to work full-time on 'Reportage', a photographers’ magazine he himself founded. It comes as no small irony that the next issue of Reportage is to be almost exclusively devoted to images of the Claremont Road eviction, taken by photo-journalist Gideon Mendel.
For McCabe, the question of whether non-violence was a feature of recent protests was not clear cut. “It’s very hard to tell,” he says. “It’s like these animal protests. Are these general animal protesters or are they people keeping aggravation with the police going a bit longer? It’s a very thin line, at the moment the story seems to be that it’s local people getting up and protesting.”
SQUALL conducted a straw pole of first impressions to Wiard’s photograph. The majority impression was one of a dramatic and violent scene. In News of the Skews Issue 8, we reported that the 15 minute fracas outside Downing Street during a seven hour, predominantly peaceful, anti-CJB demo last July, made up the exclusive contents of all 16 of the photographs appearing in the press on the following day. The police were even quoted deep in the text of one article as saying “The people at Downing Street were a very small minority of the march, which in the main passed peacefully.” No matter - violence and drama sells. It makes us gasp.
But what every editor must ask themselves is, what part does violently emotive media coverage play in perpetuating violence as the absorbed norm of overt political expression? The past year saw many non-violent protests such as the climbing onto the roof of Parliament, the invasion of Michael Howard’s garden, the resistance to the eviction at Claremont Road, amongst many others that might have made a more up to date reflection of modern political protest, as well as good photographs. A new breed of non-violent direct action protesters have made a serious effort at redefining what can be done with anger and dissent. To ignore such activity is to hand the stage over to the violently expressive, and then who of course is responsible for the performance?
For more articles about the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994 - covering the build-up, the resistance, the consequences, plus commentary of discussions in the House of Commons about it click here.
News Of The Skews - The British media and the second CJB rally - Squall 8 - Autumn 1994