Essays: The riot reports |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The riot reports

IN New York your reporter was constantly asked whether he thought Britain was on fire from end to end, or whether it was merely the major cities which were in the process of being utterly destroyed. Temporarily cut off from the British media, it was not easy to give an answer.

After a week back at the scene of the conflagration, answers are still not easy to find. From the tabloid press the level of analysis has been about what you might expect, with WHITELAW OPENS FIRE ON LOOTERS as a not unusual headline. Able to find fewer and fewer things to do that television can’t do, the tabloids are more and more obliged to do things television won’t do. But the television companies were up against it also, albeit in a different way. Far from being forced to the periphery of events, they were smack in the middle of the action and stuck with the problem of whether or not they were contributing to the hullabaloo by being on the spot to report it.

Terrorists who take innocent hostages in order to get themselves on television should probably be deprived of coverage. But a young rioter, unless he has a video-cassette machine at home, perhaps has other things on his mind than getting on television. He might be out to steal a video-cassette machine, but that’s to cloud the issue. ITN, at any rate, seemed confident that more might be involved in the rioting than a mass desire by urban youth to obtain equal air-time with Esther Rantzen. They conducted a poll and discovered unemployment to be the culprit.

Though not entirely edifying, this conclusion was something to cling to while you watched the pictures of energetic young people trying to set policemen alight. At least you had found out what a random sample of the populace thought was responsible for the uproar, even if you had not found out what was really responsible. Probably no one thing is, but the fact that an awful lot of strong young men have got nothing else to do with their day except loll around taking umbrage at one another’s pigmentation can’t be much help.

A programme called War on Crime (BBC1), made before the first Brixton riots, was opportunely screened and proved illuminating. The question was asked: is Brixton like Harlem? Recent events powerfully suggest that in some respects the answer might be in the affirmative, but there was also some provocative sociological analysis — much of it conducted by a brave woman who just walks around alone asking questions off her own bat — to raise the issue of whether or not fear creates fact. If ordinary people avoid the streets, the streets become unsafer, etc. Seeing the point of this, at least one viewer briefly attempted to quell his rapidly burgeoning siege mentality. Perhaps there is an alternative to fitting quadruple mortice-locks and driving to work in a second-hand Saracen.

Police Commissioner McNee appeared briefly on Close (Thames), to put in a sensible bid for a respectful attitude towards the hard-pressed constabulary. Unfortunately he was appearing on the same night as a lot of pictures, liberally screened on both channels, which persuasively conveyed the impression that the hard-pressed constabulary’s methods of searching houses in Brixton are likely to leave the householder wishing he had been looted instead. The most telling appearance of the week, though, was of a Brixton woman whose small shop had been obliterated. There wasn’t enough left of the business to sell up and get out of. ‘If anybody wants it,’ she said bitterly, ‘’I’ll give it away.’ Here was a capitalist exploiter for the Left to make of what they could. Here, on the other hand, was an example of entrepreneurial initiative receiving its due reward under the shining aegis of Thatcherite monetarism. Here was a vote going begging.

At Warrington a great stack of begging votes found a patron in Roy Jenkins, thereby providing the biggest turn-up for the books since 1945. Back in the studio, Roy Hattersley nobly strove to dismiss the whole event as nothing but ‘a media by-election.’ There may have been something to this contention: certainly the narrowly successful Labour candidate, Douglas Hoyle, looked as if he had been drawn by a particularly vicious caricaturist, while the Tory candidate had apparently been fielded in a cynical attempt to snare the sympathetic allegiance of all those still weeping at Meg Jenkins’s departure from ‘Crossroads.’ But whoofle and snort as Hatters might, the fact was as glaring as the oil on Bill Rogers’s hair — the Social Democrats had arrived. What was more, they were expanding into a vacuum.

Meanwhile, back in the universe, Cosmos (BBC1) continued to show how even Carl Sagan can make himself comparatively uninteresting if he has enough help. Visiting us once upon a time for a series of BBC lectures delivered to schoolchildren, Sagan proved himself the best extempore speaker on science ever to have appeared on television. Given a bench, a Bunsen burner, and a steady relay of eager young assistants from the audience, he was unbeatable. But ‘Cosmos’ is a multi-national launch-vehicle with so many hands on the controls that it travels in a tight spiral.

In the latest episode Sagan reached Mars, which he pronounces Murruz. The planet Murruz is inhabited by Morshians. Behind the Beeb’s bench, Sagan had to stand still while he spoke. At large in the Cosmos, he is free to accompany speech with action, but all too apparently he has not grasped that beyond the trick of talking on television there is a further trick of talking and walking simultaneously, and that this trick must be mastered, not ignored. He fills the screen with distracting gestures. He mugs something fierce, often while standing on the bridge of a cut-budget version of starship Enterprise, wherein his face is lit by the boudoir-pink light of the heavens.

Nevertheless Sagan, though he has been more fascinating about Murruz on previous occasions, managed to be fascinating about Murruz all over again. We saw pictures of the doons of Murruz. The unlikelihood was pointed out of any yoomans suddenly appearing from behind the doons. As this series proves, Sagan himself is only yooman, and yoomans make mistakes. But few yoomans as clever as he share his gift of exposition. Next time he should refuse all visual assistance except the barely necessary and let his voice do the evocation. On television one good sentence is worth a thousand dull pictures.

Introduced as being presented by Candice Bergen, Rush (Thames) had only a brief intro from her and no presentation from anybody. Instead you were supposed to draw your own conclusions about what was allegedly going on during Rush Week at the University of Mississippi. During Rush Week each new girl finds her ideal sorority, or soworty as it is known locally. Magically each soworty also finds the girls it wants. ‘She noo that one of the biggest factors in me bein’ happy was bein’ in a soworty.’

Under the same pressure experienced by Party functionaries attempting to please Stalin, the girls progressed from test to test. Everyone, we were led to believe, ended up happy. Nobody looked sad except fat Angie, who will, one could not help hoping, develop a healthy neurosis out of her sense of rejection and write a scathing novel in which she shows up her contemporaries as a mindless pack of prestige-crazy jerks.

The Observer, 19th July 1981
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]