The riots, the media and Twitter

By Pascale Palmer
August 11, 2011

I have recently spent the night reading about and watching the (in the first instance) London riots unfold from my hotel room in India. I have lived in Lewisham since 1998 and to see aerial images of cars along the main streets on fire and shops I know well looted has been surreal.

All through my night and your evening, I read Tweets from locals and journalists and politicians, keeping me way ahead of what was playing out on the TV news. I even knew when the anchor people got the south east London locations wrong, as they went live to images of buildings burning and muddled Peckham with Lewisham and Deptford. Within seconds Tweeters were correcting the BBC, telling folk exactly what street was being filmed and which shop had been set on fire.

I believe the looting got to within one road of my home and Lewisham escaped the flames I have just watched blazing in Croydon and Enfield.

In amongst the Tweets I followed that were hash tagged #Lewisham the majority of people were sharing information, keeping people up-to-date, making sure they knew where to walk or which trains were running. And the opinions were heartening - a sense of outrage at the stupidity of those rioting, the wrongheadedness of it all, and many people were threatening to identify rioters they had the chance to recognise from CCTV or news footage.

I also read that builders were helping shopkeepers board up their windows, and some shop owners were guarding their property with baseball bats.

The next morning I awke to new hash tags related to cleaning up the damaged streets across London. A friend in Deptford, who was texting me news until he fell asleep, is helping organise his high street clean-up via Facebook and Twitter. Not exactly the desired catalyst for the Big Society David Cameron was envisaging, I'm sure.

In amongst the sometimes frantic news reporting of last night it is worth noting that a couple of times BBC reporters let their guards down and showed more surprise and concern that rioters were approaching "nice areas of Hackney" than marauding through "deprived" south east London.

The muddling of where one building was on fire (variously Lewisham or Deptford or Peckham) was not corrected and it felt a little as though the journalists didn't know how to orientate themselves when faced with three areas that they thought didn't back onto any middle class touchstones.

If they had known the area better they could have walked 15 minutes up the road to watch the conflagrations from atop the Blackheath Hundred, flanked by £8 million homes, or just another half a mile away gained a phenomenal view north across the river and south to Lewisham et al from next to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park.

But actually they couldn't do either of those things because, while I was awake at least, the BBC only sent its journalists as far as Hackney - relying on aerial shots of anything south of the river.

The police seemed hamstrung. They were trying to contain without inciting an escalation in violent action - while under intense media scrutiny. This is shark-infested water for them and for any society that values human rights and will judge levels of force frame by frame.

Some MPs from the right began calling for 'hoses and horses', some Tweeting citizens wondered how kettling could be used on peaceful protesters, while stand-off was the police tactic for criminal looters and rioters.

Neither criticism addresses the reality as viewed by those at the front line of keeping the peace. You can't kettle those throwing missiles without the chance of escalating destruction; you can't use physical force because mistakes will be made, innocent bystanders will get hurt, some policeperson somewhere will say or do something out of line and that will be the headline story.

Last night one journalist Tweeted the words of a policeman in Hackney - they were aggressive and wrong and the policeman thought the Tweeter was a rioter pretending to be a newsman.

The police, in situations like the riots of recent nights, have to make a thousand decisions and react to a thousand things. They are rightly accountable for all of those actions and reactions, but it makes for intensely difficult policing. Damned if they do and damned if they don't.

I also read some saddening Tweets on my phone - people joking about the looting, telling friends that if they get into x shop in y centre what clothes they would like and what size they were. There was plenty of false information out there, too.

No one seemed to think the riots were in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police in Tottenham - the justifications I read were related to gleeful criminality, a response to the economic downturn that meant people couldn't afford "stuff" anymore, a desire to thumb their teeth at the "feds".

As one journalist put it "these rioters must have very little to lose if they are willing to risk it for this".

I 2010 CAFOD published a report on the need for global human flourishing - the right of every man, woman and child to have an environment that nurtures their full potential. We argued that the economic systems in place do not allow for such situations for too many people in too many countries where we work across the world.

CAFOD is a development agency and so we do not focus our projects on domestic issues, we leave that to many other expert NGOs.

But right now after four nights of some of the worst riots the British capital has seen in my lifetime, the need for the UK government to address the right to human flourishing here at home seems palpably clear.


© Pascale Palmer is Senior Policy Media Officer for CAFOD (

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