As work on the project has unfolded, it has become apparent that broadcasters do not only cover ongoing protests: they also bring to their audiences reports about demonstrations that took place in the past. For this reason, a variable was created that lets us capture whether a news item has in focus a protest that is currently taking place, or one that has already happened.
This week, Euronews provided a good example of this, broadcasting a piece about the 1956 protests in Hungary against the Soviet Union. The report tells the story of what is identified as a ‘revolution’ (although it did not lead to a regime change at that time), documenting it with black-and-white footage from six decades ago and the contemporary testimony of a witness. While the grey of the images of the past contrasts with the colours of today’s Budapest, the speaking actor – a man who, as a student at that time, witnessed the events – brings them together.
The uprising that was started 60 years ago in Budapest by a group of students turned into what would now be labelled a pro-democracy movement, with people demanding independence from Moscow and free elections. The protests failed – the movement was crushed by Soviet troops, and thousands of people died in the confrontations between Hungarian protesters and Soviet soldiers. But the Euronews report reminds us that a movement need not be successful for it to stay alive in the collective memory of a community. And in this work of memory and community, media such as television play an essential role, for they have the power to tell people which events are worth remembering and which may be forgotten.
I often write about people ‘taking to the streets’ when referring to protest, but the choice of site for a demonstration is usually a communicative act in itself. Mobilizations by American women over the past few days are good illustrations of this. A video on the BBC World website this morning features women explaining why they are protesting outside buildings owned by Donald Trump in 15 cities throughout the US. Unlike reports we typically find on BBC World television broadcasts, the reporter is nowhere in evidence: the clip is comprised entirely of women explaining their ire, and why it is directed at the Republican Party as much as its candidate. The protest was also reported on RT (see above).
On Monday, BBC World also reported that prominent American journalist Amy Goodman was facing charges for participating in what the US authorities terms a ‘riot’, after filming anti-oil-pipeline protests in North Dakota. Giving her the power of definition, the BBC quoted Goodman as saying ‘I wasn’t trespassing, I wasn’t engaging in a riot, I was doing my job as a journalist by covering a violent attack on Native American protesters’. She was not the only high-profile woman documenting the event, and getting in trouble with the police for doing so. Actress Shailene Woodley was arrested while broadcasting the protest on Facebook, but not before the video went viral. Woodley is best known for her role in the dystopian film Divergent, where she plays a young woman who turns her back on the governing class to which she is born and becomes an armed rebel.
The politics of place extends beyond Trump Towers and pipeline construction sites in North Dakota. The Al Jazeera website still features a piece, published in September, about the symbolism of women’s protests, connecting the North Dakota demonstrations and the boats sailing from Barcelona to Gaza to protest against the Israeli blockade. (The all-women crew included members of the European Parliament, a Nobel peace laureate and a retired US army colonel.) It might be difficult, the author conceded, to see the ‘real and material impact’ of activists from around the world taking part in protests that will only get them arrested. ‘But the significance of these endeavours becomes apparent when viewed in the wider context of popular movements taking root around the world. One of the most visible current examples is happening in North Dakota. As the Women’s Boat makes its way to Palestine, an epic battle is being waged by the tanding Rock Sioux nation to halt construction of an oil pipeline that threatens the integrity of their land and water.’
The interesting thing about media artefacts such as these is that they are global – global protests communicated to and by global media – but given expression in local manifestations of dissent, on specific sites, in particular places. One thing we pay attention to in our research is whether and how the global broadcasters we study make the local-global connection.
An interesting story on RT this week described how a British bank, NatWest, informed RT that they would be terminating their business dealings with the Russian government sponsored media network (see clip above). RT and Russian government officials immediately described NatWest’s actions as that of the British government and commented that the bank’s decision was part of an attack on the “rights of journalists”.
The announcement came on Monday as the EU’s foreign ministers condemned Russia’s bombing of Aleppo but decided not to propose any new sanctions against Russia and following a meeting on Sunday between U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry and his British counterpart, Boris Johnson.
Media studies scholars have monitored international broadcasting since the earliest days of the discipline. In the 1930s, those studies were mainly related to Nazi propaganda but an extensive literature on propaganda was developed and discourses about state-financed propaganda have made something of a comeback in recent years, including in Sweden. RT’s coverage even provided a montage of contemporary western diplomats referencing Russian propaganda (see 9:16 in clip above).
Just because propaganda claims are not new doesn’t mean that they don’t merit empirical assessment. Screening Protest takes these claims seriously and explores the content of several state-financed global news broadcasters (RT, CCTV, AJE, DWTV and BBC). Those who thought the end of the Cold War would see propaganda disappear from international broadcasting need only to tune in and start taking notes.
Despite the significant amounts of attention paid by all the channels we study to the bombardment of Aleppo (and the international relations crisis accompanying it) and the furore in the US over Trump’s behaviour to women, it has been a typical newsweek in terms of protest reporting. The newscasts of 9-16 October 2016 contained 16 protest items, half of which were in Al Jazeera. While violence was a common feature, the diversity of reporting when it comes to topic and site is worth noting, with different newsrooms paying attention to different protests. Al Jazeera looked to Ethiopia, where a state of emergency was declared after months of protest, and to Yemen, where enraged demonstrators called for the world to condemn Saudi Arabia for an air strike that killed mourners at a funeral. It touched down in Australia, where same-sex marriage was being hotly debated, and the UK, where pro- and anti-EU activists were gathered outside a court hearing a challenge to Brexit. Also on its map of protest were Hong Kong, where a yellow umbrella appeared in parliament and a newly-elected activist spoke eloquently of his determination to fight for democracy, Kashmir, the Ukraine and Greece (‘They are few in number, but these protesters represent the concerns of millions of Greeks.’) BBC World carried two items on the student protests in South Africa, while RT focused on unrest in the suburbs of Paris and ‘far-right’ marches in the Ukraine. Euronews viewers would have learned that taxi-drivers in Portugal were up in arms about government attempts to regulate them and, most of all, Uber, and that thousands of Argentinians had taken to the streets to protest against crime.
There was much that was familiar in reporting styles. RT made use of ‘independent political analysts’ to explain to viewers what the protests were ‘really’ about. The BBC reporters stood centre-screen, and channeled the voices of the student protesters. ‘The first children to be born after apartheid are coming of age. Their parents fought for freedom. This generation wants more.’ In Al Jazeera, protesters spoke for themselves, and one item took viewers from the streets of Kashmir to the home of the family of a ‘slain rebel fighter’, who died during a protest. The report made it clear that the protests were the result of a cluster of tensions – ethnic conflict between India and Pakistan; justice issues; police brutality; and economic problems.
The codebook we have spent months developing, testing, and refining (and the database we are constructing to facilitate analysis) makes it possible to translate such observations into reliable results. We code for what countries and regions are associated with protest in each channel, whether there is violence, who gets to speak, and what topics are involved – apart from the issue triggering the actual protest. The patterns of similarities and differences between our ‘globals’ have by now become quite evident to those of us who code, but it is important that we document these patterns in a reliable manner. The challenge is to conduct our analysis of the coding results on the fly, and write them up, all the while keeping our eye on the new protests that turn up on screen almost every day. We had a day off on Saturday though, as none of the channels reported any protests.
The news that Polish film director Andrezej Wajda has died found its way to the BBC World and Euronews websites this morning, and has taken me back to Poland in the days of Solidarnosc. The movement for democratic reform that began in September 1980 had ended with the imposition of martial law, but dissent was still simmering when Wajda’s Danton premiered in 1983. The film takes place in post-revolutionary France, and centres on the confrontation between Danton, played by Gérard Depardieu, and the hardliner Robespierre, played by Wojciech Pszoniak. Despite repeated insistence that Depardieu was not playing Solidarity leader Walesa, and Robespierre was not General Jaruzelski, there were clear parallels in the film between the ‘Reign of Terror’ that followed the revolution in France, and the repressive situation in contemporary Poland. To the Polish audience I watched the film with in Katowice, there was no doubt that the past was about the present.
The film begins and ends with scenes showing Robespierre in ill health – the man who embodies repression is ghostly pale and his days are numbered – and with a recitation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Danton is guillotined at the end of the film, but with his death, Robespierre also realizes he has betrayed the revolution. Poland’s former prime minister and current head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, tweeted: ‘We all stem from Wajda. We looked at Poland and at ourselves through him. And we understood better.’ While the world has lost one of its great filmmakers, Wajda’s death brings with it the prospect of seeing a great film reprised that lays bare the tensions involved in pro-democracy struggles, embodied in the characters of two different protesters. Keep your eyes open for reruns of Danton, or look for glimpses on YouTube.
This week, students in South Africa decided to dance against tuition fees. Students from 16 universities took to the streets of Johannesburg and other cities across the country to express their discontent with the government’s decision to increase the cost of attending university – a hike in fees that they fear will result in a bigger inequality gap in African society, where access to education is still largely made based on skin colour.
Of all the global news broadcasters we study, only Al Jazeera English paid attention to the protests – going so far as to include the news in its headlines on October 4th. The item above, which we found in last night’s 7pm CET news bulletin, explains the origins of the students’ discontent, and shows them dancing on the streets and on campus. Student representatives say that they only want to be heard, yet their attempt to keep universities closed with the help of a dance has been interrupted by the police with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets, turning peaceful protests into violent ones.
The dance they perform on the streets and on campus, the “Toyi-Toyi”, is specific to South African protest movements. Initially used by militants, in the 1980s it was adopted by non-militants in subsequent anti-government demonstrations. As most protesters were unarmed, the dance was used as means of intimidating the opponent. This is another example of the use of music, and dance in this case, in politics, and how they can be used to express discontent towards authorities and their decisions.
More details about the dance and it’s use in South African movements can be seen in the short clip below:
Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring intertextuality in the representations of protesting workers in newsreels and actualities of early film. This means that I have been asking questions such as where do these ways of representing come from, do they have a history, or were they just coincidental?
To give an example I would like to share these two images. One is an illustration of a Mayday parade of 1890 – the first held in Stockholm – was published in an illustrated Swedish magazine called Svea. The other is a frame from a newsreel documenting a Mayday parade in Uppsala in 1914, produced by Swedish Biograph. In spite of their differences, to me, there arguably is an interesting resemblance between these two images. Both depict a speaker on a podium in the background, and the backs of the by standing audience in the foreground. There is intertextuality at work, it could be argued, suggesting a form of intermediality between early cinema and the illustrated press. It could also be coincidence. The methodological issue is, of course more complicated: sources will have to be consulted before either argument can be made. But even at this preliminary stage, it is a reminder of the need for caution so that technological change is not confused with cultural and/or social change.
If we instead focus on the differences between these two images, such as the proximity to the audience and in particular the faces of the people in the crowd who look back at the camera, things become even more complicated. The camera operator could have chosen to take the shot from a greater distance so as not to be noticed by the people in the crowd. That may not have been possible, or there may have been an intent to interact in order to capture movement. Of course an illustration could just as easily have included a face, but in this case the camera operator arguably invites a form of interaction – dare I say participation? – which seems specific to the medium and makes it difficult to rule out the role of technology in the process of representation.
These images and reflections are glimpses of an analysis that is still work in progress. But even at this preliminary stage, it seems to me that making comparisons such as these confronts us with an important question about the extent to which we can understand the history of protest representation on the screen in terms of differences and similarities, and to what extent we dare to speak about continuity and/or change.
North Carolina has been shaken by protests over the shooting of a black man by a police officer, an event which has also left its mark on the global channels we follow. It is a type of event that occurs increasingly often in the US and finds its way not just into newscasts, but into the headlines, right up there with the war in Syria and World Powers summits, signalling the importance news broadcasters assign to this topic. The protests in Charlotte were sparked by the killing of Keith Lamont Scott – the third black person to be shot by police in the US in a week. Violent clashes, pleas by the mayor of Charlotte to keep the protests peaceful, and statements of the local police chief have punctuated the headlines. Yesterday, BBC World devoted no less than five minutes of its halfhour 8pm (CET) broadcast to these events, focusing on the details of the investigation, the interest of security forces in maintaining the peace and protecting buildings, of officials in keeping the city open (without imposing curfews) and clean, and of the protesters in punishing the police for what they perceive as crimes against black people.
On the other end of the earth, in Romania, police have also played a prominent role in protests this week. The story, however, is quite different. People have taken to the streets of Bucharest and elsewhere after the Romanian Senate decided to reject a move by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) to approve the prosecution of Gabriel Oprea, former Interior Minister, currently senator. The senator is involved in a scandal that started with the death of a young policeman who died while escorting Oprea’s official entourage last October. The Senator had requested a police escort and instructed it how fast to drive. According to the DNA, Oprea has used police escorts more than three times as often as the Romanian president. The Senate’s vote means the senator retains his immunity and his prosecution is blocked. More protests are announced for later today as citizens consider this vote an act of injustice. Despite giving pride of place to protests in a US city, day after day, protests in the Romanian capital, concerning a high-ranking politician and the abuse of power, have not made their way into any of the newscasts we follow. And we follow a lot of them.
The striking presence of the Charlotte, and absence of Bucharest in this week’s global media representations of protest has a bearing on questions posed in the Screening Protest project. What events are made visible in the news, who speaks out, how does the map of the world look like in the eyes of the broadcasters of our interest, and what news is considered more important? To these questions, we can find empirical answers. The question of why police brutality in the US is more newsworthy than the abuse of power and corruption of the Romanian political class can only be given speculative answers.
On Race Relations Sunday in 1938, my grandfather Paul Becker held a sermon entitled ‘If I were a Negro’ at University Christian Church in Des Moines IA. The service was broadcast by radio, and the following week the church was packed. This past July, I visited the church, where I found Paul Becker’s portrait in the ’Heritage Room’ tucked away on the building’s 5th floor.
I wrote to Ryan Arnold, the current minister, about the sermon, and my brother tracked down the original text, scanned it and sent it to Ryan. The minister asked our permission to post it on the church’s home page. The neighborhood around the church has changed considerably, and the church is actively seeking ways to reach out to the mixed ethnic and mostly poor people who live nearby.
Ryan waited to post the sermon until yesterday, and wrote me to explain the delay:
‘We’ve been waiting to post Rev. Becker’s sermon knowing it will get more traffic if we wait until the social conversation moved back to racial injustice. Unfortunately, we assumed it was only a matter of time before our consciousness returned to the necessity of saying Black Lives Matter. Given yesterday evening’s release of the video showing police officers murdering Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, OK, we released the sermon moments ago. You can find it here.
Today, the police video showing Terence Crutcher’s death is receiving world-wide news coverage and has received over a million views on You Tube.
I know that Paul Becker would have been proud but humble that his important sermon can speak on behalf of Black Lives Matter. Nor would he be surprised to know that his granddaughter is involved in Screening Protest, a research project on histories of protest and the ongoing struggle for social justice in today’s news media.
It was a rainy week in Hong Kong, but that didn’t seem to dampen the interest in the city elections on September 4. Everyone I met who lives in the city wanted to talk about the election of Occupy Central’s protest leader, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, to the Legislative Council. He is one of the few activists from the Umbrella Movement who has entered conventional politics. At 23, he lowers the average age of the ‘Legco’ by decades, and has promised to advocate issues relevant to young people, including transparency in university management and education and housing problems.
At the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where several teachers and 80 per cent of the master students are from Mainland China, discussion of the political situation is ongoing and lively. The election and the protests of two years ago came up frequently in the conversations I had during the day I spent on campus. According to my host, Prof. Joseph Chan, the topic of my lecture had attracted a larger number of students than usual, particularly for first week of term. I spoke on ‘Transnational Representations of Protest in the News’ and the students were clearly interested in how the events during the Occupy Central protests of 2014 were represented in global television news. I learned about other protests by Hong Kong students, including the vigil held each June 4, where thousands gather in a mobilization of the collective memory of the People’s Liberation Army’s attack on student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on that date in 1989 (Lee, Francis LF & Chan, Joseph Man  ‘Collective memory mobilization and Tiananmen commemoration in Hong Kong,’ Media, Culture & Society 38(7): 997-1014). My audience was fascinated by the short clips I showed of the ‘rooftopping’ protests from Al Jazeera’s web page, and asked to see the full documentary.
I came away with a far more nuanced view of the complexity of politics in Hong Kong. Afterwards, however, I realized that no one had actually revealed a personal political position on any of the issues we’d discussed. Part of the challenge of keeping Hong Kong ‘open’ involves keeping your own options open – to travel, visit, study and work in this exciting city as well as across the China Sea, visible through the large windows of department’s seminar room.
A week after my return to Stockholm, I learned of another umbrella protest, in 1896. A violent crowd was threatening Ghandhi as he led a procession through Durban in support of civil rights for Indian immigrants in South Africa. Jane Alexander, wife of the local police chief, opened her umbrella to shield Ghandhi, preventing him from being lynched by the angry crowd. Although far removed in time and place from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, the resurrection of this incident in Folkoperan’s (The People’s Opera) performance of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, made me more attentive to other histories of the umbrella as a symbol, both a shield and a weapon, in the ongoing struggle for human rights and self-determination.