The atmosphere is cordial and almost nervous, perhaps I’m not the only one who hasn’t been to church for a while. But it’s not just that, it’s also the weight of the issues to be discussed.
The church; now once again acting as a communal hub is about to engage around 150 people from a variety of ages, backgrounds and as I will soon find out opinions.
Once our host arrives the mood changes, there is an energy that she brings to the room, ‘microphone holders’ move more rapidly in response to the clicking of fingers and the air begins to fill with familiar snippets from the national radio. Our ‘facilitator’ (as she calls herself) is ‘miked up’. She moves with a confidence which is singular to that off all the other participants, including the church vicar.
Victoria stands in the middle of the hall and starts to introduce the event. The speech is well rehearsed and executed eloquently, but for the first time this morning I’m worried about the day’s proceedings. In this 3 minute presentation the word ‘you’ and ‘your’ occurs over 100 times. That air of jaded scepticism returns, it resonates with speeches executed by PR people re branded as politicians.
“This is your opportunity… You matter… You can applaud… Raise your hand if you want to talk”
Its 9:30 am and we have a practice, a run through to experience the kind of exchange that we may create in 30 minutes time. Everyone is polite, they express their opinions eloquently and without mire, I’m surprised, pleased that people effected by such a life changing set of experiences are truly here to have a voice, discuss the issues and most importantly listen to others.
Victoria Derbyshire does not share my point of view. She tells us in no uncertain terms that the exchanges need to be faster, we need more hands in the air, more succinct comments. This is going out live… remember?
So we do it again, another 5 times and something crystallizes. A lawyer somewhat unwisely in referring to a comment made by one of his clients; remarks on the presence of ‘a carnival atmosphere’. Victoria jumps on this comment with relish:
“a carnival atmosphere? When people’s houses are burning, shops are being destroyed? I’ve never seen that at the Notting Hill Carnival!”
I wonder if Victoria has ever been to the Notting Hill carnival, particularly after 7PM, but I decide not to ask her as the day and its focus should be on other matters. But I realize quite quickly that it is about her, It’s about 5live making a hard hitting, succinct two hour show on an explosive current affairs subject.
I can’t help thinking that the whole day is a missed opportunity. Gathered inside a church opposite the building destroyed by the August riots (now 100 days ago) there were a wide range of people affected by these events. Community leaders, some of whom know rioters personally, local school children, those whom business and homes had been destroyed by the riots. There were also formal representatives from the metropolitan police, the ambulance and fire services, the coalition, members of the report into the riots, and the labour MP for Tottenham.
What was remarkable and constructive was that NOT A SINGLE PERSON CONDONED THE ACTIONS OF THE RIOTERS. But many wanted to discuss the socio-political construct in which the riots took place. To truly understand the causes, however, when they were attempting to do so they were given short shrift by our ‘facilitator’.
The concern here is that a sophisticated society should be able to discuss the motivation for actions without condoning them and NOT run the risk be accused of SUPPORTING these actions by openly discussing them. This was the main fault of the facilitators; their agenda was ill equipped to engage with people on a non-reactionary basis.
This was the stated purpose of the radio show; but it was not the true desire as outlined by the sensationalist tone created by the video clip accompanying the ‘listen again’ feature on the BBCs 5live website. Several, more constructive constructs would have been put into place if ‘solutions’ and ‘understanding causes’ were really at the heart of the gathering.
1) Continued proceedings beyond the time allocated for the live coverage. Many attendees had that desire and gathered around ‘important figures’ after the live broadcast to continue the debate; inevitably this was in a more adhoc manner.
2) Remove the tone of antagonism. There were numerous occasions when our 5live facilitator operated in such a way to inflame differences between speakers. ‘What kind of language is that?’ ‘How frightened were you?’ ‘People were angry at the police so the stole some trainers?’ But most compelling was the clear misunderstanding of the issues surrounding causes and consequences. To the wider nation events in Tottenham were the cause of the riots across England, to people in Tottenham the death of Mark Duggan and the poor communication between the family, community and the police; was the cause of the riots. That nuance was missed by the broadcaster, and disillusioned a lot of people.
3) Messages (tweets, emails and texts) from those outside the venue were a decisive and antagonistic construct. This meeting should have been about bringing the voice of Tottenham to the rest of the nation not the other way around as all the message comments were highly critical of the attendees, which did nothing for constructive debate inside the church hall itself.
Ultimately there is the possibility for proceedings such as these to operate as part of people’s democratic representation. Where else can you gather such a variety of interested parties on one issue in one location? With all willing to discuss and work through issues of great social, political and economic concern? On average 5live is listened to by 6million* people. This program could be a great opportunity to catalyse action. It pretends to be a public meeting when it could actually operate as one.
There were recurring themes, issues that the community need to feel are being addressed, both long and short term:
A) How long would victims having lost homes and businesses have to wait for their compensation from government and their insurance companies?
B) On police tactics, why were officers on the ground inactive (or perceived to be so). What were the tactics for dealing with widespread outbreaks of disorder?
C) Recourse and context.
Many in the room didn’t know the names of the officials located in the front pew, and at the end of the proceedings were frantically attempting to collect their names and information for future exchanges. There was no official documentation of procedures which would surely of helped to create a ‘voice’ which so many of the attendees craved.
D) In light of riots on a scale that haven’t been seen on the mainland for almost 30 years; what is being done to address the perception amongst economically poor black community that there is a dismissive treatment of their concerns. Particularly when there is a death at the hands of the police?
All of these are issues of representation which by the end of the proceedings had been left as unresolved as the day before. Perhaps it is not the role of the BBC or 5live to resolve of facilitate community agendas; perhaps they are only interested in creating newsworthy sound bites around the meaningless landmark of a century of days.
But by creating public events in the way that they do there is an opportunity to facilitate discussions with a far greater restorative purpose and outcome.
This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time