Written by Media, News

It’s Not Rioting – It’s Looting

I’ve been a bit disappointed in the coverage we’ve had so far about the events of Sunday evening. What became very clear from following reports on news media and the internet is that this was organised criminality.
I was returning to Enfield Town station from a lovely day out cycling when I saw reports of something happening on Twitter. As we arrived at the station (the end of the line) at about 8.00pm, there was a line of police in riot clothing blocking the entrance to the station. They let us leave, but it was clear that they were trying to contain events.
I knew from pictures posted online that various shops in Enfield town centre had been looted – notably HMV.
Once I’d negotiated my way through a second line of police, a lady who’d also come off the train asked if she could walk with me. She was nervous about roaming gangs. And frankly, as became clear, she was right to be nervous, because a chemist I walked past at about 8.10pm which had been undamaged, was later shown on Sky News as having been broken into, the cash register robbed (incidentally – no shop leaves money in their till overnight, so that was utterly pointless).
At home I logged onto Twitter where Paul Lewis of The Guardian and Billy Kember of The Times, both of whom were using Twitter to a substantial extent to report on what they were seeing on the ground in Enfield and later Ponders End and Edmonton beyond.
What became clear is that youths had been oraganised with Facebook, Blackberry Messenger (someone on LBC said that they it had been “broadcast on BBM” – I take that to mean that discussion was rife [Update – In fact, as I understand a Blackberry Broadcast is a message sent to all someone’s BBM contacts simultaneously. I suspect that it was then rebroadcast]) and Twitter.
They were a mobile group, many of whom had cars. They moved onto retail parks, and other shopping centres. Shops seemed to be targeted for phones, electrical goods, designer clothing and cash.
This was not rioting.
It was wanton looting.
The perpetrators knew that the police couldn’t be everywhere, and were essentially playing catch-up. More copycat violence took place at other points across the capital. This was not violence and anger caused by the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. This was opportunistic robbery. Nothing more, nothing less.
Listening to Five Live this morning, I think they missed the full story of what happened last night across London, and indeed what happened to a large extent in Tottenham the night before. While there was real anger about what happened in Tottenham, that was just a tiny part of things. Mostly it was pictures of people stealing bags of merchandise from sports stores that made the idiotically minded realise that they could do the same. The radio coverage was trying to get to the bottom of reasons why it’d been happening. But social deprivation does not provide the answers. This isn’t about the breakdown of relations between the police and youths of today.
And now the danger is that we’re now going to probably see more copycat actions.
Who gets hurt?
In town centres where shops have been trashed, money will be lost, and businesses wrecked. That means livelihoods. Shops targeted included local independent traders. Their insurance won’t cover all their costs. Some will close down (and one in six shops in high streets is already closed), and jobs will be lost. This morning, lots of businesses are having to needlessly get windows and replaced, and generally clear up.
Meanwhile in Tottenham we see locals who have had their homes destroyed and are left with the clothes on their backs.
And for what?
A phone, a TV, a pair of trainers or a handful of DVDs.
Finally, a word on the media coverage. The best coverage came via Twitter from Paul Lewis and Billy Kember as I mentioned above. People like Sky News’ Neil Mann Tweeting as fieldproducer was also excellent at retweeting reliable sources. Because there were a lot of unreliable ones around. On LBC one caller claimed a major bed warehouse was on fire, yet I’ve not heard anything about any buildings being burnt last night. Rumours also circulated that the Cineworld in Enfield was set ablaze. Again – unfounded rumour.
LBC’s coverage in general was based almost entirely on listeners. But you don’t know the quality or the accuracy of what you’re getting. However I was a bit disappointed by BBC London who seemed to be having a deep debate about why things were happening. It felt to me that this should have followed later. Live reporting would have been better.
I only heard a bit Five Live, but they too seemed to have to rely on non-BBC sources for reports – including Paul Lewis of The Guardian. Over on the BBC News channel, there was little to no live coverage, with no reporter anywhere beyond Tottenham High Street. Recorded camera images came through eventually. Meanwhile Sky News had a reporter live in Enfield, but he wasn’t really able to follow a fast moving story from his fixed position. And he kept talking about footage he’d captured on his phone, but we never saw it!
I do know that it’s a lot tougher for news crews with cameras to fly around north London keeping on top of the story. But I did find it odd that the BBC didn’t have at least someone on the phone keeping viewers up to date. They could have probably dropped Hardtalk last night at 11.30pm and stayed with the news.
Anyway, let the clean-up commence.
But let’s get one thing one straight. This civil disobediance is nothing more than wanton criminality without an iota of an excuse.
[Update] A couple of good pieces from The Urban Mashup and TechCruch about the use of Blackberry Messenger – BBM – to organise the civil disobediance. What’s clear is that BBM is closed. Twitter is open to all (and it’s not that hard to track back to who even a fake name really is). And Facebook can have a wider circle of friends – including family members who might not appreciate certain nocturnal activities. I’m not suggesting that provate messages need to be intercepted or should be (without the requisite court orders), but I trust that the police are monitoring the right social networks and getting involved in the right ways.
Incidentally “blaming” a messaging service is ridiculous. Does anyone “blame” telephones for all the illegal activities that are arranged through them? Or even letters?
The misuse of the communications media is nothing new. Let’s not worry about whether people are sending texts, emails, written letters or instant messages to organise themselves. Instead let’s get to the core of the issue and address the people doing this.