Getting close to policing protests

Posted by: James Stewart

Preempting Dissent Teaser
The opening scene from Preempting Dissent’s Teaser

How can journalists or film-makers get pictures of the close-up action in big protests like those which typically take place at summits like the G8 or – possibly – the NATO meeting in Wales later this year?  How can they record and show the scale and tactics of the policing operations which close down the protestors’ options to make their voices heard?

For those of us involved in teaching broadcast journalism, these are very relevant questions, because of our duty of care towards students who may be very keen to capture the action but who have not had the special training needed to operate safely in potentially dangerous situations.

Pre-empting Dissent is described as a collaborative open-source documentary.  What that means is that almost all the footage – apart from formal interviews – was gathered from freely-available sources uploaded to the web under the Creative Commons label.  In other words, the filming was done by people observing and participating in the protests at the heart of the story.

The opening shot (which can be seen in the ‘teaser’) dramatically illustrates the effectiveness of this strategy.  No professional news organisation (or university) would allow a camera operator to put themselves in such a dangerous position.  A small group of unarmed and peaceful protestors sit down in the road, singing, in front of a line of riot police. Almost immediately, the police charge, knocking the young people and the camera to the ground. It lasts for 12 seconds, but it sticks in the mind and sums up the story which the film explores.

At the heart of it is a policing strategy which the film traces back to the civil rights protests in the 1960s.  It’s been seen more recently in the use of ‘kettling’ in Britain and particularly in the police response to protests at the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010, which is central to the story.

Greg Elmer, from Ryerson University in Toronto, who’s described as one of the two curators (rather than directors), came to Cardiff University this week to introduce the film to staff and students at the Jomec  Documentary Film Club.  For those watching, it was a fascinating and thought-provoking experience – both because of the film’s argument and the way it was put together.

Another visitor to Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies this week raised a connected and equally thought-provoking question.  Stuart Hughes, senior foreign producer for the BBC, asked whether news organisations like his own should be thinking about the safety of ‘citizen journalists’ (such as those in Syria) whose footage is often the only film available from the heart of the conflict.  Are they, he asked, putting themselves in danger – and staying there – in the hope that their material will be used by the BBC.  If so, what are the ethical implications for the broadcaster?

Pre-empting Dissent is due to be released later this year.