Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it? A four-month Guardian/London School of Economics study into the riots that rocked English cities in August has found that the rioters were pretty much Guardian editorials made flesh. Concerned about government cuts, annoyed by unfair policing, shocked by social inequality and outraged by the MPs’ expenses scandal, it seems the young men and women who looted shops and burnt down bus stops weren’t Thatcher’s children after all – they were Rusbridger’s children, the moral offspring of those moral guardians of chattering-class liberalism.
This is a blatant case of advocacy research, of researchers finding what they wanted to find, or at least desperately hoped to find. For months now, the Guardian has been publishing articles arguing that the rioters were politically motivated, under headlines such as ‘These riots were political’ and with claims such as ‘the looting was highly political’ and the riots were a protest against ‘brutal cuts and enforced austerity measures’. And now, lo and behold, a Guardian study, Reading the Riots, has discovered that the rioters were indeed ‘rebels with a cause’, with 86 per cent of the 270 rioters interviewed claiming the violence was caused by poverty, 85 per cent arguing that policing was the big issue, and 80 per cent saying they were riled by government policies. Reading this study, we are left to marvel either at the extraordinary perspicacity of Guardian writers, or at their ability to carry out research in such a way that it confirms their own political preconceptions.
This study looks less like a cool-headed, neutral piece of sociology, and more like a semi-conscious piece of political ventriloquism, where rioters have been coaxed to mouth the political beliefs of the middle-class commentariat. This is not to say the Guardian and LSE researchers have been purposely deceitful, inventing evidence to suit a political thesis. Advocacy research is more subtle and less conscious than that. It involves a kind of inexorable pursuit of facts that fit and evidence that helps bolster a pre-existing conviction. So mental-health charities keen to garner greater press coverage always find high levels of mental illness, children’s charities that want to raise awareness about child abuse always find rising levels of child neglect, and now Guardian researchers who want to show that they’re right to fret about Lib-Con policies and outdated policing have found that these are burning issues amongst volatile English yoof, too.
In terms of both the way the research was carried out and the comments that were made by the rioters who were interviewed, we can see advocacy research in action. As one commentator has pointed out, the selection process for the study means that it is largely the ‘upper crust’ of the rioters who ended up being interviewed. Many of the 270 interviewees were recruited through their connections with community organisations, meaning they may have already been infused with, or at least influenced by, the mores and outlook of community activism, of the kind you’ll frequently find in the Guardian ‘Society’ supplement. As a Telegraph writer says, ‘The sort of rioter who agrees to be interviewed as part of a social science research project for the Guardian is unlikely to be representative’. Indeed, the Guardian admits that ‘a large majority of the 270 people interviewed for the project had not been arrested’ – that is, they’re the ones who got away with it – and they were ‘surprisingly articulate’. These are the sections of inner-city youth more likely to be au fait with the liberal classes’ explanations for the rioting.
Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the keenness of the interviewees to say things that might make their rather pointless anti-social behaviour in August appear grand and meaningful. Where some of the interviewees are fairly honest about their opportunism – one says the rioting was ‘a festival with no food, no dancing, no music, but a free shopping trip for everyone’ – many of them adopt the kind of political language that had already appeared in the serious press in an attempt to make their behaviour seem purposeful. ‘It felt like I was part of a revolution’, said one; another described his fellow looters as ‘a battalion, a squadron, a troop of men’, as if he were involved in a political war rather than an exercise in kicking in JD Sports’ windows. With the researchers talking only to ‘the right kind’ of rioters and hoping to hear a political message, and the rioters keen to parrot some of the political excuses that had already been made for their behaviour, it was inevitable that this report would end up as something like a 1.3million-word Guardian editorial.
The Guardian writers now promoting this report as evidence that they were right all along – with one of them claiming the rioters were ‘far more politically conscious’ than many people thought – imagine that they are doing the opposite of what the Lib-Con government did in response to the riots. Where David Cameron and his cronies condemned the rioters as feral or amoral, this report and its cheerleaders claim to reveal that the riots were in fact ‘political in nature’, if also ‘destructive and incoherent’. Yet this is just the flipside of what the Lib-Cons did. Government officials claimed to see in the rioters evidence of a widespread and dangerous ‘gang culture’ (a claim that was challenged by spiked long before anybody else), while their Guardian critics claim to see confused but definitely socially-aware protesters. Both sides see simply what they want to see in the weird tumult of August, imagining that the rioters confirm either their prejudices about feckless youth or their fantasies about reruns of 1960s-style, anti-conservative uprisings.
If anything, the riot-related advocacy campaigning of the Guardian is worse than what Cameron and Co. indulged in. Where Cameron’s shallow and predictable claims that this violence all sprung from bad parenting and ‘Broken Britain’ were opportunistically designed to make him and his government look strong in retrospect, through taking on has-been rioters, the advocacy aim of this latest piece of research is somewhat more sinister. What we have here is a pretty naked attempt to add a touch of physical force and menace to Guardian-style arguments about cuts and inequality and the monarchy and MPs, an attempt to harness the violence of the rioting to the various causes of the liberal commentariat. Feeling, perhaps, that their measured, middle-class demands for nicer policing, fewer cuts to the public sector and more banker wrist-slapping lack urgency and oomph, the Guardian and others are now effectively arguing that the failure to address such issues causes actual violence; that the alienated youth of Britain not only share this general outlook, but are willing to use violence to pursue it. It is moral blackmail in place of proper conviction and proof.
What gets lost in this dual attempt to politicise the rioters, with the Conservatives slamming them as badly mothered urchins and the Guardian kind-of praising them as ‘political in nature’, is any serious attempt to get to grips with what was new and different and unusual about what occurred in August. The riots did indeed reveal a great deal about modern Britain, particularly about the dearth of social solidarity amongst younger generations of poorer communities and the collapse of police and state authority in inner cities and elsewhere in England; yet neither of these things can seriously be discussed so long as all political factions remain more interested in plonking the rioters on their knees and getting them to mouth What We Want To Hear.