Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rage, riots and representation

The student demonstrations in London the other week, and all over Britain yesterday are not only (in my personal view) a positive sign of resistance to massive cuts in education, which students should be proud of themselves for taking part in, but a great chance for language students to look at how the media represents protests, protesters and police.

Today's Daily Mail for example, has decided that the most notable thing about yesterday's demonstration was not the fact that it involved university, sixth form and school students in many different cities and towns across the UK, but that girls were involved in violence and vandalism. Under the headline Rage of the Girl Rioters, they describe female protesters as "the disturbing new face of the riots". So, they seem to be suggesting that if you're a male protester who gets a bit angry and launches a flying kick at a police van it's par for the course, but if you're a girl, that's simply unladylike. Unless of course, Facebook is involved, in which case the females were not "the disturbing new face of the riots" but frivolous young floozies, there only to take a few pictures and pose fashionably amid scenes of urban vandalism. Girls, know your place!

What's interesting from a language point of view is how grammatical and lexical choices can be used to offer very different representations of events.

Take these two lines from the Mail's coverage and have a look at the use of active and passive voice:

(Rioting girls) threatened to overturn a police riot squad van as they smashed windows, looted riot shields, uniforms and helmets and daubed the sides with graffiti.
Here, the girls are the subject and agent of the sentence, responsible for four verbs (threaten to overturn, smash, loot and daub), which themselves are chosen to represent wild and unrestrained behaviour.

As tensions ran high, police were forced to ‘kettle’ 5,000 protesters for hours just a short distance from the Houses of Parliament.
But in this example, the subject of the sentence - the noun phrase police - is receiving the action of the verb ("to force"), suggesting that they were not responsible for the kettling taking place (itself an interesting noun- verb conversion). So, who was? We don't know because there isn't an agent in this sentence: the sentence seems to be suggesting that a mighty force beyond the police's control (God...Doctor Evil...Jay-Z) might have forced them to comply. But no, it was probably the senior police officer who was responsible.

Of course, it doesn't take a genius to know that the media would generally rather focus on a dramatic image of violence - a masked protester smashing a window, a fire extinguisher dangerously close to police lines, a student urinating on a police van - so it's also a good idea to look at how the largely peaceful and orderly protests in places like Leeds, Sheffield, Colchester and Winchester were reported upon in local papers, where a more balanced and thoughtful representation might be offered.

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...