‘Anarchists, agitators and looters’: Why media coverage matters

Assortment of newspaper clippings on the Moss Side uprisings 1981

GB3228.5/3/72, Elouise Edwards Collection, Newspaper cuttings that report primarily on the uprisings in Moss side in July 1981, (Sept 1981-Dec 1981).

In this third and final blog post looking back at the Moss Side Uprising in 1981, working with the resources from the Elouise Edwards Collection, Academic Director of the AIU RACE Centre, Claire Fox, reflects on the motivations for representing the disturbances in the ways outlined in the previous post, and highlights that this is neither an isolated occurrence or something that only relates to its time.

There are several motivations for representing the Moss Side disturbances as lawless ‘anarchy’ and ‘lunacy’ (to borrow the words of the Chief Constable at the time, James Anderton). One of the most notable motivations is that it denies justification for the grievances of those involved in the disturbances, whilst simultaneously legitimizing the subsequent quasi-paramilitary policing tactics employed (see the first blog post in this series), alongside the heavy-handed and discriminatory policing within the area.

Invoking the mindlessness and the ‘lunacy’ of disturbances creates an image of baseless actions that have no logical or reasonable rationale. The undeniable framing of the Moss Side disturbances as rooted in the criminality of the area arguably allows for a convenient side-stepping to occur, whereby the wider issues – both on the local and national level – are divorced from the events. The need to consider the underlying drivers of racism, heavy-handed discriminatory policing, poor housing stock, and high levels of unemployment therefore becomes redundant. Such issues are clearly more structurally entrenched, with political and economic implications, and with that would be far harder to address, even if the motivation to do so from a top-down perspective were there. Constructing those involved in the Moss Side disturbances as looters and troublemakers who are intent on causing extensive damage to the area helps to further lessen any political will to do so.

The pivotal use of language in framing of the disorder has not been isolated to the events in Moss Side; other outbreaks of confrontation through time and across place bear similarity to this (see, for example, Stan Cohen’s (1972) discussion of depictions of the clashes between the mods and rockers in Seaside towns during the 1964 Whitsun weekend). However, there are marked differences between the events discussed by, for example, Cohen and the Moss Side (and other) disturbances. There was real damage caused by the events in Moss Side, whereas the scale of the Whitsun disturbances was largely agreed to have been overblown by the media) and it would be remiss to overlook this. There were also embedded forms of racism – both explicit and more insidious forms – that were cited as the root causes of the disturbances that were also present in the coverage of the disturbances. This is where the importance of Crenshaw’s (and others) work on intersectionality comes in – it is vital to think about how different aspects of who we are (e.g. our race, ability, and so on) come together to influence our life experiences. The disturbances, despite Anderton’s contention that the Moss Side disorder was ‘not a race riot’, very much had concerns of discriminatory actions at its core.

GB3228.5/3/19, Elouise Edwards, Report entitled ‘The Hytner myths: a preliminary critique of the Hytner Report’, front cover. (1981-1982).
GB3228.5/3/19, Elouise Edwards, Report entitled ‘The Hytner myths: a preliminary critique of the Hytner Report’, pg.8. (1981-1982).

This is not something that is only of historic interest that can be confined to the archives. The policing of global majority communities continues to be troubling. There has been a succession of cases, most notably in the USA with the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, where those from GM groups have been subject to biased, violent policing. The disproportionate use of force against GM people by police in England and Wales continues to be cause for concern.

Whilst the present day media is more multifaceted and diverse than ever before, thanks in no small part by the impact of social media platforms and other online forms of news-sharing, it would be a mistake to think that we are beyond relying on a handful of media sources for our news or that the language used in media reporting is less powerful. Despite being some 40 years ago, the use of language and imagery in representing key events are still critical. See, for example, the then-president Donald Trump’s whipping up of disbelief, division and bitter acrimony towards Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Referring to BLM protesters as ‘THUGS’ who were ‘dishonouring the memory of George Floyd’, before going on to (seemingly unaware of the contradictions in this single tweet) assure his followers that ‘Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts’. His threats to send in the military to affected areas should civil unrest grow was in order to ‘defend their residents’ and ‘quickly solve the problem for them’. Using the 4th July holiday in 2020 to denounce BLM protestors, Trump labelled them as “anarchists, agitators, and looters”, once again denying the validity of their concerns and as with the situation in Moss Side, separating out the protestors in order to paint them as a lawless mob. This denied the legitimacy of their protest, uprooting it from the wider concerns of structural, encrypted racism and police brutality.

This might feel, to some, like an extreme example, but similar representations are not too hard to spot within the UK. In an era of fragmented and proliferated media sources – heavily biased, inaccurate, ‘fake’ or otherwise – it is even more critical to operate a healthy degree of cynicism when reading news stories.

At the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre we make every effort to identify and contact rights holders of any archive material we use in our online resources, but unfortunately we are not always successful and we recognise that sometimes material published online may be in breach of copyright laws. 

We hope that by sharing these images we might be able to find more information about rights holders of material in our collections. If you have any information about possible rights holders of material on this page, or you are a rights holder and are concerned that you have found material on this page for which you have not given permission, please do get in touch at [email protected]

Read part one here.

Read part two here.