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).
Marking the 42nd anniversary of the Hytner Report, Claire Fox, Academic Director of the AIU RACE Centre, draws on the Elouise Edwards collection to consider the media coverage, and in particular, the language used to describe the 1981 Moss Side Uprising.
The third and final upcoming post in this short series considers the reasons why these events may have been presented in these ways.
Read the first blog from this series here.
Unsurprisingly, the events of 1981 in Moss Side featured heavily in local and national press. In an era before social media platforms, where events can be captured and shared on mobile phones in a matter of moments, it is important to consider the constructions of these events and those involved. Representations of events like this are not neutral or objective – news reports need to be described and created – and come to present events in particular ways, often perpetuating certain ideas. Framing the Moss Side disturbances as very much a problem of disorder, suspect communities and criminal intentions effectively obscured other, more deep-rooted and problematic issues, namely structural inequalities, discrimination, unemployment and deprivation.
The language used in describing the disturbances and those involved is important. There are three noticeable trends evident in the reviewed MEN newspaper articles held in the Elouise Edwards collection; the twin processes of deindividuation and ‘othering’, the lawlessness terminology used, and the ascribed motivations for the ‘riots’.
The media coverage of the time, in unquestioningly echoing the words of the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton, presented the disturbances as riots. Throughout the coverage of the disturbances, there is repeated references made to a ‘mob’, sometimes with an additional descriptor attached to it (e.g. ‘baying’, ‘screaming’). Only rarely are alternatives, such as ‘crowd’, used. The individual stories of those involved in the disturbances are featured even less. There are repeated efforts to ‘other’ those involved in the disturbances; that is, to set them apart from the perceived law-abiding (white) majority. This is done in two ways: the first method is to do so in an unambiguous fashion, namely by attributing the problem to an unidentified group of ‘outsiders’ – people who were described as travelling to Moss Side with the sole intention of deliberately provoking and orchestrating ‘rioting’, despite having no connection to the locality. The second method is through more subtle references to the local people involved as being separate to both the wider Manchester community and the law-abiding citizens in Moss Side. For example, the lead article from the MEN on 8 July 1981 quotes Anderton in saying that those engaged in the uprising have ‘let down their own people’. ‘Own people’? It’s difficult to explain this phrase away without believing that there are racial undertones attached to it.
The image of lawlessness is frequently presented across the media coverage, at times invoking war-like themes. However, despite the MEN headline of ‘Guerilla war’ (9th July 1981), Anderton specifically denied that he was making any declarations of war towards the protestors, perhaps to avoid at least potentially legitimizing the complaints of ‘the opposition’ and seeing them as a significant force. The descriptions of those involved instead emphasize a mindless form of disorder. From this viewpoint, there is no attributable cause of the disturbances – the motivations are baseless; it is the handiwork of a criminal, disruptive element intent on trying to challenge and disrupt the conventional social order, or ‘normal life’. It is the repetitive use of words and phrases such as ‘orgies of shop burnings and lootings’, ‘mob terror’, ‘lunacy’, ‘anarchy’, ‘the siege of Moss Side police station’, and places left ‘looking “like the blitz”’. The actions of the ‘rioters’ are seen as out of control, as neatly outlined in Anderton’s comment featured heavily in the MEN coverage (e.g. 8 July 1981):
“Today I can only say that what happened last night was close to anarchy….I did not know until last night what lunacy really meant, but I do now.”GB3228.5/3/71, Elouise Edwards Collection, Newspaper cuttings that report primarily on the uprisings in Moss side in July 1981, MEN 8 July 1981).
References to the ‘riot-ravaged streets of Manchester’ and the lack of respect for law and order, particularly those charged with maintaining it, alongside the images of out of control (mainly Black) youths, including young children (‘hordes of children…took part in the orgy of looting’; ‘the orgy of shop burning and looting, that began with an eight-year-old boy throwing a petrol bomb at a patrolling sergeant’), are all mobilized to push home the feelings of lawlessness and threat.
There is, however, a contradiction when considering the motivations of the ‘rioters’. The behaviours are described by Anderton as ‘lunacy’, invoking a mindless ‘mob’ but simultaneously were also branded as ‘carefully pre-planned and organised’, ‘with lookouts and the use of Citizens Band radios to pass on messages’, although this more deliberate and careful planning using ‘a kind of military strategy’ is attributed to those ‘others’ who have come from outside the Manchester area to execute their ‘Extremist Master Plan for Chaos’ (MEN, 9 July 1981).
All of this is underpinned by the criminality of the ‘mob’, through the damage to property and theft from the looting of local businesses. It is further reinforced by the depiction of the police (‘flying squad’) as the necessary thin blue line working to protect the public from the ‘baying mob’.
The accompanying images in the various MEN articles are also not objective. As Hirsch and Swanson (2020) articulate in their exploration of these images, they were – explicitly or otherwise – helping to build the narrative that the disturbances and those involved were unnecessarily disrupting the social order and presented a threat to law-abiding majority, and that there was a need to ‘nip trouble in the bud’ (MEN, 9 July 1981). Importantly, they also draw attention to what images were excluded from the coverage (p. 239):
“We see in the purported rioters a crowd which is multi-racial, unarmed and unprotected, particularly when compared with the overwhelmingly white and heavily armed and protected police. We see a crowd in which a wide range of the local community seems to feel comfortable, and where defensive measures are taken to protect that community from the police. From the components that made up their barricades, to the looting of baker and butcher shops, we see the poverty that helps motivate the riots.”GB3228.5/3/71, Elouise Edwards Collection, Newspaper cuttings that report primarily on the uprisings in Moss side in July 1981, MEN 8 July 1981).
In one of several staged photos, Anderton poses with ‘weapons’ that have been seized from suspected rioters. The photo, accompanying the message that Anderton is valid in his heavy-handed tactics to quell the armed and dangerous ‘mob’, and is the ‘strong’ leader to restore law and order. However, viewed in another way, the photo could be seen ‘as a shot of a slightly deranged man next to a strange assortment of gardening tools’ (Hirsch and Swanson, 2020: 238). The perception is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
Shirin Hirsch, David Swanson, Photojournalism and the Moss Side Riots of 1981: Narrowly Selective Transparency, History Workshop Journal, Volume 89, Spring 2020, Pages 221–245, https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbz055
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