I’m loath to criticise any individual who is energised enough about perceived injustices to take to the streets with a placard or a chant, but given the innumerable protests we’ve had about social, environmental and economic issues over the last few years, and the minimal impact they’ve had on policy making, it probably worth taking a cold hard look at the nature of protest as it exists today.
Let’s set the context first.
We live with something called a “24 hour news cycle”, or in other words, news is reported 24 hours a day, rather than just 4 times per day, like it used to be.
This unending stream of information has blunted people’s capacity to absorb information in anything larger than bite-size chunks. News outlets understand this, so now, rather than featuring longer pieces on fewer subjects, they feature shorter pieces on many subjects. The Journal and Summly are prime examples of this trend.
In addition to this, news outlets understand that as well as being short, their pieces also have to capture the reader or viewer’s attention, so they give prominence in the piece to whatever part of the story (a photo, a clip, a quote) is the most provocative, rather than the part that is most representative of the story as a whole.
Finally, news journalism is no longer governed by the strict code of impartiality that it used to me. Private ownership, fragmentation and the rapacious pursuit of a diminishing pool of subscribers have seen standards go out the window, which means that our news is rarely served without the thumbprints of the opinion stamped all over it.
All this is bad news for protest, the success of which is generally measured by the amount of media coverage a particular protest receives. The apparent logic is that if a protest makes the news, the target of that protest will be pressurized into acting differently.
Why? Because to make protest “newsworthy”, media outlets have to feature whatever it is about that protest that is most likely to stimulate interest in the most disinterested viewer or reader.
As such, a “protest” in which somebody drives a truck into the gates of Leinster House will always attract more media attention than if 300 people gather, march down a street and go home again.
The net effect of this is that the average viewer or reader of news is presented with a view of protest that inevitably involves extreme or outlandish behaviour, which discredits the general impression of protest, which makes it easier for politicians to ignore it.
The presents a considerable challenge for groups who rely on protest. On the one hand, they have do something that makes the news cycle, but equally they have to be careful that whatever that something is doesn’t present them as some sort of fruitcakes who nobody should take seriously.
This isn’t impossible. Large groups, like Greenpeace, who can avail of professional advice in this area, still manage to stage impactful and credible protests.
However, for smaller groups, or larger groups who don’t have the years of experience that Greenpeace has, the challenge is very real, and getting it wrong can shunt a campaign off the road before it even starts moving.
Smaller groups have additional problems when it comes to protest. Where media attention is obtained, through careful and thorough planning, and the protest doesn’t attract a critical mass of participants, the effect is probably even worse than if some member of the protest does something peculiar in front of the cameras.
A protest that was billed as a big deal, but which didn’t turn out to be a big deal, will only barely surface in the media, and the only impression the viewer or reader will be left with is that the issue can’t be that important, as nobody turned up at the protest.
A vicious circle therefore devekops. Protest loses its credibility, fewer people turn up at protests, protest loses more credibility, fewer people turn up at protests, etc etc
So what is the alternative?
The answer to resist the fragmentation of protest, and to aspire to larger groupings, who can engage the necessary level of public relations skill to make protest meaningful.
However, the opposite seems to be happening. Campaign groups tend to protect their territories like old time gold prospectors, and will resist the pooling of resources at ever turn.
The results are there for all to see. At anything other than pan-national level, protest isn’t making a difference to anything.