My Debate with Squall
Squall Editorial, June 2000
In this land of hasty critics, it isn’t difficult to inflame levels of self-criticism so destructive that the team – our team – is bound to lose, whatever. The mercenaries who populate British media know the formula well. It may be numbingly predictable but relentless criticism sells; the nastier the better. It sways our decision to pluck a newspaper from the stands and persuades us to loiter before the TV news.
It has often been repeated that British heroes are only promoted with applause in order to provide fodder for future lambast and British journalists largely deserve their scurrilous reputation for fueling the process. One minute yer friend, the next yer enemy, regardless of circumstances; fickle in search of a novel angle and permanently purchasable for thirty pieces of silver.
The barrage of criticism heaped upon Reclaim the Streets from all sides subsequent to the guerilla gardening action on Mayday provides an ample case in point; staggering both in its complicity with mainstream political strategy and for the inanity of its pointless self-destruction.
We’re used to the likes of the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times proffering the ‘Anarchist yobs takeover’ and ‘RTS stockpile weapons’ style of coverage. But this time the usual suspects were joined by an onslaught of critical barrage from pseudo-friends of the movement like Oxbridge journo, George Monbiot. Content to have established a career based on his connections to the UK direct action scene, it is a bitter truth that Monbiot might accept thirty pieces of Guardian silver for an exaggerated kiss and tell onslaught against RTS.
For those who missed George Monbiot’s bilious attack, a wade through the spluttered outrage can be spared with a summary of his main points. Liberally peppered with the language and metaphor of utter condemnation, he stated that RTS’s ranks are swollen with violent and uncaring thugs, and that, having lost the plot completely, RTS are “a part of the problem not the solution”. Furthermore, and perhaps most hypocritically, he stated that planting seeds outside the Houses of Parliament was a “futile” action against capitalism.
Four years ago, Monbiot was content to wallow in the acres of column inches which revolved around “The Oxford don and his rag-bag army” when as one of a hundred or so activists on The Land is Ours’ first action at Wisley, he planted vegetables and trees on a small stretch of long disused WW2 airfield in Surrey. Monbiot launched his career in British journalism off the back of his association with that action, with the Daily Telegraph running a whole page on the “ideological leader” Monbiot and his French aristocratic ancestry. There were many of his co-activists on that direct action who felt the agenda being pilfered even at that stage.
Four years later there’s an undeniable hypocrisy in Monbiot’s preparedness to describe the Guerilla Gardening action on Mayday as a futile gesture. Andy yet occurring as it did outside the Houses of Parliament it was evidently a far more full frontal and significant action than planting up a wooded Surrey copse miles from anywhere and already full of wildlife. If Monbiot was alone with his extravagant and well paid criticism, we wouldn’t waste our column inches talking about his. But his criticisms sat complicity alongside a raft of hysterical exaggerations and dire warnings which appeared on BBC and ITV news that evening and in most national newspapers the next day.
Stoked further by the Labour Party’s desire to associate Ken Livingstone with those who sprayed the cenotaph, coverage of the event became a laughable circus of hyperbole; an exaggerated monstrosity of self-inflated condemnation portraying all anti-capitalists as mindless thugs who would spit on the grave of the war dead. In the latent belief that there is no smoke without fire, people believed it. The media steer babbled on relentlessly until people were found whistling its tune without thinking twice about the source of the subliminal melody. Even those with previous direct action associations began parroting the position that RTS had lost the plot.
And so SQUALL would like to present a few unreported facts to remind ourselves that staying on our toes is a permenant requirement…….
Fact. Reclaim the Streets publicised a guerilla gardening action in Parliament Square. Their publicity stated that it was not a protest but a constructive action to highlight the necessity to reclaim public space. The horticultural nature of the event was consciously designed to attract those genuinely into ‘greening the streets’ rather than just getting pissed and exercising their lairyness.
Fact. The event in Parliament Square lasted for seven hours and there was no violence whatsoever, even when towards the conclusion of the day police tried to hold everyone in the Square against their will. The samba band played, seeds were planted, the road was turfed, banners were unfurled, a maypole was erected and activists filed reports and thoughts onto Indymedia UK’s new roadside-laptop website. The day passed off as a success. Whether or not activists agreed with defacing statues – some did some didn’t – the paint was cleaned off in a day and no lasting damage occurred. At the end of the day the crowd held together in one mass and marched through the police cordon united. The police did not wield their truncheons and there was no violence on either side at any point in the day. Some activists even hung around with bin bags and cleaned up the Square afterwards. How many people heard about this. Six weeks later Parliament Square was covered in plants as the Mayday sown seeds sprung into action.
Fact: A van full of compost, straw bails and seeds bound for Parliament Square was trailed from west London, intercepted by police and impounded for being unroadworthy. Two days later police allowed the driver to drive it away. It was evidently roadworthy. Five weeks later when the van was put in for a service, the garage mechanics found that every nut on the two back wheels was about to fall off. The garage informed the owner that he was fortunate to be alive.
Fact. For three weeks up to Mayday, British mainstream media incessantly publicised the event as a riot. “British army on standby” roared the Evening Standard. More people in the UK learned about the event through the mainstream media than they did through RTS leaflets. If certain people arrived in London looking for a riot, it wasn’t an RTS flyer which attracted them.
Fact. The media and those they managed to attract got their riot. Not much of one as riots go but just enough of a ruckus to weave the story around. A plethora of groups ranging from the Socialist Worker Party to the Rover workers to Turkish communists to pissed punks to unaligned anti-capitalists and bemused tourists were all corralled in Trafalgar Square and refused exit by truncheoned police lines.
Fact. For the first time in four years of anti-capitalist demonstrations, a McDonald’s Burger bar right in the middle of the demonstration was left undefended by policemen. Nearby riot police waited for twenty minutes before going in to disperse demonstrators who had by this time smashed the place up. A pre-event action outside McDonald’s on the Strand earlier that morning was swarming with police and intelligence officers. Why did they leave the Whitehall McDonald’s undefended?.
Let those who got caught up in the scraps with police, those who sprayed the cenotaph, those who threw tarmac lumps in Kennington Park later that evening; let them defend their own actions. Some property-damagers like the ex-British army soldier who daubed fake blood on Winston Churchill’s statue had very good reasons for doing what they did and deserve applause for their courage of conviction. Both for their action and their willingness to be emphatic about the political reasons for their action when a “sorry m’lud” might have reduced the sentence. Some were just the pissed lunch outs you’ll always find somewhere. A tiny minority amid the thousands.
The barrage of critics laying blame for the Mayday skirmishes and the subsequently overblown media backlash at the feet of Reclaim the Streets are well wide of the mark. In their critical haste they are ignoring the creative work that went into facilitating a remarkably successful event in Parliament Square. An event that was imaginative, politically symbolic, well executed, well attended, forceful yet non-violent. Very few people seem to realise that this event even took place. And yet this was the RTS event, as advertised by RTS, in Parliament Square. A malevolent media so keen for dramatic copy and so capitalistically complicit, continues to foster and ferment the outrage, relishing and inflaming the very riots they pretend to abhor.
The more insidious part of this agenda is the cold calculation. For the abhorrence that such hysterical coverage ferments in the minds and loyalties of a general public is capitalism’s attempt to destroy the reputation of its detractors. If the capitalist world can persuade the general public that its opponents are not thoughtful people with a point, but violently crazed troublemakers, then they can keep their tightened grip round the throat of the world, unchallenged
To split the spikies from the fluffies, the NGO’s from the direct action groups, middle England from street folk, one section of society from another so that disunited, we affect nothing. The straggled survivors from a thousand massacred social causes are uniting to provide a significant challenge to the manicured PR of unfettered capitalism; a threat unparalleled in recent years. Beware the wedge now being driven strategically into the joins.
In your glowing tribute to me (Editorial, July/August) you charge that I “established a career based on [my] connections to the UK direct action scene.”
My “career” began in 1985, when I became a producer at the BBC. By the time I got involved in The Land is Ours, in 1994, I had published three books, one of which was a bestseller, I had a column in the Evening Standard and the Guardian, I was a visiting fellow at Oxford, I’d been given a UN Global 500 award by Nelson Mandela, won a Sony award for radio production and the Lloyds National Award for screenwriting. I say this not to boast but simply to show that the last thing I needed in 1994 was a career boost. I interrupted all this for two years to work with The Land is Ours. The result was that I lost my column in the Standard and my work at the BBC dried up immediately. My fellowship was not renewed. I’ve been regarded as dodgy ever since, with the result that it’s now a fair bit harder to get the work I want than it was before. But I don’t regret being involved for a moment.
I wrote my article about the Mayday action because I felt that Reclaim the Streets, by messing up and alienating so many people, had become a threat to the causes I believe in: namely the environment and social justice. Interestingly, the article received just as much support as opprobium from direct activists: it turns out that there are many others who believe that RTS has lost its way. I’ve often been told that I was brave to write it. Judging by some of the attacks I’ve received since then, I can only conclude that I was downright stupid. But it still needed to be said. I have always written only what I believe to be true, however unpopular it may be. I hope I always will.
Incidentally, apart from the editorial I thought the rest of the mag was pretty good.
Having been out on the road for the last few months we have been unable to
script a response to your letter to SQUALL dated 10/8/00. Nevertheless we
deemed the issue important enough to leave it in the pending tray and to
address it upon our return. Your letter is printed at the end of this e-mail
for your reference.
In explanation of the background to our statements about your career, upon
which you have chosen, surprisingly, to lend most emphasis in your
We are of course aware that your career did not begin as a result of The
Land is Ours action. Way back in the mists of time, SQUALL awarded you a
Jewel in the Mud award for a piece you had written in the environment
section of the Guardian.
However, your media career was largely based on issues abroad such as
tropical rainforests, rather than home affairs. You must surely acknowledge
that becoming a regular commentator on home affairs issues is a step up from
winning less regular commissions to write/talk about issues abroad.
It is disingenuous of you to suggest that your involvement with the Land is
Ours was in any way a career sacrifice on your part. The media concentrated
its coverage around your personality and you did nothing to decentralise
this preoccupation. Surely you will not deny that celebrity status is of
great benefit in obtaining work within the media, whether saint or sinner.
You suggest that your work with the BBC and Evening Standard dried up as a
result of your exposure but once again ignore the fact that work in other
directions of your career picked up. The regular column you now maintain
with the Guardian began in earnest under David Rowen’s editorship of the
Comments and Analysis section. Would you wholeheartedly deny that as a
fellow Oxbridge journo you were in the perfectly privileged position to
represent the emerging radical political movement in a safe enough fashion
to suit Guardian requirements? We know for certain that David Rowen was keen
to have this radicalism represented in some way. Neither have your
appearances on television been sparse since the Land is Ours action. We do
not argue that your abilities as a wordsmith or media commentator do not
warrant exposure, but you must equally acknowledge that you have the
advantage of privilege and it is audacious for you to suggest that your
involvement with direct action did you any harm whatsoever.
It is the inaccurate exercise of your privileged position which was
seriously questioned by SQUALL’s editorial. In common with a large number of
conscious and intelligent activists we viewed your article as a poorly
observed scurrilous attack on a movement which already has its heavily armed
ranks of malicious establishment detractors.
Did you know that the Sunday Times published a one page ‘Insight team
investigation’ claiming RTS were stockpiling weapons?! Having relied solely
on an anonymous source, the dubious credentials of whom were not open for
anyone to check, not even the police were offered evidence by the newspaper.
Gross inaccuracies like these are part of a mass media detraction of which
your article was in swollen concordance. RTS has no access to reply. An RTS
complaint to the Press Complaints Commission against the Sunday Times
languished in legal bureaucracy until activists felt they had better things
to do with their lives. Likewise your assertion that if anyone wanted to
reply to your article they could do so through the Guardian. Several
activists tried and the Guardian said no. You were obviously not in a
position to grant such a right of reply.
Furthermore, we do not understand why your letter to SQUALL concentrated so
heavily on the issue of your career, whilst ignoring the more important
points made in the editorial about the events in Parliament Square. Namely
that the guerilla gardening action organised RTS action was entirely
peaceful and well exercised. You also chose to ignore the fact that your
article described the RTS action as a “futile gesture against capitalism”;
an evident hypocrisy when juxtaposed with the Land is Ours gardening action
at Wisley Airfield for which you took so much media credit.
Furthermore, in penning your virulently anti-RTS article you chose to repeat
the mistake you apparently admitted making over your reportage of the Land
is Ours action on the Guinness land in Wandsworth. Perhaps you remember
writing an article in the Guardian which ripped into the integrity of
activists involved in the Wandsworth action by claiming the site was
infested with leering males prowling the temporarily reclaimed land with
rape on their mind. The women, you suggested, cowered in their benders in
As we remember it, you were profusely apologetic for writing an article
which so thoroughly discredited the work of many in one fowl public swoop.
Nevertheless you have chosen to repeat the mistake by informing your middle
England Guardian constituency that RTS have lost the plot.
Do you understand that this constituency hardly even knew RTS had the plot?
Have you ever written a glowing tribute to RTS? Such is the onslaught of
anti-RTS media slur across the board that your readership would hardly have
known any different. It is lamentable that you, of all people, accepted a
paid commission to compound the malicious avalanche.
If you had worries about the direction that RTS was heading why did you not
write an article especially for the Allsorts e-mail list and circulate your
disquiet amongst activists? Of what value was it to express your concerns to
You have more privilege and media opportunity than many of the hard working
activists who, nevertheless, feel the concerns of environmental urgencies at
least as keenly as you do. You owe them a better representation.
In your article – entitled ‘Streets of Shame’ – your responsibility to
represent the truth accurately and fairly was squandered, and the fallout
rains only on the shoulders of hundreds of non-celebrity activists who
vigorously pursue their environmental concerns for no financial
For your information this is why SQUALL addressed its strongly worded
editorial to the issue, and you are right, it wasn’t a glowing tribute to
you. But then neither was your article to RTS, and there seems little doubt
which of the two expressions of outrage have proved the more justified.
The SQUALL Eds
Dear Squall Eds (Who am I writing to? – Jim?),
Thank you for your message.
You express surprise that I have chosen in my reply to Squall to concentrate on my career. It’s for this simple reason: that if I were to have replied to all the points you raised, I would have to have written a very long letter, which you wouldn’t have been able to print. As the careerism charges were, I felt, evidently injust, and as I have answered the other charges at length elsewhere, I felt that these were the ones I had to prioritise. But if you are able to offer me more space, in which I can reply to the other points, I’d be pleased to take it.
On this point, you are quite right to point out that I am writing more regularly for the Guardian now, though it’s worth noting that my column went weekly only at the end of 1998, some time after I ceased to be actively involved with The Land is Ours. The Guardian experimented with several environmental writers, but they chose me as their main green columnist, they say, because of the quality and range of my writing and analysis, not because of what I was doing elsewhere. People don’t get Guardian columns (except for the Glenda Slagg type) because of their profile, but because of what they can deliver. Both John Pilger and Mark Steele have been dropped by the Guardian over the past 18 months, and replaced by people no one has heard of. Celebrity might govern the choice of columnists elsewhere, but it doesn’t seem to work that way on the Guardian.
And besides the Guardian, what? The Evening Standard dropped me after a country landowner told Max Hastings over dinner “Don’t you know that man is the Devil Incarnate?” This was unfortunate for my “career”, as I had just been asked if I would like to go weekly. I used to present lots of programmes on BBC radio. Since my involvement with The Land is Ours, I’ve been allowed to do just two, both of which were heavily controlled. I’ve presented one and a quarter documentaries on BBC TV since 1996, yet had fronted six or seven before. I have been flatly excluded from Channel 4 because I am, in the words of the Director of Programmes there, “a green fanatic”. I’m still asked to be a pundit by radio and TV programmes, but that was the case long before I became involved in The Land is Ours. In short, beyond the Guardian, I have no further prospect of regular work, largely because of my activism in the past. This doesn’t bother me, but it’s hard to understand your contention that my activism has somehow been good for my career.
As for the content of my article, there have been times when I’ve had second thoughts about pieces I’ve written, and the Wandsworth instance was one, but this was not. I still believe what I wrote on May 10th to be the case, and stand by it. I feel it does movements no favours to withhold from criticism when it’s due, and public actions should surely be publicly examined. I wrote that article because I felt that the action on May 1st and the subsequent handling of the press by RTS inflicted serious damage on the causes of both social justice and the environment. You have suggested that it was peaceful and well-organised. Well I’m sorry, but the proof of these things is in the execution, and what I saw on May 1st was not peaceful and it was not well-organised. I think it is quite wrong of RTS to say “it’s not our fault, it’s someone else’s”. The guerilla gardening in Parliament Square was peaceful, but surely we have a responsibility for the whole of an action we initiate, not just those bits which went according to plan? I accept, of course, that RTS did not plan the violence, but it seems quite clear to me that insufficient contingency was made to stop it happening. Still worse was the way in which they blew their chance to explain what had happened and what it was about, the disastrous press conference which persuaded me to write the article.
You ask “Have you ever written a glowing tribute to RTS?” To which I reply: yes – see The Guardian, 8th May 1996 and the Times Literary Supplement, 21st February 1997. I’ve written plenty of other articles praising the direct action movement in general, though not mentioning RTS by name. And my piece on May 10th was not a “commission”. I asked to write it, because I believed I should do it. I did so knowing that it would make me deeply unpopular with a lot of activists, even to the extent of threatening some of my friendships, but I still felt it was the right thing to do. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t care about the response I’ve provoked. I do. But I’m not going to be bullied into saying what the most vocal activists think I should say. From the many positive responses I received, I know I was speaking for a large number of disillusioned and angry people, who feel increasingly excluded from the way in which parts of the direct action movement have been going.
As for the responsiveness of the Guardian, we seem to have heard very different accounts. I was told that RTS was invited to reply, but did not produce anything as a result of their failure to agree among themselves about what it should contain. Finally, RTS asked for a pre-existing article to be published. It was.
Your comparison with TLIO’s actions is an interesting but superficial one. Yes, at Wisley we too occupied a piece of land to make our point. But that is where the comparison stops. Unlike RTS, we established clear behavioural boundaries for our action. Unlike RTS, we had specific and immediate aims. Unlike RTS, we kept it non-violent. What, I believe, renders an action futile or otherwise is whether or not the message is effectively conveyed. It will always be difficult to do this, and we only succeeded halfway, but I think it’s fair to say that we managed to introduce land issues onto the political agenda. But what was the symbolic power of the May Day action? What message did it convey? What perceptions did it change?
You say I did nothing to decentralise the media’s preoccupation with myself as a TLIO spokesman. This is quite untrue. I trained a team of media spokespeople, who said they were willing and able to present the case. At both Wisley and Wandsworth I tried to round them up and put them forward, but most of them didn’t turn up and those who did wouldn’t put themselves forward, out of shyness or underconfidence. Now this might well reflect a deficiency in the way I tried to train them, though I suspect it also reflects the fact that media work requires a particular set of skills which many people don’t feel confident about deploying. Whatever the reason, I was left with the situation of either explaining what we were doing myself, or of leaving it unexplained.
Of course, because I was already known to the media and considered by them a contradictory and, in journalistic terms, “interesting” character, they homed in on me. And, because I’m good at talking to them, I took to the task with enthusiasm. But I asked everyone who interviewed me at length to write about the issues, not to write about me. As we all know, this was not very successful, and I accept a good measure of the blame for this. But I’m still not sure, given the constraints above, how it could have been done in such a way that we got the message across and kept them away from me.
Seeing that my press strategy in The Land is Ours was not successful, I wrote An Activists’ Guide to Exploiting the Media, and ran several media training courses, in order to try to help people other than myself to acquire the skills necessary to put our point of view across. Since Wandsworth I have been careful not to be the public face of the actions I have been involved in. I have been asked by several groups to give interviews about what they are doing, but always passed the buck back to them, with a copy of the Activists’ Guide.
Where on earth did you get the idea that I claimed the site at Wandsworth “was infested with leering males prowling the temporarily reclaimed land with rape on their mind” while “the women … cowered in their benders in fear.”? I’ve looked up the article I wrote, and it said no such thing.
I should say that I haven’t given up on the direct action movement in Britain, and I’ve remained connected with several campaigns. But movements which don’t specifically exclude violence specifically exclude people who object to violence. Years ago, I joined something called the Non-Violent Direct Action movement. It’s not me that’s changed, but NVDA has been replaced, in some areas, by Anything Goes DA, and to me that is just another manifestation of the problem I thought I thought I was protesting against. I intend to continue campaigning against AGDA, just as I campaign against the other threats I perceive to the environment and social justice. I will continue campaigning for NVDA.
With my best wishes, George.
Apologies for our delayed reply. Our workload has been heavy.
In response to your last letter to SQUALL, we continue to express surprise at the emphasis you give to your career. In your letter you suggest this preoccupying focus is due to concerns over space constraints but nevertheless proceed to write 1,600 words.
We have stated the facts surrounding the events at Mayday and consider that,after several exchanges, the main points have not been answered.
Your refutation of our comparison between the Wisley land occupation in 1996, and the guerilla gardening action this year, confounds the two events. Both actions proceeded onto a piece of commonly accessed land with trowels, compost and plants. Both actions had a closely allied political agenda amply expressed with leaflets and literature. The Wisley action was concerned with the exclusivity of land ownership and access, whilst the RTS action was concerned with the reclamation of public space from corporate and commercial encroachment.
It is patently not true, as you suggest in your letter, that the profuse literature distributed by RTS prior to Mayday consistently failed to state the intention of the action? Over 10,000 leaflets were handed out on the day emphasising the “creative”, “positive” and “peaceful” action that the event was both intended to be, and indeed proved to be.
You further argue that the Wisley action had clearly established codes of behaviour whereas the RTS action did not. Several members of SQUALL’s editorial collective, present at the Wisley action all those years ago,remember no such “clearly established” codes of behaviour. In fact it was the subject of some mirth that you personally found some of the more eccentric members of the action both puzzling and freakish. However the consensual nature of both events proved peaceful. It is important to note the emphasis SQUALL places on consensuality rather than dictat. Because we would further argue that any established codes of behaviour should have included a consensuality of how we represented ourselves to the media at Wisley.
We feel that you display a condescending and misplaced sense of patronage when you say you “trained up” activists to speak to the media during the Wisley action; asserting that, despite your tutorage, activists proved unable perform the task due to shyness and underconfidence. We know of several articulate people attending that action who have proven themselves well capable of articulate media comment on many occasions; activists who were quite simply bypassed by the media preoccupation with your aristocratic background and Oxbridge credentials.
It is disingenuous of you to suggest that you did all you could not to be the central focus of attention during that action, for you continued to field all the attention you received. We acknowledge that the media came looking for you and understand that you didn’t turn them away but neither did you redistribute the attention. For you to suggest you did all you could to avert the personocentric coverage of the event is plainly untrue.
One of our editors returned to London after two days at the Wisley action, sick of the media’s banal preoccupations and determined to get something else in the papers about land issues which didn’t centralise around the quaint and subject-ducking “Oxford don and his rag bag army”.
The editor in question recalls many phone calls from the SQUALL office over the ensuing few days before he eventually secured an article in the Independent on Sunday about feudal land ownership in Scotland. He returned to the Wisley action to help clear up. We articulate his particular case because it is most familiar to us but our main point is that there were several competent spokespeople present throughout the Wisley action whose skills in this department remained unemployed.
We reiterate that it is not SQUALL’s position to criticise unnecessarily. We consider you an able wordsmith devoted to the subjects you cover. However, we take issue with your assertion that your position as a social commentator is based purely on your range of coverage and ability. It surely can’t have escaped your notice that you are surrounded by a staggering preponderance of Oxbridge journalists and editors; a
representation no less concentrated at the Guardian than at any other
national newspaper, radio or television department. Ask your environmental colleague at the Guardian, John Vidal, or perhaps your editor Alan Rusbridger or perhaps Jeremy Paxman or Ian Hislop. The list, as you must surely acknowledge, is both incredible and socially disproportionate. Any neutral observer could justifiably assert that the UK is lopsidedly represented by this media monoculture. It was true at Wisley and remains true today, the Oxbridge connection is a system of mutual appointment and self-reference more prevalent than any other self-serving network in the UK.
You argue, in concordance with other members of the Oxbridge constituency (including the British prime minister as matter of fact), that we live in a meritocracy. Exploring this line you suggest you are a Guardian columnist simply because you are the better man for the job than either Mark Steele or John Pilger. It is no small surprise that it is the Oxbridge constituency who most fervently assert we all have equal access to the fountain of meritorious opportunity; a fallacious version of the truth, as any honest man with intentions beyond self-service, would acknowledge. You suggest that RTS could have scripted a reply and had it published in the Guardian but that they failed to agree upon one. You have been misled. There were experienced RTS activists keen to write an article in response but were turned down by the Guardian. Even the letters sent to the The Guardian about the article failed to appear on the letters page. Access is far from meritorious.
You mention that you weren’t commissioned to write the ‘Streets of Shame’article but that you asked to write it. Whether you will allow yourself to agree or not, it is clear to us that your ability to reach a potential 320,000 Guardian readers with your personal beliefs – and get paid for it – is a highly exclusive privilege and one, which in the case of the particular article in question, was grossly exercised and lamentably inaccurate.
You further defend your vitriolic attack on RTS, thus: “I feel it does movements no favours to withhold from criticism when it’s due, and public actions should surely be publicly examined.” This is true in theory but in praxis? Where was the public examination of the Sunday Times’ bizarre assertion that RTS were stockpiling weapons? Old Fleet Street hack, Roy Greenslade, attempted a perfunctory and superficial examination in the pages of the Media Guardian and concluded his article by admonishing his colleagues at the Times.
And where, for that matter, was the public examination of your critical onslaught against RTS. The door to the public debate is very definitely ‘guest-list’ only, which of course is one of the fundamental reasons why direct activists resort to the methods they do in order to register social urgencies. Whether good wordsmiths or not – and we consider you to be the former – Oxbridge commentators would do well to think twice and ask thrice before wildly erroneous opinions slip so complacently from their word processors. Most don’t care of course. They are paid to be opinionated, whether or not they bother to venture from their ivory towers to determine the accuracy of their sweeping expositions.
We ask again: if you were interested in fruitful results from your
criticism, why did you publish your damning opinions in the Guardian rather than circulate your disquiet on the Allsorts e-mail list which, as you well know, is widely read by activists? Were you more interested in distancing yourself from the Mayday actions for the purposes of your career?
You mention in your reply that you don’t like the way RTS explained
themselves to the media after the event. Did you read the full press release or did you just see the highly selective edit on the TV news? We attach the full press release with this letter for your reference.
To quote: “Guerrilla Gardening is not a protest; by its very nature it is a creative peaceful celebration of the growing global anti-capitalist movement.” Hardly the rally cry to violent destruction which you ascribe to RTS in your article.
You further argue that RTS must take responsibility for other actions on the day: “Surely we have a responsibility for the whole of the action we initiate not just those bits which went according to plan.”
Could we equally argue that you, George, must take responsibility for the whole of the mainstream media not just the bits you write. In which case we will harangue you with justified criticism and demand that you accept responsibility for the complacent commentators who occupy such a profusion of column inches. This of course is a patently ridiculous apportioning of responsibility but then so to is your assertion that RTS should accept responsibility for actions which took place away from the one they inspired in Parliament Square.
In your article you conspicuously failed to point out that Mayday has
traditionally been a day of action for many social causes and so, inevitably there were a multitude of other groups and marches which coalesced at Trafalgar Square. Why should RTS take responsibility for these? Why did you not differentiate between the entirely peaceful RTS-inspired action in Parliament Square and the multi-march conglomerate which gathered in Trafalgar Square? What gave you the impression that it was fair to finger the one organisation whose event on the day was both singularly successful and peaceful throughout? In so doing, you became one of a myriad of malevolent media detractors proving ever keener to attack an organisation which has consensually attracted a significant amount of public support and therefore become a target of establishment animosity. Of the many poisoned arrows raining from the ramparts of the Ivory Tower, some were yours on this occasion.
Staying in touch is not a terminal to be arrived at, it is a constant
ongoing responsibility. And to exercise that responsibility fairly, it is important to acknowledge one’s privileges and not be so hasty to cast scorn on the methods of others who have no less reasoned passion than you, but have less opportunity to express it so easily on a national basis.
Remember that RTS , in common with other direct activists, do what they do for reasons other than money and for reasons other than positions on the career ladder. Very often their adherence to their principled beliefs will prove harmful to their own personal health. However, their active application of social and environmental principle is something to be understood through the portal of respect; an angle singularly lacking in both the mainstream media’s coverage of RTS and in your complicit diatribe. But at the bottom line both your reporting and your apportioning of blame in the ‘Streets of Shame’ article was just plain inaccurate.
In your writing you sometimes refer to the direct action movement as “we”.The use of this word is a statement of collective responsibility and should not be so idly deployed and misrepresented.
The SQUALL Eds
Perhaps I should begin by clearing up a misunderstanding. I read your article in the printed version of your magazine, and wrote my first letter in the hope that it would be included in the next printed edition. When I saw my letter and your reply to it on your website, I took the opportunity to write a longer response to your second contribution, for publication on the web.
Prior to the Wisley action, we had a number a large meetings in London to discuss it. Perhaps if the
“members of SQUALL’s editorial collective” would like to identify themselves, I could prompt your memory as to whether or not you were there. During those meetings it was explicitly stated by many people present that the action we were planning was to be non-violent. This seemed, as much as any consensus can be trusted, to be a consensus view. This was not a “dictat”, but a widely accepted common position, not driven by me or any other single participant.
You may also remember that we had daily meetings at Wisley, where the gathering as a whole decided what we should do that day and how it should be done. Again, this was not dictat but a common position which seemed to be shared by the great majority of people there. There were a couple of things I found, well not exactly “puzzling and freakish”, but certainly alarming. One of these was the attempt by one man, who had dropped some ketamine, to attack me and a couple of others with a club. Another was the looting of a journalist’s car on the air strip. I think you would be hard put to argue that these actions were consistent with the wishes of the other protesters, as represented at our meetings. It’s surely the duty of anyone who takes consensus seriously to help enforce a position once it has been agreed.
This rather old-fashioned view may cause you some mirth, but I would contend that it’s a lot more democratic than allowing consensus to be trampled upon by anyone who disrespects it. Enforcing consensus is the precise opposite to governing by dictat: it keeps the door open for everyone. The trampling of consensus creates the political space in which the physically or psychologically powerful can dominate everyone else.
Another consensus position, agreed and reinforced at the pre-meetings, was that I should organise the media work and train people to speak to the press. This was never challenged. If you who have no name objected to this arrangement, why did you not say so? If, as you say, there were competent spokespeople at Wisley, why didn’t they speak to the journalists who were crawling all over the site? Why didn’t they tell me they were there and they wanted to speak to the press, so that I could re-direct journalists to them? I’d have been only too glad to have spread the load.
I agree wholeheartedly that journalism is dominated by people with an Oxbridge background or similar. And I agree wholeheartedly that this is grossly unfair. But when I was first asked to write for the Guardian, by John Vidal in 1991, he had no means of knowing what my background was. He had read my book about landrights in the Amazon, and it was on that basis that he commissioned me to write an article for him. He liked the article, and commissioned me to write more. But I did not meet him or anyone else at the Guardian until I had already written quite a bit for the paper. In fact, to this day I have only visited the Guardian offices on seven occasions, and I know hardly anyone there, so the idea that I am employed there as a result of hobnobbing among the old boy network doesn’t really carry weight.
You write that: “You argue, in concordance with other members of the Oxbridge constituency
(including the British prime minister as matter of fact), that we live in a meritocracy.” Sorry, but where and when do I argue this? Wouldn’t it be better to address what I am saying, rather than what you imagine me to be saying? I wrote: “People don’t get Guardian columns (except for the Glenda Slagg type) because of their profile, but because of what they can deliver.” Is this untrue? Conversely, does it mean that I believe “we live in a meritocracy”? What I can deliver is, of course, at least in part a function of the unfair advantages I have enjoyed. It doesn’t mean I’m inherently better than anyone else – far from it. These unfair advantages have allowed me to gain the skills and the confidence necessary to produce what the Guardian wants. I spend most of my working life using those unfair advantages to fight the system which gave rise to them.
You write “There were experienced RTS activists keen to write an article in response but were
turned down by the Guardian.” Could you give me chapter and verse on this? Because what I hear from you and what I have been told by the Guardian can’t both be correct.
You ask “Where was the public examination of the Sunday Times’ bizarre assertion that RTS were stockpiling weapons?” I refer you to my own column of 19th August 1999, attacking the Sunday Times for its unfounded allegations. You continue: “And where, for that matter, was the public examination of your critical onslaught against RTS?” I refer you to the article by Graeme Chesters, on the same pages, 7th June 2000, which was precisely this. You appear too to have missed Francis Wheen’s article of May 3rd 2000, also in the Wednesday section, a week before mine, which backs RTS against its critics.
In fact, if you look at the totality of the Guardian’s coverage of May Day, before and after, you’ll see that more of it is sympathetic to RTS than unsympathetic. Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to do a little research before writing about these things?
My guess is that Francis Wheen also has an Oxbridge background. He too is “paid to be opinionated”. So should he have confined his opinions to the Allsorts list? Or is he allowed to comment on the Mayday action in public, as long as you agree with what he says? Are you really suggesting that there are topics I shouldn’t cover and positions I shouldn’t take?
Of course I read the full press release, and if you, having read it too, think it helps rather than hinders RTS’s attempts to explain itself to the world, we obviously have very different ideas of what constitutes effectiveness.
You write: “there were a multitude of other groups and marches which coalesced at Trafalgar Square. Why should RTS take responsibility for these? Why did you not differentiate between the entirely peaceful RTS-inspired action in Parliament Square and the multi-march conglomerate which gathered in Trafalgar Square?”
Are you being serious here? Surely you know that there was no “multi-march conglomerate” in Trafalgar Square, for the simple reason that the police sealed it off? And the damage we are discussing, as you must also know, occurred not in Trafalgar Square but in Whitehall. I followed the procession out of Parliament Square and up Whitehall. It was not people from other marches who decorated the Cenotaph and Horseguards and smashed the shops in Whitehall. It was the people who had just marched out of Parliament Square. I was there. I was with them.
True radicalism entails subjecting our own most precious beliefs to the same fierce scrutiny with which we address other people’s. If we flunk this, we succumb to the very problems we campaign against. Shouldn’t we apply to ourselves the standards we demand of other people?
I don’t know how much more of your time and energy you want to devote to this argument, but this is the last I will write on the subject, as I’m sure we all have better things to do. Let’s bury the hatchet and get on with the endless task in which we’re all engaged: of confronting the system of power and privilege which causes social injustice, abuses of human rights and environmental destruction. I’m sorry you haven’t told me who you are, but if my guess is right you are people for whom I have respect. I know we have different approaches to this task, and I know that from time to time we will disagree, sometimes profoundly, and find ourselves divided. But that shouldn’t prevent us from recognising that we are, most of the time, on the same side.
With my best wishes, George