Attack of the Baby Eaters

The press has been publishing a series of crazy scare stories about our intentions at the climate camp

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th August 2007

The allegations have been plaguing the Heathrow climate camp all week. “Hoax bombs to cause alerts. Assaults on airport fence. Protest leaders calling themselves “The Elders” advised “clashes with police will happen”.”

Seized on by the rest of the media, these claims have now been running – and growing – for five days. I was asked onto Newsnight to discuss the issue of whether climate change is a greater threat than terrorism, but we kept being dragged back to the hoax bombs. My opponent – a Labour MP – appeared to believe that they had already been planted, and condemned the protesters for their irresponsibility. By Friday the story had been embellished with some lurid new quotes from the Metropolitan Police. “Extremist yobs hijack airport demo in plot to cause mayhem. Gangs of anarchists plotting clashes
with police have infiltrated the Heathrow climate protest camp” shouted the Daily Express.

All this has left us at the protest camp scratching our heads. The actions planned for Sunday have been discussed openly at huge (and sometimes chaotic) meetings. But nothing even resembling the schemes proposed by the Evening Standard has even been mooted. The campers will be certainly be breaking the law by taking direct action – all protest can now be deemed
unlawful – but they will be governed by strict non-violent principles: neither threatening nor even appearing to threaten other people. There are quite a few of us old crocks here – veterans of protests of previous decades – but age, sadly, confers no priveleges: the camp is non-hierarchical, and no one has heard of “The Elders”. There are plenty of anarchists, but the
last thing they want is a ruck with the police, not least because – armed with nothing more than a sheaf of scientific papers – they would lose. As for scaling the perimeter fence, it has been ruled out on the grounds that we would probably be shot. Invading Heathrow’s massive runways would put the lives of thousands at risk.

So where did the story come from? It was, or so the byline claimed, written by Robert Mendick, the Evening Standard’s chief reporter. One of the campers phoned Mr Mendick and asked him what was going on. “I’m very constrained about what I can say for various reasons,” Mr Mendick replied. “Suffice to say I understand what you’re saying and I can’t go into it. Er, and I would further say it’s, er, not something I was actually massively involved with and, er, I’ll leave it at that.” “What do you mean?” “I really can’t go into it.”

So what does he mean? Why is Mr Mendick unable to say where the claims in his story came from? How did he manage to write an article that he was not “massively involved with”? Is there a computer programme at the Evening Standard which composes reporters’ articles on their behalf? I left messages for Mr Mendick yesterday but was unable to speak to him.

Protests like this have two peculiar vulnerabilities. One is that anyone can claim to speak on their behalf, either in person or online, whether or not they are involved. The other is that anyone can say anything about them without fear of being corrected, let alone sued: accusations can be levelled at the collective which could not be directed at any of its members. As long as the claims remain in the plural, they can be stretched as far as public credulity will allow. During one roads protest in the 1990s we were accused of stabbing guards with hypodermic needles filled with blood, setting pit traps lined with metal spikes in the hope of catching and killing the police and arming ourselves with catapaults and crossbows to take out the
contractors: all nonsense, of course. Yet when some of us were hospitalised by guards (alongside several others, I had a bone broken during an unprovoked attack), most of the newspapers wouldn’t touch the story for fear of being sued by the security firm.

Scare stories about anarchist baby eaters are as old as protest. We can’t prevent their publication – all we can ask is that you read them with the scepticism their authors failed to employ.