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First Came the Riots, Then the Looting. How our Media Coverage is Distorting the Motives of Protesters

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It astonished me yesterday how so little time was dedicated to determining what sparked round two of rioting in London, riots that spread to Birmingham and Bristol. A basic outline of the narrative I was afforded by a number of people was that police tried to stop and search a youth outside a McDonalds; he said no; police persisted; people intervened and said leave him alone, a police van turned up and it escalated from there. This version of events indicates that a deliberate affront to the police - or, more broadly, authority - ensued from this confrontation.

The line on both the BBC and Sky News - aside from a brief blast from Ken Livingston, who tried his best to afford a context to the riots - was plain and simple: this was mindless, self-interested opportunism, and had nothing to do with politics.

But contrast the coverage of the riots over here with MSNBC's take on the events of last night:

Here's a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?

"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"

The TV reporter from Britain's ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. "Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."

This morning, Sky News finally brought an expert in. Dr Clifford Stott, a professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool, was briefly interviewed. He stated that the "copycat" and "mindless violence" explanations were useless:

"We have to understand the problem, it's driven by particular meanings that those rioters have in their heads. We have to understand where those meanings come from, and that takes us to social context and social conditions."

"Perhaps their actions have something to do with consumer goods they can't afford?" asked Dermot Murnaghan of Sky.

Dr Stott responded, saying that he gets called an apologist for trying to say why the violence is happening. He concluded: "They are using the riots to attack the society they are so alienated from."

Those calling for rioters to be "shot on sight" - including Tory MEP Roger Helmer - ought to remember two things. Violence never cures violence, and that society must always take some of the blame.

On a side note, if the government's response is to increase the power of the Metropolitan Police, what a time to be doing it whilst they're in the dock for being complicit in hacking phones. Surely a government led by David Cameron - who castigated New Labour for their attitude towards civil liberties - isn't going to respond with authoritarian measures?

He'd do a lot better to look at why this violence is happening in the first place.