Early this morning, the New York Police Department evicted Occupy Wall Street from its base at Zuccotti Park. This isn’t the surprising news – the weekend saw a number of arrests at Occupy camps across the US – but the significant issue this morning was the treatment of the press. Accredited reporters were stopped from getting near the park; those who managed to sneak in were threatened with arrest. News helicopters were told to clear air space. A media blackout, in short.
This is something to worry about. Regardless of what you think of the Occupy camps that have sprung up around the world, you can’t deny that they’re overwhelmingly non-violent. And yet the police response to them has involved tear gas, projectiles and, apparently, Long Range Acoustic Devices. Heck, according to tweets from the park, a counter terrorist unit was on sight. This seems overkill, especially in New York which, ten years ago, suffered at the hands of real terrorists.
And yet the media blackout is possibly the scariest aspect of all this – it implies that the police and politicians know that things are going to go bad, even an element of premeditation. Not only does the US Constitution guarantee freedom of expression and assembly, but also freedom of the press. When this is ignored, it’s immediately a significant cause for concern. What’s the motivation? If the media isn’t there, bad things don’t really happen? You can’t prove that bad things have happened?
The truth isn’t Schrodinger’s Cat, dependent on an observer to fix an event in spacetime. What happened in Zuccotti Park has happened, and the truth will out. I’ll be interested in hearing the excuses that come from the defenders of the Constitution; a part of me wishes the UK had a written, codified Constitution, but if it can be so easily ignored, well, what would be the point?
Of course, this raises issues for the mainstream media. They haven’t exactly been present at Occupy events in significant numbers before, and maybe this is taken as tacit complicity in a media blackout. Coming at it from a different angle, the phone hacking scandal that’s still causing tremors for News International and the UK media in general has shown that reporters, newspapers and wider media structures can be irredeemably corrupt. Are people going to respect freedom of the press when its excesses can be so damaging to public trust and decency? Of course the majority of journalists aren’t involved with this but mud sticks, and that causes serious problems when a genuinely newsworthy event kicks off.
And yet, does the concept of a media blackout have much in the way of validity anymore? After all, we’re in the age of the internet, and anyone with a smart phone can theoretically be a citizen journalist. Police excesses may not make it on to Fox News or the BBC, but they can make it on to Youtube and Facebook and any other social media platform you can name. The problem at the moment is reach – the mainstream media is called the mainstream media because it’s mainstream; meanwhile, the internet is geared towards self-selecting niche audiences – it’s actually pretty easier to avoid things you don’t want to see, and that’s the trick – getting a message out there to people who’d rather ignore it, but who need to hear it. But, and make no mistake, the message will get out there somehow. It may have to work its way through a lack of accountability and cries of ‘fake!’, but it will get out there. And the best way to avoid that? Don’t do anything dodgy in the first place. There is an argument for secrecy, but that’s about protecting people, not harming them.
It’s hard to know where Occupy Wall Street’s general assembly and the wider movement movement will go from here. But if nothing else, it’s raising questions – about inequality, about corporate corruption, about the complicity of police and politics in this and now the state of the media. If that’s all it achieves, then it will have been worth it – asking questions is vital to a free society, and stopping people from doing that will only prompt them to ask more.
Ironically, tomorrow is American Censorship Day.
PS. One probably unintended consequence of all this, but one that is supremely telling in context, is the destruction of Occupy Wall Street’s library…