No prizes for guessing what story dominates almost all the papers the tonight, with the violence at the student demonstration being the top story. In this case I thought it might be interesting to look at just the opening line of the stories to analyse how language can be used subtly to portray different meanings.
The Guardian – “Violent street protests confronted the coalition for the first time yesterday as a student demonstration against increased tuition fees and spending cuts exploded into angry clashes.” This first sentence implicitly places some of the blames with the coalition government. By using the words “confronted the coalition” it implies a meeting of two sides- rather than just violence by a violent actor. To illustrate my point compare this opener with…
…The Times – “Tens of thousands of students took to the streets of London yesterday in a demonstration that spiralled out of control when a fringe group of protesters hurled missiles at police and occupied the building housing Conservative party headquarters.” There is no mention in this opening line of why the protest was held, and this strips it of all potential legitimacy. It is merely a “fringe group of protestors” hurling missiles at the police. Basically it derationalises the act, making it seem almost animalistic.
The Independent – “Student demonstrators brought violence to London’s streets yesterday on a scale not seen since the poll tax riots of 20 years ago.” The use of the word poll tax gives the protest a sense of legitimacy as the tax is almost universally regarded as one of the worst pieces of legislation in British history. By evoking the spirit of the poll tax the article is suggesting that the violence is in some way justified.
The Telegraph – “Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has ordered an urgent inquiry into why his ofﬁcers failed to prevent hundreds of student protesters storming the building that houses the Conservative Party’s headquarters.” The Telegraph has chosen to take a different line on the story, probably because it couldn’t decide whether or not it backed the protest. Sure it didn’t back the violence, but most Telegraph readers would benefit from lower student fees for their children, so they cannot criticise the protest per se. They have gone with the police investigation, and it does appear that the police were woefully unprepared. Those of us on the ground heard rumours of direct action protests so they should have known too.
The Daily Mail employs what is called a drop intro – where the first line sets it up for the first. “It was supposed to be a day of peaceful protest, with students exercising their democratic right to demonstrate against soaring university fees. But anarchists hijacked the event, setting off the most violent scenes of student unrest seen in Britain for decades.” The Mail’s line is less vitriolic than you might expect, choosing to focus on the minority as “anarchists” but suggesting in the first line that the protest itself was fairly legitimate. This, like the Telegraph, is almost certainly to do with the high number of middle-class families in their readership who intend to put their kids through university. The line, then, is that a legitimate protest about fees was hijacked by savage anarchists intent on bringing down the state.
If you only read one: Depends on your take on the march/cuts really…