Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mandelson's Custardy Battle

I've not yet blogged on the attack on Peter Mandelson by a rent-a-cause "protester" yesterday, but as it's been exercising me for 24 hours now, I wanted to add some thoughts of my own.

Whenever incidents like this occur, media outlets fall over themselves to show the incident over and over again, often in slow motion. The reason is simple- it's great telly and funny to watch(admit it, you've clicked on it a couple of times already yourself). But the po-faced justification cited is usually the public interest in the 'security breach' or 'appalling lapse in security' as someone usually describes it. Sure enough, this is what happened in yesterday's case.

Most politicians become immensely frustrated at this, complaining that by putting the footage at the top of the news, news organisations have given the protester what they wanted in highlighting their cause. In fact, the 'cause' is usually obscured by the fact of the incident. A couple of years after they happen, people have difficulty remembering who threw the egg at John Prescott or the orange paint at Brian Mawhinney, who climbed on the roof of the House of Commons or Buckingham Palace. Was it Fathers for Justice? Greenpeace? The aptly named Plane Stupid? None of the above?

The truth is that there is a class of serial demonstrators who simply enjoy the ego-trip of getting on the news channels and the front pages by perpetrating a stunt. They are usually militant left-wingers who turn out to have come from privileged backgrounds, and to have managed to progress from private school to trendy university, to student politics to "activism" without ever growing up. Anyone who like me has served as a student union officer knows the type.

Their stunts do not change public opinion - they aren't meant to. They are simply about gaining credibility in the closed world of whichever cause the perpetrator is a self-appointed 'leader'. Any political strategist would tell them that they alienate far more undecided people than they convert, and they make it impossible for politicians to engage with them. They set their cause back, rather than advancing it (incidentally, I include in this causes that I support. Gay rights have a long way to go, but people like Peter Tatchell pushing the Archbishop of Canterbury aside in the pulpit in 1998 was indefensible, and very damaging).

Don't get me wrong, there is a place for direct action and protest. It is a basic democratic right to assemble, go on marches, wave banners, and generally make a noise when you feel you aren't being heard. I've had to squeeze through a crowd of chanting Trade Unionists outside the Town Hall several times in the past. But that isn't a licence to break the law by assaulting people, or invading property. Yesterday's protester could have walked up to Lord Mandelson and engaged him in argument over airport expansion in front of the cameras. If you doubt the effectiveness of that method, think back to Tony Blair's confrontation with Sharron Storer over NHS conditions in the General Election of 2001. It took place on the same day John Prescott was hit by an egg and brawled with his assailant- a bigger news story, and better TV pictures. But which was the more effective protest? Well, I didn't have to look up Sharron Storer's name, or her grievance, and neither would most politicians. It hit home. Who remembers what the egg-thrower's problem was?

The 'security breach' has now become a genre of protest in itself amongst fringe groups. The problem is that each one is, er, a security breach. The focus on this angle by the media may just be a convenient peg to hang the story, but it is a serious issue. How long will it be before terrorists mount an attack disguised as 'protesters' for some cause or another? It doesn't bear thinking about, but is the nightmare many in public life have to live with, and each new stunt makes the dilemma worse.

It's never popular to advocate increased security for politicians - too many people assume it is simply egosim. I'm sure there would have been an outcry had yesterday's protester been shoved aside or rugby-tackled by Special Branch as she approached Mandelson. He himself would probably have thought it an over-reaction. But that's what should have happened.

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