Defining the 'Sick Society': Discourses of Class and Morality in British Rightwing Newspapers during the 2011 England Riots

Capital & Class, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Defining the 'Sick Society': Discourses of Class and Morality in British Rightwing Newspapers during the 2011 England Riots


Introduction

On 4 August 2011, Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man, was shot dead by police in Tottenham, North London. On 6 August, a peaceful protest took place in Tottenham, against the shooting. When police attempted to disperse the protestors, violent clashes occurred as large groups responded by setting fire to public property and police property. From 7 August onwards, these acts of violence and civil disobedience spread across London and other cities in England, with riots and looting taking place in 66 locations. Whilst these were not all necessarily instances of protest violence following the events in Tottenham, they were clearly reactions mobilised by the riots that had started a day earlier. They lasted until 10 August, and five people died in the riots, which are estimated to have involved up to 15,000 people, and to have cost the country up to half a billion pounds (Bridges 2012: 2).

This article explores press responses during the riots, and coverage of those arrested once the accused appeared in court. The latter then leads to coverage of proposed legislative measures for punishing perpetrators. As I show, contentions between constructions of social class, morality, who the 'mob' consisted of (demographically), and what politicians mean when they refer to a 'sick society', mobilised a battlefield of ideological constructions. As previous work has demonstrated, critical discourse analysis (CDA) can explore ideological complexities, paradoxical persuasions and discursive complications whilst remaining critical in its approach (Kelsey 2015). In considering such discursive nuances, I address the following questions: How did right-wing newspapers suppress critical discourses of deprivation and austerity during the riots? How were the depoliticised actions of rioters redefined as a political problem (a sick society), in order to justify legislative responses from the government?

This article does not attempt to propose one fixed answer to explain why the riots happened, or who was to blame. Actually, as Cavalcanti et al. (2012: 35) argue, fundamental problems faced in attempts to understand why these riots happened lie in reductionist discourses that constructed them as a product of one particular social, economic or political issue from either end of the political spectrum. So this paper recognises that whilst there was not one fixed explanation for the riots, these different responses discursively constructed the riots in political contexts. Even in instances in which rioters supposedly lacked a political message or motivation, these events were still understood through mediatised and political contexts by journalists, politicians and the public. By addressing the research questions I have posed, it is possible to assess how various media and political sources constructed social and political actors during the riots, and how particular political messages were both suppressed and mobilised through media discourses. Various authors have commented on responses to the riots, some of which should be considered before my own analysis.

Riots under review

Initial responses to the riots sought to explain why they were happening. Whilst issues of race were represented as partly relevant to begin with, once widespread looting and rioting had spread across the country, it had clearly taken on a less identifiable or common cause for violence than that of the initial evening following the protest against the police. Bridges has examined some of the responses from politicians following the initial unrest in Tottenham:

[David] Lammy was one of the first politicians, standing before cameras on Tottenham High Road the following day, to describe the rioters as 'mindless, mindless people', to which he has subsequently added the epitaphs of nihilistic and hedonistic. In this, Lammy gave the lead to other political leaders in their characterisation of the riots as 'criminality, pure and simple' (Prime Minister David Cameron), 'needless and opportunist theft and violence' (Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) and the product of 'a feral underclass' (Justice Secretary Kenneth Clark). …

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