In August 201 l, the most widespread rioting since 1981 took place in Britain. In parallel with the earlier riots, the 2011 unrest occurred during a period of economic recession and widespread protest against unpopular government policies. Our intention here is to describe the way the 2011 riots were construed by the media and other commentators in comparison with those of thirty years previously, and to examine how they have been related to the other instances of protest and dissent that have occurred since 2010. These two points of comparison--with a previous major outbreak of civil unrest, and with other contemporaneous disruptions--allow us to clarify some of the essential features of the August 2011 disturbances.
1981 and 2011
A comparison of media reportage and viewer and reader commentary between the 2011 and 1981 riots reveals striking changes in attitudes toward youth, race, poverty, the police, and the nature of deprived urban areas. The most important of these centre on notions of criminality, the role of community leaders, and the relationship between youth and race.
The riots in 1981 were presented in the press as the inevitable product of structural change. In marked contrast with the 2011 riots, pleas for understanding were expressed consistently in the press, with letter writers, editors and journalists alike animated by an investigatory impulse. Thus the Times argued,
Of course unemployment is not the 'primary' cause of Brixton, as Mrs Thatcher maintained. But common sense suggests that it is a powerful ingredient. A revival of the economy that gives hope of a working future to many more young blacks must be seen as more urgent than a fond-hope product of market forces ... All other contributory causes at Brixton need careful examination. Was there too little or too much policing? What depth of understanding for local 'street culture' can the police be expected to have? How do we make the transition to getting black police respected, as in Washington DC? To what extent were 'outsiders' involved? Letters pages to the Times and other newspapers were flooded with diagnoses of the conditions in Brixton, and after the riots in Toxteth, this intensified into a sustained dialogue on the nature of inner cities.
The 2011 rioters elicited no such understanding from journalists or other commentators. Instead, the sense that emerges from reportage is that the wildfire riots were contagious, striking essentially at random. In this, social media were seen as playing a key role. Headlines such as 'Tweeters fan the flames of hatred' (Daily Mail, 8 August), 'Rumblings online turned into violence' (Bristol Evening Post, 9 August), 'Stores looted as Twitter thugs seize city streets' and 'Riots spread as Twitter thugs fan flames' (both Daily Express, 9 August) played up the role of social media, implying that networks of disorganised and disaffected youth could be infected with the riot spirit.
In comparison with the 1981 coverage, there is a greater sense here of the riots being geographically specific manifestations of the same phenomena. Garnett (2007) has pointed out that disturbances and unrest in smaller towns and cities in 1981 were not treated as having the same underlying causes as the larger urban riots, and did not involve the same grievances. In 2011, however, the repeated invocations of Facebook and Twitter, and concomitant calls for greater regulation of social media, fed a narrative of the disturbances as being one rolling riot taking place across the nation. This sense of the riots as a mediated assemblage is reflected in the bracing sentences handed down for incitement to those foolish enough to make off-message statements on Facebook. Interestingly, this metaphor of contagion was reinforced by the Guardian itself, which took the lead on investigative coverage of the riots, relying heavily on mapping visualisation in its coverage. The corollary of this 'contagion' view is that further explanation is not required: the riots came to be construed in autopoietic terms as a collective expression of individual deviance.
Within days, then, a near-universal consensus emerged that the 2011 riots were a case of 'criminality pure and simple', as David Cameron put it. The Sunday Telegraph dismissed the Tottenham riots as opportunism rather than grievance:
On the television and YouTube pictures, it has to be said, most of the rioters and looters didn't look angry. The ones making their way out of the smashed-up shops in Wood Green High Road with boxes full of other people's property actually...