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The Reality of the Media & the London Riots in 2011

The British summer of 2011 was indeed a “hot” period for the United Kingdom (UK). Nothing similar to the events that followed the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by the London Metropolitan Police Officers had occurred before and thus, a very dark chapter was contributed, to the contemporary British history. The shooting, which occurred on the 4thof August, caused “all hell to break loose” and the next six days were of colossal catastrophes for all areas of London (Garry Blight, 2011). Niklas Luhmann’s theoretical framework will be used to critically analyse the media coverage of the London riots of 2011 as well as the media itself. In his book The Reality of Mass Media, Niklas Luhmann argues that media, as a sub-system, constructs a “social reality” which is vital for the operation of contemporary societies (2000). The reality constructed by the media is artificial, as the product does not incorporate the totality of reasons that caused the London riots. During the London riots, the sole liability for the anarchic behaviour of British youth was assigned to the media, the administration of David Cameron and the policing of Britain. While the aforementioned stakeholders certainly have responsibility, by closely examining the “artificial” reality of the media, the innate reasons for the riots emerge. The loss of community ties that the British youth were experiencing in conjunction with the context of the international fiscal crisis, comprise a “more accurate” reality which better indicates the causes of the London riots.

The Power of Social Media

To critically analyse the media coverage that the British protests of 2011 received, the radically different theoretical framework of German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann will be employed. Luhmann argued that the contemporary society is established on functionally differentiated systems (Kenneth, 2006). A plethora of social sub-systems, each with its own functions and operations, comprise a larger social system. The “politics” sub-system’s role is to impose and decide on power; the “law” sub-system’s role is to maintain the peaceful functioning of the entire social system; the “science” sub-system’s function is to decide on the legitimating of knowledge; and so on (Verschraegen, 2002). Each system has an organic part in this social structure, as without one sub-system the entire structure fails. For Luhmann, media has a fundamental role, as without them the social system would be unable to operate to its full capacity, which would inevitably consequent its fail (2000). Contrary to the media’s self-image, Luhmann saw their role in the social system to be neither communication nor the transferring of information (Stehr, 2011). The Luhmannean theory holds that the media’s role in society is the production of reality (Luhmann, 2000). He perceived every system to be able to communicate and transmit information, without the assistance of the media. However, he held that each system had its own “language” of communication and thus, for information to be transmitted, messages needed to be “translated” from one “system language” to another. By nature, this results in the communication only of messages that can be comprehended across “languages”, which inexorably causes the loss of information. The role of the media, according to Luhmann is to gather all communicated messages and construct a sense of reality for the social system. What is problematic about the media’s function is that, similarly to the other systems, it has its own language. This brings the media sub-system’s function in juxtaposition with its nature. The social information is no longer “gathered”; it is rather “selected”, with sole criterion the ability of the media system to understand it. This establishes the nature of the reality as artificial. The reason for that is due to every system’s inability to fully grasp the messages transmitted. Nevertheless, as Gotthard Bechmann and Nico Stehr point out, ‘although this reality is a manufactured reality that arises selectively, […] it is the socially relevant one […] if we understand how it is produced, constructed and consumed’ (Stehr, 2011).Through analysis and extensive examination, this “artificial” reality can provided a complete and authenticated reality, which is innate in nature. The “innate” reality is far more complex than the “artificial” reality, which was initially constructed by the media sub-system. It is this “innate” reality that Luhmann finds to be fundamental for the sound operation of the social system.

During the London riots, the ability of the media sub-system to construct a social reality, which is framed within selectively chosen information, was demonstrated to its full capacity. The Guardian compiled a unique database, indicating the direct influence that the media had on the riots (John Burn-Murdoch, 2011). The majority of the riots were organised and co-ordinated through the use of mass media, including Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). An extraordinarily high amount of journalistic articles, blogs and letters to the editor were able to place the blame on the mass media (Keane, 2011). David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, during his speech in the British parliament, highlighted the “ill” purposes that the media had been used for (2011). A specific paradox emerges though this context. The media sub-system, with its vast internal operations, faces an operational crisis. Operations of the sub-system accuse other mechanisms of the same nature and function. This results in media blaming media. This paradox allows Luhmann to argue that ‘we know so much about the mass media that we are not able to trust these sources’ (2000, p. 1). When media holds responsible its own mechanisms, an “artificial” reality is established; a reality which institutes that the British protests were ‘fuelled by social media’ (Halliday, 2011). This systemically constructed reality is a rather narrow one, due to the process that communicated information was selected to comprise, in its unification, a state of affairs. This media product is oblivious to the communications that were not selected. This is not to indicate that the sub-system of the media does not have a responsibility in the way it portrays the riots. However, it is to suggest that the innate reality of the London riots is far more complex; it reaches a level of complexity that that media system cannot interpret.

In a Luhmannean argument, the “artificial” reality produced by the media is not irrelevant. On the contrary, Luhmann would argue that it is a vital reality that needs to be studied and analysed in order to find the “innate” social reality. In his aforementioned address to the parliament, David Cameron, whilst recognising the “ill” purposes that the media sub-system can be used for, he additionally identified “good” uses of the media. He elaborated that the British government would work closely with Facebook, Twitter and BBM executives to explore ways that “dangerous messages” online can be censored (Stevenson, 2011). The political implications of such actions and civil liberties infringements are not the topic of discussion here. Nevertheless, the media sub-system has mechanisms which could assist to diffuse the violently charged environment of London. As Donald Schwartz reports ‘by spying on chatter over Blackberry and Twitter accounts, London police claim that they have prevented attacks by rioters on Oxford Street and the 2012 Olympic Site’ (Schwartz, 2011). The “artificial” reality previously produced by the media, constructed operations of the media sub-system responsible for the UK riots of 2011. Its de-construction provided a more sufficient understanding of the far more complex “innate” reality. While media have a social liability, they do not hold the sole responsibility of the events that occurred in Britain during the August of 2011. As Fiona Blacke writes, ‘social-networking might be a factor in escalation, but it is not a cause’ (Blacke, 2011). The function of the media sub-system is thus an indivisible part of contemporary society. Without the provision of an “artificial” reality by the media, social events and issues cannot be explored and the ultimate rational truth cannot be discovered. The rational truth is an inseparable part of the “innate” reality which unequivocally comprehends the social systems.

A City in Chaos

In the media system’s attempt to comprehend the London riots and to find those responsible for the anarchic behaviour in the British society, the media constructed a secondary “artificial” reality. Similarly, this reality did not grasp the complexity of the situation. Jonathan Foreman shifts the responsibility for the lack of social control to London’s Metropolitan Police (Foreman, 2011). The social perception established by the media highlight the incapability of the police to maintain control of the lawless situation. By degree of association, the governance of David Cameron fell under close scrutiny as well. The prime minister’s judgement became the centre of attention as his ability to co-ordinate police efforts, and consequently the entire nation, came into the media’s interest. Mehdi Hasan, directly attacks the prime minister and his government for their lack of “good judgement” and “political initiative” (Hasan, 2011). The effect of this media product was to constitute the British government and institutions “lesser”, in comparison to the seriousness and intensity of the riots. The admission of David Cameron, in the British parliament, solidified the product of the media system. He acknowledged that the numbers of police officers that were assigned to handle the public unrest was insufficient, and conceded that the tactics that were implemented were not appropriate to diffuse the anarchy (Cameron, 2011). The result of that was the construction of a reality which did not reveal the density and intricacy of the “innate” reality.

The study and close examination of the media’s “artificial” reality allowed Camilla Batmanghelidjh to witness an aspect of the “innate” reality in a way which was previously unknown to the social system. She defends the policing authorities of London and points the finger of blame to a wider social dysfunction (2011). Balbir Chatrik writes that young people are not in need of increased policing and monitoring, but rather support, guidance and inspiration (Chatrik, 2011).  The new narrative provided is challenging to the widely accepted and solid “artificial” reality. Batmanghelidjh recognises that her readers would think that, ‘here she goes, excusing the criminals with some sob story’ (2011). The initial “portrait” which was “hanged on the wall” by the media system, for the social system to see was widely recognised. Batmanghelidjh’s perspective shows that a critical and analytical approach is vital to see that the “portrait” is truly a “mosaic”; comprised by numerous distinctive pieces. She believes that responsibility does not lie with the government’s law and order policies. Batmanghelidjh argues that the underlying reason for the British social unrest is the loss of community ties, which demonises an increasing amount of young individuals (2011). The youth of London finds that their communities have not provided them with life-essentials and that excuses their distant perception towards the social system’s legitimate structures. Fiona Blacke writes that the 23% of young people, who feel depressed and hopeless about their future, feel that ‘they have no stake in society, and that society has nothing to offer them’ (Blacke, 2011). As a result, they establish their own anti-social communities, parallel to the London social construct, and rely on peer-rules, which constitute the individual responsible for their own survival (Batmanghelidjh, 2011). The dual community memberships with contradictory morals, rules, beliefs and values cause existential dilemmas and identity fracturing for the youth of London. This side of reality was not explored by the media system and thus the reality that was produced initially was not substantial. The initial, incomplete, “artificial” reality was able to blame the mechanisms of the media, the police and the government of David Cameron, without challenging or realising that the “social picture” produced was a construct of many pieces. In this media constructed “mosaic” every piece is in need of attention and exploration to fully appreciate the complexity of the “innate” social reality.

To further  analyse the main pieces of the “innate” reality that were discovered by studying the media’s “artificial” construct, the broader context of the London riots needs to be considered. The global fiscal crisis and “the end of Europe” challenged the balance of the international arena of politics (Foroohar, 2011). The British financial cuts to social welfare policies and youth services were met with fierce resistance and were indubitably linked to the riots, despite the contrary claims of the British minister for young people, Tim Loughton (Loughton, 2011). The financial struggles added to the exacerbated sense of injustice and unfairness that was already present in the British social system. As Nathan Thornburgh reported, 34% of London’s wealth is concentrated in 5% of the British population (Thornburgh, 2011). This places Britain higher than Italy, Greece and Spain with their extraordinarily worse and well known financial problems (Thornburgh, 2011). Thornburgh writes that in the past three years, the rates of unemployment amongst British youth, rose by 6% (Thornburgh, 2011). This environment of political instability, fiscal crisis and social unfairness is setting a systemic complexity which is unfeasible to be compehended efficiently by the media system. The media constructed a portrait of the social system with the communicated information that could be apprehended. Inevitably, the product of the media was incomplete; however, it was far from obsolete. As Luhmann argues, and as proved by the study of the London riots, the reality produced by the media, once studied and and examined, can provide to the social system an “innate” reality. The “innate” reality is far more  intricate and corroborated than the “artificial”, and provides a more validated “pair of lenses” to view and understand the social structure.

The theoretical framework provided by Niklas Luhmann allows an empirical approach to be implemented for the understanding of the role of the media in the contemporary social system. The London riots illustrated the dual reality that the Luhmannean theory saw to derive from the media sub-system’s functionality. The selectively, media-constructed, “artificial” reality held that the social networks, British policing and political governance to be the reasons behind the riots of 2011. Nevertheless, the “innate” reality has a level of complexity that could neither be reached nor understood by the media. The critical analysis of the media’s product would reveal a reality, innate in nature, which shifts responsibility for the British protests to the loss of community ties that youth is experiencing in London as well as the broader context of the financial crisis, which has infested the international community. The “innate” reality is characterised by its vitality for the social system. Ergo, the role of the media sub-system is fundamental, given that without its “artificial” reality, the “innate” could never emerge.

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