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First you scare them and then you play on their fears

Iain MacWhirter

City fathers are expecting a hot July with "hundreds of thousands of angry demonstrators protesting against American militarism and world poverty". Motoring organisations are forecasting "gridlock for days" as streets are closed and all police leave is cancelled. Anarchist groups are planning to "plunge the city into chaos"; Islamic jihadists are expected to join them, amid warnings of "chemical and radiological attack".

No, not Edinburgh at the G8, but Boston before the Democrat Convention last July. I was there in the run-up to and during the first such party convention since 9/11, and there was a similar climate of fear in the city. It was a prime terror target, a magnet for anarchists, warned the press. Apocalypse was too small a word for it: Boston was braced for nothing short of Armageddon

Nothing happened. There was no chaos, riots, dirty bombs, clashes. A handful of bedraggled demonstrators most of them anti-abortionists hung about in the secure "protest zone" outnumbered by armed police standing on every roof-top.

Expecting chaos, Bostonians stayed away from work or went on holiday. The city emptied. Traffic congestion disappeared and it was easier to get around Boston than on any normal business day.
The press turned full circle as businesses complained bitterly about loss of trade. Why hadn't the city authorities made it more attractive to come to Boston, complained editorials. A great opportunity had been missed to promote the city's image abroad and boost the tourist and conference trade.

The press always reserves the right to have it both ways. We'll complain if there is trouble, and we'll complain if there isn't. No doubt the Scottish papers will whinge if Edinburgh becomes a ghost town this summer, as visitors are frightened off by media's toxic coverage of the G8.

As G-Day approaches the language, especially in the east coast press, is becoming more absurdly inflated by the day. "Edinburgh Battens Down the Hatches . . . Scotland Prepares for the Worst . . . G8 Sparks Blood Supply Crisis".

"What began as a trickle of protest," screamed the Edinburgh Evening News on Tuesday, "HAS BECOME A RAGING TORRENT OF PROTEST WHICH WILL ENGULF US FOR A WEEK!" The paper went on to claim that this was the greatest disruption experienced in the city since . . . the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 1997. Yes, since 1997! In other words, Edinburgh's disruption for this G8 gathering of world leaders is expected to be no greater than it was for a congress of obscure African heads of state.

But columnists have been in full panic mode for weeks, warning of an imminent invasion of eco-hippies defecating in Morningside front gardens. G8 protesters are planning to ignite burning lorries and hang "human shields" from bridges. Routine operations are being cancelled to help hospitals cope with the casualties.

Reading this rubbish, it's hardly surprising that Edinburghers are fearful. Take property agent Denise Wilson: "It's frightening," she told Scotland on Sunday. "I wonder whether I should chain myself to the windows so that they will not be smashed up with a baseball bat." First you scare people, then interview them about their fear.
The broadcast media has contributed to the atmosphere of panic, by running endless clips of street-fighting in Genoa and Seattle. I wonder why it doesn't show any footage of last year's G8 in Savannah, Georgia, which passed off entirely peacefully?

Princes Street is to be closed for 33 hours over the weekend of the Make Poverty History march. Shock Horror! Except that Princes Street is closed every Hogmanay, when up to 200,000 drunken revellers take over the city centre for the street party. Anyone who lives in Edinburgh knows that the city is disrupted almost every weekend by marathons and fun runs at this time of year. Moreover, Princes Street is already closed to daytime private traffic. So what is this all about?

Not surprisingly given the image of Scotland as a war zone non-summit tourist bookings for July have collapsed. Irresponsible press coverage costs cash, as David Watt of the Institute of Directors warned at the weekend. Savannah, Georgia made around 600m from last year's G8, according to its tourism chief, Anthony Schoop. A potentially greater windfall is being thrown away in Edinburgh.

But this is about more than money not going into the Royal Mile tills. Parochial alarmism is detracting from any moral advantage Scotland could have derived from this unique summit. There is a chance that this G8 could actually deliver. Gordon Brown has already secured $55bn for debt relief and promises more at Glen-eagles. He has shamed even the Republican super hawk, Paul Wolfowitz, head of the World Bank, into accepting that America has a moral responsibility for the developing world.

There's some way to go on climate change, but George W Bush is coming to Scotland intending to make a historic intervention on debt and aid. It really could make poverty history. And this ground-breaking accord is going to have Edinburgh's name on it. Surely that means more than the lack of toilets and traffic delays in Princes Street.

Of course there is a risk of street violence that is the case at all G8s. But the anti-terrorist agencies are pretty experienced at these things by now. Their people have been crawling all over Scotland for months, thinking the unthinkable. They've told Edinburgh Council that the idea of a million demonstrators getting to Edinburgh is pure fantasy, because the city lacks the infrastructure airports and roads to get them here. Consequently, Edinburgh Council has allocated a camp site in Craigmillar with a capacity of only 15,000 campers. Rather fewer than Bob Geldof hoped for. But the people who speak into their shirt cuffs have told Edinburgh Council that this is all they should be planning for. Fewer than a dull fixture at Easter Road.

So, where is this torrent of disruption? Does the Edinburgh press know something we don't. Does it have better security sources than the police, MI5, CIA? Of course not. We all know what it is really about: selling newspapers. G8 chaos is what Edinburgh people want to read about. But that doesn't make it right.

But why take the risk by allowing street protests at all? Well, speak to Gordon Brown and he will tell you that demonstrations of public concern, such as MPH and Live8, have played a major part in shifting international opinion. His debt initiative wouldn't have been possible without them.

Newspapers have a responsibility that goes beyond the next day's fish suppers. Of course public safety is a legitimate issue. But relentless forecasts of imminent violence tend to attract precisely the violent elements you don't want to come while deterring peaceful demonstrators. Lurid coverage is itself a threat to public order. Remember that if the bottles fly in July.


June 2005

This article first appeared here

The Herald

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