A third effect is to pre-judge the perpetrators of any violence that does take place. The general public has been led to believe that those behind the demonstrations are rioters. So if the gardaí beat a few people up (and if they did it would not be unprecedented) some people might tut-tut but many will say the victims had it coming. The public has been softened up by a constant drumbeat of violence.
A fourth effect is to avoid discussion of the real issues. The actions of the media have been entirely predictable using Chomsky's Propaganda Model. The debate has been framed in terms of street-violence rather than – as the protestors would see it – the long term, ongoing institutionalised violence of the policies against which the protests are aimed. This article too, in its way, is an avoidance of the protestors' issues, the first paragraph notwithstanding.
Looking at these effects of the hysterical smear campaign we can see who stands to gain. The gardaí on the whole are doing well. With people scared off the streets it will be much easier for them to handle the crowds (which, despite earlier, wild estimates they may well outnumber). Secondly, with public opinion firmly biased against protestors the gardaí will not be judged too harshly if there is any of the police brutality seen in Genoa at the G8 summit in 2001. The gardaí are in a win-win situation. If there is no violence that will be portrayed as a tribute to their efficiency (not to the good will of the demonstrators) and if there is they can say &ldquotold you so” and demand increased numbers and resources. Some garda representatives have used the occasion to push for the arming of uniformed gardaí (who do not normally carry firearms in the Republic of Ireland).
The government benefits from the smearing of the protests and the scaring off of protestors in several ways. No government likes to see large numbers of people on the streets protesting against its policies, especially not when it is playing host to its neighbours. Better still, all this concentration on riots and water cannons diverts attention away from the protestors' political, social and economic concerns. Why be content with merely marginalising the opposition when you can criminalise it? By portraying those opposed to such things as property speculation, the introduction of qualified majority voting to EU health and education policy or the Lisbon Agenda as subversive, dangerous radicals the government gets to avoid explaining why opening up schools to private interests is something to aspire to. And should riots occur, the government will be able to point to them and say &ldquothat is the alternative to what we are offering you.”
The frightening thing is how many people will see it as being in their interests for violence to break out. Assuming that the 5,000 gardaí handle any violence, they will be hailed as a bulwark against chaos, restoring some prestige to a badly bruised organisation. The government will have discredited the far left and even the not so far left opposition. Protestors know that only by smashing up property and fighting with police will they get any publicity: some may believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Newspapers, meanwhile, will sell in their thousands and be able to pronounce their protestor-bating stories vindicated.
(April 30th, 2004)