Bias and the bended truth in the BBC’s coverage of Kill the Bill Bristol
Racial discrimination, excessive and unwarranted use of force as well as a flagrant disregard for the right to protest, have been the hallmarks of the policing of protest over the last two years. The police’s abuse of the unprecedented new powers handed to them under coronavirus legislation has been evidential of why new powers to restrict peaceful protest under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill might be subject to abuse.
This is the basis upon which Kill the Bill protestors took to the streets of Bristol in the week starting March 21, 2021, five days after the bill was first debated in parliament. Over the span of five days, three protests that began peacefully descended into violence; police vehicles were set alight, around 82 protestors were arrested and both protestors and police officers were injured.
An independent inquiry conducted by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Democracy and the Constitution found significant failings in the policing of Kill the Bill Bristol, which it described as “revenge policing”. The report concluded that the protests in the city across the week “escalated after police undertook enforcement action against peaceful sit-down protests” and that the police “failed to distinguish between the (small minority) engaged in violence and peaceful protestors, journalists, medics, and legal observers”, stating “at times medics were prevented from attending to injured people.”
Though the police played a significant role in the violence that played out through the week of Bristol’s first three Kill the Bill protests and was a reactionary participant, BBC News reported predominantly from their perspective. Over the last 10 months the BBC has so far run around 50 articles about Kill the Bill in Bristol, yet only one of those mentions the role that Avon and Somerset Police played in escalating the violence or the 62 protestors who were injured by batons, shields, fists and dog bites during the first three demonstrations. In several instances BBC News published outright falsehoods, failed to adequately fact check or correct the record on claims made by Avon and Somerset Police and neglected to report significant information and events, which portrayed the police in a negative light.
In fact, when the APPG inquiry released its report July 1, concluding that “the PCSC Bill, by substantially broadening the powers available to police, correspondingly increases the potential for abuse” – BBC News did not cover it. Instead, on the same day they ran a puff piece for a retiring chief constable titled ‘Avon and Somerset Police chief: ‘Officers faced impossible job’. It is worth noting that exit interviews for retiring chief constables are not a formality at the BBC and against the backdrop of criticism about the PCSC bill in the report, it further undermines the supposed impartiality that BBC News says it is committed to.
Then in April, when Avon and Somerset Police were forced to admit that its blanket ban on Black Lives Matter protests under coronavirus legislation was unlawful, BBC News did not report on it either – despite pedalling the narrative that the heavy-handed policing which had played out in Bristol city centre during Kill the Bill only a few weeks prior, was a necessary means to enforce Covid-19 restrictions.
Kill the Bill coverage
The protests began on March 21, when a peaceful, sit down protest quickly escalated into violence and vandalism. It was widely reported at the time that hostility began when protestors attacked the police, but the independent APPG inquiry reported that, “While there was an isolated incident of two individuals behaving aggressively, the majority made a deliberate statement of non-violence by retreating and sitting down. Police subsequently attacked protestors with pepper spray and beat individuals who were sitting on the ground. More than 60 attendees were subsequently injured.” Bristol Cable journalists say they “witnessed multiple people in the crowd with head injuries and suffering from the effects of pepper spray.”
The BBC reported on March 21:
Protesters have attacked police after thousands of people turned up to a demonstration that officers had “strongly advised” against attending. Officers suffered broken bones and police vans were set alight as angry scenes unfolded in Bristol city centre… Avon and Somerset Police said what had started “as a peaceful protest” had been “turned by a small minority into a violent disorder”.
By the end of their first sentence, they had already misled their readers and by the end of the second, they had published an outright lie. The false claim that two officers had “suffered broken bones” spread throughout the national press and dominated media coverage from that night. It wasn’t until three days later that Avon and Somerset Police quietly retracted the statement and BBC News followed through in much the same way – they buried it at the end of another article published March 24 with no redaction or edit to the original, which to this day still contains the false claim that “one officer suffered a broken arm and another suffered broken ribs”.
Then on March 23, a group of 200 protestors gathered on Bristol’s College Green for a peaceful sit-down protest – the police responded in riot gear and with dog units. BBC journalist Andrew Plant tweeted a video from the protest, which he captioned “Riot police with dogs as arrests are made after Bristol’s second protest in three days turns ugly. It was peaceful before the police arrived.” His tweet was deleted within hours of being posted. In an article published the following day by the BBC he is quoted as saying the police were “quite heavy-handed”. Police used riot shields as weapons, otherwise known as “blading” and several members of the press were assaulted by police officers. Avon and Somerset Police cited the enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions as the reasoning behind their use of force.
BBC News repeatedly published misleading statements in regards to the assault of journalists at the protests, publishing March 24 “The number of officers assaulted on Sunday had risen from 21 to 40, with one journalist also attacked,” and again in another article on the same day “[Avon and Somerset Police] has since arrested a total of nine people in relation to that day’s events and said it was investigating assaults on 40 police officers and one journalist. ” The inference here is that a journalist had been attacked by protestors, when in fact it was the police who had attacked a journalist on March 21 and BBC News never clarified this in any of their later reporting.
On the night of March 26 as the third protest within the span of five days turned violent, social media was flooded with video that showed police officers in riot gear using their shields as weapons against peaceful protestors, who were sitting on the ground. More than 1,000 people turned up to march through Bristol city centre to engage peacefully in a sit-down protest before the police moved in with force at around 10pm, reportedly claiming the need to enforce Covid-19 restrictions again.
An off-duty NHS nurse who tended to injured protestors this night told The Guardian “I cannot express how quickly it went from peaceful chants to head injuries. Not just bumps of a shield. I’m talking in excess of 5cm lacerations to the top of the skull – all of the ones I saw were struck from above.” One protestor told The Guardian “We were all screaming ‘peaceful protest’. I had my hands out. The officer lifted the shield above his head and smashed it down on to my face… I needed at least eight stitches just underneath my eye.” He told The Guardian that he needed urgent medical treatment and when he had visited the British Royal Infirmary, there were eight other protesters with head wounds.
Videos and images of police officers attacking protestors were not shown by BBC News, who instead reported: “footage showed police in riot gear using shields to push protesters back. Supt Mark Runacres, from Avon and Somerset Police, said reasonable force had to be used.” The article is littered with quotes from MPs denouncing the protestors and vastly understates the opposition at the time to the actions of the police. By this stage several Labour MPs and local Bristol politicians, including a mayoral candidate had called for an independent investigation into the policing of the protests, but the BBC’s article reported that “One Labour MP has called for an independent investigation into the policing of the most recent protest, after reports of journalists and marchers being injured.”
This was the 12th article in five days in which BBC News had covered the protests and though they had quoted the police already dozens of times and even dedicated an entire article to the experience of a mounted officer, they had yet to interview a single protestor or report on the number of protestors that had been injured during the week.
Earlier in the day on March 26, anti-terror tactics were used against two female protestors who were suspected as being in attendance at a protest earlier in the week. The inquiry reported that Katie McGoran, 21, was arrested in her home when “Male A&SC officers pretended to be delivering a parcel to gain entry then detained her in handcuffs while she was partially undressed and having a panic attack. It subsequently became clear that officers had mistaken her identity.” Grace Hart also underwent a similar experience, “Male A&SC officers gained access by pretending to be postal workers. Threatened her with multiple tasers. Also a case of mistaken identity.” The news of this broke in early April but was ignored by BBC News.
On 7 April 2021, Kill the Bill protestors in Bristol staged a sit down protest in front of the BBC – they were there to call attention to BBC News’ ‘biased reporting’ of the previous Kill the Bill protests, which had taken place in the three weeks prior. This was the only Kill the Bill protest in Bristol that the BBC did not cover.
The trial of Jasmine York
Earlier this month, the trial of a women charged with riot and arson, who was beaten with a baton by an Avon and Somerset Police officer at a protest on March 21, was heavily misrepresented by BBC News. Jasmine York was found not guilty of the most serious charges of inciting a riot and arson being reckless and handed a lesser charge of simple arson, for which she is awaiting sentencing, which will be handed down on March 14.
In an article, which is entirely dedicated to the unchallenged testimony of Nick Smart – the officer who was filmed repeatedly striking Jasmine York with a baton – BBC News did not include the elements of Smart’s account that fell apart when he was cross-examined and failed to even identify him as an one of the officers that hit her. Smart is quoted by BBC News as saying “We were met with hostility from the crowd. They were shouting, ‘Kill the police,’ but The Canary reports that when cross-examined Smart “was forced to go back on his previous statement, and admitted that the crowd had in fact been chanting ‘Kill the Bill’ – the slogan adopted by the mass-movement against the policing bill.” By quoting Smart, BBC News avoids outrightly stating an untruth but any reasonable person reading this testimony without clarification would believe that Smart’s initial statement was in fact the truth.
Other inconsistencies that emerged in the police accounts included that of PS Williams, who according to The Canary told the court that police horses were forced to retreat at the protest 21 March 2021 because of missiles being hurled by protestors, but was then forced to admit that this was untrue when the defence highlighted that in her original statement PS Williams had said “when we split to make room for the horses, the protesters sat or laid down preventing this from happening.” BBC News repeatedly quoted PS Williams throughout its article without any inference to the response of the defence or the holes in her argument, which was namely that Jasmine had ‘lead the riot’ and ‘encouraged aggression’ by leading chants such as ‘Our Streets’ – a common chant that you would be likely to hear at any protest.
From the testimony of both PS Williams and Nick Smart, it’s quite clear that they tried to mislead the jury and paint the protestors as an ‘angry mob’ at every opportunity, rather than leading with what actually happened. The inconsistencies and outright falsehoods in Avon and Somerset’s account of the events came out on the stand and Jasmine’s trial was an example of why the police need to be treated with scepticism when used as sources in protest coverage and why publications that don’t should be given the same treatment.