Monday, 31 December 2012

2012- A year in 'panic' blogging

In keeping with the endless round-ups of the year that we see in the UK media, I thought I'd do one for my blog. It was originally set up as a rant about how the media portrayed my very positive experiences on holiday in Tunisia during the 2011 revolution. But it has evolved into a regular attempt to re-dress the coverage of crowds away from the outdated & ill-informed positions that falsely assume that they are irrational and unable to act sensibly, because they are prone to 'disorder' or 'mass panic'.

The year began with the grounding of the Italian cruise ship the Costa Concordia. Initial coverage emphasised the 'panic' of survivors, but the evidence that emerged painted a very different picture, and a subsequent Channel 4 documentary made some very interesting points about how people actually behave in emergencies.

March saw a fuel crisis in the UK similar to the last one in 2000, where the threat of a fuel tankers' strike (which never actually happened) caused many petrol stations to run dry. I wrote a Press release that was circulated by my University explaining how the media needed to act more responsibly in situations like this, because reports of 'panic-buying' can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I also thought it was worth stating that the crisis emerged because of some spectatcularly bad advice from a government minister telling people to stock up on petrol at home.

There was also action closer to home, as my local Police force (Sussex Police) changed their approach to public order policing advised by a crowd psychologist (Dr. Clifford Stott) and began using Police Liason Officers (PLOs) on demonstrations. These teams are supposed to increase dialogue and mutual trust between protestors and the Police with their first appearance happening this June when the far-right group the English Defence League visited Brighton, and were met by counter demonstrators from the local community. The use of PLOs is supported by current social psychological evidence of crowd behaviour, but has also been controversial amongst some protestors, who question the Police's intentions in creating a genuine dialogue, and some believe their use to be little more than sophisticated intelligence gathering.

The summer brought a wealth of attention to the Olympics, and I argued that even in the most positive situations, crowds can still be considered in a pathological way. This was illustrated by Boris Johnson describing the mood in Olympics crowds as like a 'benign virus'. I also argued that the crowd support for team GB athletes was a very good example of the positive effects crowds can have on performance.

September saw the release of the independent report into the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster, where 96 Liverpool fans died. The report concluded that the fans were not in any way to blame for the disaster, which was largely caused by shocking crowd mismanagement that viewed policing football matches as a public order rather than public safety problem. The acquital on manslaughter charges (and later sacking) of PC Simon Harwood for the death of Ian Tomlinson at the 2009 G20 protests also showed how the use of indiscriminate public order tactics can have tragic consequences even for uninvolved bystanders.

In November I paid tribute to Clive Dunn who was famous for being Corporal Jones in the BBC comedy 'Dad's Army', as it was his catchphrase 'DON'T PANIC!' that was the inspiration for the title of this blog. Finally, December saw the world not ending as was predicted by those who thought that it would because the Mayan calendar ran out on Dec 21st. I looked at how believers coped when their predictions of apocalypse were not met.

So, in all it's been a rather busy year, and I'm sure I'll be blogging in the new year about how crowds continue to be (mis) represented in the media and popular culture. Thanks to all who read my blog in 2012.  I hope you all have a joyous New Year's Eve and a happy 2013. I can't make the gig below being held tonight in North Carolina, US, but it looks like it would be my kind of thing!


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Cosy science seminar podcast

I did a talk in November 2012 for the Cosy Science group that gets scientists to talk about their research to the general public in an informal, relaxed setting. I think it's really important to get academic research out of the ivory tower and accessible to the general public, so I was happy to do it. The fact that the talk was in one of my favourite pubs in London (the Cittie of Yorke Samuel Smith pub, near Chancery lane), also made it quite an enjoyable evening altogether.

I have just found out that there is a podcast available of an short interview I did afterwards for the i science magazine (run by students from Imperial College, London). The interviewer comments after she'd spoken to me that while the room was really packed for my talk, she didn't feel panicked at all, which was quite nice to hear, but also interesting as I think it highlights quite well how when considering crowd flow and density, it's vital to also consider the psychological relationship that people have with crowds. So, people will often tolerate (or even seek out) greater crowd density if they feel a sense of psychological connection with others around them. This is why people will often try to dance down the front at concerts or festivals and report it as a positive experience, but would not enjoy the same crowd density if they were in a packed tube train, because in the absence of a shared fate (such as happened after the explosions on the tube on 7/7/2005), they would probably feel less connection with others. This has been supported by experimental evidence (eg Novelli et al, 2010), where participants preferred to be closer to people with whom they felt a sense of psychological unity.

Novelli, D., Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2010). Come together: Two studies concerning the impact of group relations on ‘personal space’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 223–236.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Whoops, no Apocalypse!

Just seen an interesting article on the BBC web-site about how believers cope when their predictions of armageddon are not met. Some believed that because the Mayan calendar doesn't continue after 21/12/2012, this would have meant the end of the world today, and have prepared for the impending apocalypse in various eccentric ways around the world. However, as I write this (approaching 19.00 GMT), the world does not seem to have ended yet, and assuming it doesn't in the next 5 hours the doom-mongers will have to find another date to look forward to.

The psychologist Leon Festinger studied a group of people who believed the world was going to end in the 1950s, and found that they coped with the world not ending by convincing themselves that their actions had "spread so much light", that the world had been spared by God, rather than admitting that perhaps their beliefs had been wrong all along. Festinger named this process  as 'cognitive dissonance' to explain how people re-frame events that don't go the way they expected, so they don't lose faith in the particular prophesy or world view that they (or the group they belong to) have, and why people don't always distance themselves from religious groups whose apocalyptic visions aren't realised.

Of course, I sincerely hope that no prediction of the world ending does comes true. If it ever does happen though, I'm sure people won't panic, but it will be the least of my and everyone else's concerns if I end up being proved wrong!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Glimmer of hope for London Met Uni?

Just seen a couple of interesting articles in Red Pepper about the recent crisis at my former employer's- London Metropolitan University (LMU), that I covered in previous blog posts this August and September

The articles are by Andrew McGettigan, and Max Watson from Unison (the union for support staff at LondonMet), and explore the context behind the decision by the UK Border Agency to revoke LMU's licence to sponsor non-EU students, as well as the currently successful campaign against the proposed privatisation of services at LondonMet. It seems that rather than being linked purely to historical problems, as the current Vice Chancellor (Malcolm Gillies) has insinuated, there are also things that have happened on his watch  that relate to this decision. In April 2012, the UKBA gave permission for London Met to to offer degrees on the behalf of the private London School of Business and Finance (which could not issue its own degrees) in a deal rumoured to be worth c. £5m per annum. However, in May 2012, the UKBA began investigating this contract with LSBF, leading to the decision in August to revoke London Met's licence to recruit foreign students.

There are also rumours of divisions within government over this issue, as it appears that Theresa May the Home Secretary took the decision to revoke the licence, rather than it being an ‘operational decision’ by the UKBA. This decision may also relate to wider pressure from the political right to reduce net migration in the UK, which may have over-ruled the the Universities Minister David Willetts in this matter, who may be less keen on making it harder for foreign students to enter the UK. When the increase in tuition fees was first announced by Willetts, he stated that he did not expect all Universities to charge the maximum £9000 pa fee, and that the market would decide a wide range of possible fees. However, most Universities realised they could not afford to do anything except charge the maximum if they were to continue providing the quality of education expected from them. Nevertheless, LondonMet decided to embrace this market-based approach to fees, offering a range of fees starting at £4500 for foundation courses all the way up to the maximum for some courses, with an average of £6850. This attracted criticism from the unions that it would inevitably mean a drop in educational standards or the cutting of unprofitable courses.   

When I was at LondonMet, there were rumours of possible links between government education officials and senior management at LondonMet, which were fuelled in 2010 by the appointment of Jonathan Woodhead (a senior adviser to David Willetts) on a £75,000 pa contract as executive officer.  However, any notions that they would be rewarded for cosying up to Willett's reforms and embracing the new market-based approach to fees were dispelled by the UKBA decision last August. It is also suspected that the current mangement's focus on pursuing the proposed privatisation of services at LondonMet meant they failed to notice the looming crisis with the UKBA.

How this issue will develop is unclear, and LondonMet is not out of danger yet, but the fact that management have backed down in their plan to privatise all non-academic staff is a faint glimmer of hope, and will hopefully encourage the staff and students to cope with the challenges they still face.  

Friday, 14 December 2012

CDC preparations for Zombie Apocalypse

The US based Center for Disease Control has a rather amusing zombie preparation plan on-line which I had heard about, but only recently found. It was initally done as a tongue in cheek way to get people to take emergency preparation seriously, and has become something of a cult hit on the web. I'm not sure how real they think the threat of a zombie apocalypse is, but it never hurts to be prepared, as the following photo from the annual zombie walk through Brighton shows!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Don't Panic!- Clive Dunn RIP

I think a quick tribute is in order to the comic actor Clive Dunn, whose death was announced today at the age of 92.

He was most famous for the role of Corporal Jones in the BBC comedy 'Dad's Army', where he played an elderly and bumbling member of the British home guard, set up to defend Britain against invasion in World War 2. His most common catch-phrase was to shout 'don't panic!' to others when it was clear that he was the only one panicking. This blog owes him an obvious debt of gratitude for that catchphrase, and I think it summarises quite nicely the view often held by those responsible for crowd management- that while they may often call for people not to panic in emergencies (which doesn't tend to happen anyway), crowd management planning and response all too often assumes that people will panic, despite all the evidence to the contrary.   

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Crowd resilience and Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy is now abating in its ferocity after battering the East Coast of the US, and the clear-up is now beginning.  While around 40 people were killed in the US, and over 70 in the Carribbean, it seems that it could have been much worse, given how much hype there was in the media about the scale of this storm. The emergency response seems to have been fairly efficient, with most people heeding the warning to evacuate the areas at risk of flooding and storm damage, leaving them populated mainly by journalists and first responders. To me, this shows how people can act upon warnings about impending danger, and further undermines the out-dated (and totally false) notion that people will 'panic' if they become aware of a threat. If information is provided in a way that people can act to remove themselves and their families from danger, they will usually do so. A very good example of this is the advice given by the Mayor of New Orleans as Hurricane Gustave approachd the city in August 2008 (the first big one after Katrina), which resulted in a safe and efficient evacuation with no mass panic;
You need to be scared, you need to be concerned, you need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans now! … We are ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city of New Orleans starting in the morning at 8am on the West Bank… we give you four hours to evacuate’
 (Ray Negin, Mayor of New Orleans. 31st August 2008)

The UK media is now focusing on the aftermath in New York, and how residents will cope with  power cuts, clearance of debris etc. However, I have detected a worrying undercurrent in some of the coverage where the media is speculating about looting in New York (as I write this on 31/10/12, I have seen no reports of looting yet). This reminds me of some awful media coverage after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, there were reports of mass looting, gang-rapes, and murders in New Orleans. However, this was later shown to be wildly exaggerated and the crime rate in the period after Katrina actually dropped, forcing the local Police chief to resign when the scale of exaggeration became clear. When asked about possible lawlessness' on the BBC's Newsnight, 30/10/12, Ray Negin replied that after Katrina, 'looting' began in New Orleans because there were large numbers of people in an urban area with no access to supplies, and they were doing it to survive because they felt they had been abandoned by the authorities. Vorhees et al (2007) showed how there was often a racial bias in how this was reported in the media, and the coverage often depended upon the ethnicity of the people doing it (white people were 'gathering essential supplies', and African Americans were 'looting'). We shall see how coverage of this story develops, but I do hope it doesn't fall back into the age-old myth that when the 'forces of law and order' are not present after emergencies, people retreat into a savage, uncivilised state. Studies of over a century of mass emergencies in the US (Solnit, 2009) have shown that people and communties can be remarkably resilient in their aftermath, and if the authorities respond  in a way that treats the situation as a potential public order problem (such as allowing the military to take over the emergency response), this can create more problems than previously existed and hinder the spontaneous resilience that emerges.  

Solnit, R. (2008). A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Viking, New York, US.

Tierney, K., Bevc, C, & Kuligowski, E. (2006). Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 57-81.

Voorhees, C.W., Vick, J. & Perkins D.D. (2007). ‘Came Hell and High Water’: The Intersection of Hurricane Katrina, the News Media, Race and Poverty. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 17: 415–429.

Friday, 19 October 2012

'sheer panic' at Glasgow airport?

The reporting of an emergency evacuation of an aircraft at Glasgow airport by the BBC today, illustrates quite well how I think the media can sensationalise such incidents. The  story begins with the headline;
'Glasgow Airport: Passenger tells of panic'

The first sentence then continues with;
'Passengers on an Alicante-bound plane from Glasgow Airport have described "sheer panic" after "swirling" smoke in the cabin forced an emergency stop.'

A later quote from a survivor who evacuated with his wife and young daughters, continues in this vein;
"There was panic, people started running and I shouted 'slow down', and then the pilot shouted 'get out, get out'. It was just sheer panic, something no-one would want to go through again."

So, this seems to be the usual narrative of 'panic, chaos, mayhem' etc to describe people's behaviour in emergencies. However, later quotes that don't get such attention tell a different story to me. For instance a female survivor reports that;
"Although it was a horrific situation there was no panic and everyone remained calm," 

A male survivor who was interviewed at length by local radio is asked by the journalist ;
'it must have been very scary?' 

Unfortunately he doesn't go along with this rather loaded question, and continues by saying that there was no panic, and  describes in some detail how people remained calm and orderly. He even finishes by saying that he'd get straight back on a plane!

I think this shows quite well, how different narratives can emerge from disasters, and the descriptions that journalists often seek of 'panicking/stampeding' victims isn't always backed up by evidence, but that doesn't stop them trying to portray emergencies in this way. It reminds me of when I was on holiday in Tunisia during the 2011 revolution that began the Arab Spring. While I was out there, I did some interviews with the media about the situation, including one for Radio 5, where I was on live with another English tourist in a different resort who had barricaded himself and his family into their hotel room. My account of events (that we were not feeling threatened at all by what was going on and local Tunisians were hospitable & protective towards us) was not considered as newsworthy as 'terrified UK tourists need rescuing from a foreign country', and so received much less attention. My experiences in Tunisia inspired me to begin this blog and attempt in my own way to redress the balance of what I saw (and still do) as a deeply pathologising discourse of crowd behaviour in society today that is not backed up by evidence of how crowds actually behave.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Hillsborough enquiries announced

It was reported today that there will be a far-reaching enquiry into alleged Police misconduct during and after the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster as a result of the findings published by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report in September 2012. Deborah Glass, from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), announced what would undoubtedly be the biggest ever enquiry carried out into possible misconduct by the police  in the UK. Up to three Police forces could now be investigated for not only the initally woeful crowd mismanagement that caused the disaster, but also how attempts were made to cover up failings on the day by the police and other agencies, and how there were 'attempts to distort the truth' (which led to false implications that fans were somehow responsible for the tragedy). It also looks increasingly likely that there may be an application for new inquests into how the victims died, as their families were never happy with the original verdicts, especially after the HIP report revealed that up to 41 of the 96 victims had the 'potential to survive', but insufficent attempts were made to revive them.

This announcement is clearly good news for the survivors and families, and Margaret Aspinall (mother of one of the victims- James Aspinall) was reported as saying,  "We've had the truth. This is the start of the justice". This may be a long process, but hopefully it will result in the justice that has been denied the victims and their families for so long. I also hope that this enquiry will also look into the deeply pathological and pervasive view of football crowds that I believe contributed to a deep culture of distrust between football fans and the police. This culture created an environment in which crowd safety at football matches took secondary importance to crowd control, which was at least in part responsible for the tragedy.  In my last blog entry, I looked at how such distrust of crowds was behind crowd management strategies at Hillsborough, and I think exploring how these approaches informed tactics that contributed to the disaster could help educate those involved in crowd safety management to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again

Friday, 21 September 2012

Stay of execution for LondonMet?

Good news for up to 2600 foreign students at London Metropolitan University after the UK Border agency (UKBA) revoked its licence to recruit and teach non EU students this August. They've been told they can now stay while LondonMet has been given the chance to challenge the decision through judicial review. LondonMet is not out of danger yet, as their request for the ban to be overturned completely was rejected, so they still cannot recruit new non EU students, and there is no guarantee they will win this judicial review. However, it does bring some comfort to the exisiting students at LMU who were facing possible deportation when the decision was first announced. See my previous blog entry for more background information about the situation, and below is an extract from a letter of thanks by Mark Campbell (chair of LMU University & Colleges Union) for all the public support from the students and staff;

Dear colleagues,

Thank you all so much for the wonderful solidarity you have given us over the last few very difficult weeks.

We believe it is such support for our vigorous campaign for an amnesty for our international students that has resulted in today's High Court judgement.

However, this is just the first step in our battle to save London Met as a public university. To that end, we are not suggesting our campaign now finishes. Indeed, if anything, we believe now is the time to increase pressure on the Government not only to reverse its decision to revoke our licence, but also to remove international students completely from emigration targets - no longer forcing universities to operate as outposts of the immigration service. We also believe our fight must continue against the marketisation of higher education and the encroachment of for-profit private providers - the other part of the current crisis not just at London Met, but within our sector as a whole.
Mark Campbell

Monday, 17 September 2012

PC Harwood sacked for gross misconduct

PC Simon Harwood was today dismissed from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) for gross misconduct for pushing over Ian Tomlinson shortly before he died at the G20 protests in London 2009. However, Ian's family walked out of the hearing, calling it a whitewash, as there was no examination of any of the wider issues involved, such as whether PC Harwood's actions caused Ian's death, and if the MPS should share responsibility as well.

A previous post that I wrote in July 2012 (after PC Harwood was acquitted of Ian's manslaughter) looked at how the use of indiscriminate public order tactics such as 'kettling' could contribute to a generally confrontational atmosphere at large protests. I worry that the very brief nature of today's hearing (PC Harwood admitted the charge of gross misconduct, so it went straight to a judgement) meant that such wider issues could not be investigated, and by scapegoating individual 'rogue' officers, there is a danger that the MPS could be seen as trying to avoid scrutiny of its public order tactics in general.  There were many different allegations of  inappropriate Police behaviour that day, and the footage of PC Harwood pushing Ian to the ground only came to light after a city worker recorded the incident on his phone and gave it to the Guardian newspaper. The MPS had initially tried to deny any involvement in the events leading up to for Ian's death, but this quickly became untenable once the video footage emerged. This short clip shows the fateful push, but also shows the reactions of other officers, who did nothing to reprimand Harwood, or intervene to help Ian as he lay on the floor, leaving it up to other protestors to pick him up. I think this illustrates how in public order situations, the use of indiscriminate public order tactics can result in all those in the immediate vicinity being treated the same by the Police (including uninvolved bystanders), which had tragic consequences for Ian Tomlinson.

I certainly believe that Simon Harwood should be held accountable for his actions, but he was operating  in a wider organisational and social context that needs to be explored as well, and making examples of individuals detracts from the need for a wider discussion of the public order policing strategies that I believe allowed this tragedy to happen.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Hillsborough papers released

There has finally been an official admission by the UK Prime Minister that Liverpool fans were not to blame for the Hillsborough football disaster, something the survivors and their families have known for years. David Cameron's apology for the 'double injustice' of the disaster itself and subsequent cover up is reported in detail here. The Hillsborough Independent Panel report published its findings today, and they totally vindicate the families' claims that their loved ones were not responsible for the tragedy, which happened on April 15th 1989. They also make pretty uncomfortable reading for the agencies involved in the planning for the FA Cup semi final match at the Hillsborough stadium, and their subsequent response to the disaster.

Sheffield Wednesday Football Club was criticised for not taking safety seriously at Hillsborough (which is their stadium), and reports of how previous FA semi-final matches there were (mis)managed could lead one to conclude that it was a miracle that such a disaster had not happened before. South Yorkshire Ambulance Service were also accused of not responding adequately enough to the disaster, as it seems that 41 of the 96 victims may have had a chance of being resuscitated, had they responded more quickly and efficiently. However, most shockingly, there is clear evidence that South Yorkshire Police (SYP) operated an orchestrated cover-up to try and shift culpability for the disaster onto the fans. This resulted in totally unfounded allegations about fans' behaviour on the day being passed on to journalists, who then reported such lies as facts, resulting in the notorious cover story by the Sun newspaper, claiming that fans had pickpocketed dead vicitms and urinated on Police officers trying to help. Those involved in producing such smears have offerred their apologies, but I suspect it will be too little too late for survivors and the bereaved.

Numerous other examples of how SYP engaged in a comprehensive cover-up have also come to light, and also that other agencies (such as the media, and the Conservative government at the time) accepted this shameful re-writing of history, which I think reflects a deep distrust of football fans and more widely of crowds in general. The report summary explicitly states that 'the management of the crowd was viewed exclusively through a lens of potential crowd disorder', and concludes that 'the collective policing mindset prioritised crowd control over crowd safety.' p.4. I think this emphasis on crowd control is illustrated in TV footage of the tragedy that shows a line of Police at the centre of the pitch (presumably to stop the Liverpool fans from reaching the Nottingham Forest fans at the other end), even when dead and dying fans were being pulled from the crush. This shows that even at this stage, the Police were still operating as if they were dealing with a public order situation rather than a mass disaster. The
Taylor Report noted the bitter irony that before Hillsborough not a single person had died during a pitch invasion at a UK football match, but on that fateful day, 96 fans died preventing one.

This catalogue of incompetence and cover-ups, driven by what I believe to be a fundamental distrust of football fans by the authorities, has led to an enduring feeling of injustice amongst survivors and their families. It was certainly something I noticed when interviewing Hillsborough survivors as part of the research into mass emergencies I did while at the University of Sussex with John Drury (Drury et al, 2009). The ones I spoke to often talked of their frustration at the general misperception that they were in some way to blame for the tragedy. To try and redress this balance, I recently wrote a paper that looks at how survivors of Hillsborough described their experiences and often rejected the way in which they were represented in popular discourse after the disaster (Cocking & Drury, in submission) On a wider level, I think that the lies that were disseminated about the fans' behaviour were all too readily accepted by politicians and the media, something that may have been influenced by a pervasive (but largely false) view in society that crowds are not to be trusted. Therefore, we all need to take responsibility for ensuring that we adopt a less pathological view towards crowds, and try to develop crowd safety strategies at large events that prevent such disasters from ever happening again

The report issued today will not bring back those who died, but I do hope that it will bring some sense of closure to the survivors and bereaved who are now fully vindicated in their view that their loved ones were not responsible for this terrible tragedy, and hopefully those who were responsible can now be called to account. To paraphrase the Liverpool MP Steve Rotheram on Channel 4 News (who survived Hillsborough); truth may have been done today, but justice is yet to be done.


For more info, see John Drury's blog, the The Hillsborough Justice campaign, and the Hillsborough Families Support group, my previous blog entry on Hillsborough, and the following references.

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (in Submission) Talking about a tragedy: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the Hillsborough disaster.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Every one for themselves? An interview study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48: 487–506.

Scraton, P., Jemphrey, A. & Coleman, C. (1995). No last rites: The denial of justice and the promotion of myth in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool City Council

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Ongoing controversy over use of Police Liaison Officers

There is a very interesting film put out by the Guardian newspaper about the use of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) by Sussex police. The stated intention of using such a tactic is for Police officers to enter into a dialogue with protestors with a view to encouraging mutual trust between the 2 sides and reducing conflict and disorder.

However, it's clear from the interviews with activists in this film that they have a deep-seated mistrust of the use of such tactics, and they see the PLOs as little more than an extension of the Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) that were set up by various Police forces in the UK to gather intelligence on known political activists. In a previous blog entry I talked about the possible historical reasons behind such mistrust in Brighton.

The film also shows PLOs from Sussex Police visiting an activist at her family home in Brighton, which has drawn accusations of harassment from her. One of the same officers is also filmed at a demonstration in Brighton shortly afterwards drawing his baton on protestors. Not having any inside knowledge on the motivations of Sussex Police, I am in no position to comment on how genuine they are in wishing to build up a meaningful dialogue between themselves and protestors, but their actions in this short film don't seem to be convincing the very same activists they're supposed to be building a dialogue with!

A response to the film by Cliff Stott (the crowd psychology expert who liased with Sussex police to set up the PLOs, and is interviewed in it) can be found on his Facebook site here. A more detailed report is in preparation, but in his post, he rejects some of the inferences made in the film as being too selective, and he criticises the emphasis in the film on a PLO drawing his baton on protestors. Time will tell whether political activists like the ones featured in the film begin to trust these PLOs, and see them as different from the FIT officers used previously. However, I think this debate shows how it is crucial to consider the historical and social context in which this change in policing has happened, and this will also help understanding of how it could develop. At the very least, Sussex Police should have considered how it might be perceived by protestors, when some of the officers that had been previously used to gather intelligence on them were now seemingly performing a new role by trying to enter into a dialogue with them. 

Just seen a Press Release issued by Sussex Police on 4th Sept formally introducing the Protest Liaison Teams.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Panic @ LondonMet University

It has been officially announced today after some speculation that the UK border Agency has revoked London Metropolitan University's licence to teach and recruit non EU students, meaning that up to 2600 students now face the prospect of quickly trying to find a new course at another University, or facing the prospect of being deported within 60 days if they can't. An interview with one of the students affected reports that people are panicking over this news. I will resist entering into a semantic debate over use of the term 'panic' (as I normally do on this blog). Instead I can see why the anxiety, uncertainty, and perhaps anger that these students are no doubt feeling could be described as panic. They have been woefully let down by this decision and have every right to feel aggrieved.

It looks like this situation may have deep roots. For instance, there was a serious financial crisis in 2009 when it emerged that LondonMet had received over £36m from the UK funding council for students that did not complete, and was told to pay it back. It looks like sloppy record keeping has continued, which is the main reason the UK Border Agency has given for revoking the license, as LondonMet did not do adequate checks on the student's eligibility to study there. Therefore, it looks London Met management need to take some responsibility for this situation, as they took their eye off the ball, and have been recently focussing on schemes to privatise services at the University instead. However, it also looks like an incredibly cynical move by the government to please the right of the Tory party by claiming they are doing something to tackle immigration figures. This will have little to no effect on net immigration and merely panders to a deeply unpleasant ideological (and nonsensical) view that somehow our current economic problems will be solved by cutting down on people entering the country.

 I was a lecturer in the Psychology Department at LondonMet for 4 years until October last year, and left with a lot of happy memories of the staff and students there, who were easily LondonMet's best resource. LondonMet used to advertise itself as a beacon for widening participation, and had a well-earned reputation for providing working-class kids from London with a university education that they would not otherwise get. A statistic that is often used, is that there are more Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students at London Met, than the whole of the Russell Group of Universities (the top tier, such as Oxbridge, etc) put together. I was often inspired by the commitment and passion of the students there, both in the classroom and outside. I remember doing a lecture on crowd behaviour there the day before the 2009 G20 protests, and made a flippant comment about how I expected to see them there taking field notes. Sure enough, I spotted a few inside the Police kettle outside the Bank of England the following day. A member of the support staff in my department even found himself caught up in the Police operation against the climate camp the same evening after going down to have a look and getting friendly with a protestor!

I think both LondonMet management & the governement both need to take responsibility for this situation, but it is ultimately the students who will suffer most from this decision, which is grossly unfair, and not in their, or London Met's best interests. It also sends out a very bad mesage about the state of higher education to all the legitimate foreign students who want to come and study in the UK, and will do lasting damage to the image of British Universities.

See the London Met Unison statement on the crisis for more details, and the blog of London Met's Unison Chair.

Update 5/9/2012:

Here's a Video of LondonMet students protesting outside the Home Office in London today, and the Education Activist Netowrk is asking people to download the following message of support, take a photo, and e-mail it to them at My cats agreed to do it after some persuasion;


Friday, 24 August 2012

Rush-hour pandemonium in NYC?

The BBC is reporting today's fatal shooting incident in New York, US with the rather dramatic title of 'Rush-hour pandemonium in NYC' for their link to video footage of the story. I went to Wikkipedia to remind myself of the origins of the word 'pandemonium', and apparently it's from Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. It's in Hell where the demons live and is a very noisy and chaotic place (picture below). It also provides a helpful quote from the Boston 2004 Globe;
'Whenever you have violent pandemonium, there's the overwhelming possibility for panic and tragedy'.

So, one may perhaps assume that the footage would have scenes of mayhem, stampedes & the usual stereotypical panicked behaviours that are implied by such a definition. However, the aerial footage shows people calmly waiting on the edge of the Police cordon. An interview with an eye-witness does report that people scatterred and ran for cover when they heard the gunshots, but he also states that it was all over in 10 seconds when the Police apprehended the suspect, and he stayed around to see what was going on for about 5 minutes, rather than fleeing the area in terror.

To me, these accounts are better described as momentary flight from a clear and present danger, that ends once the threat is over, and terms like 'pandemonium' are neither accurate nor useful in the reporting of such incidents, and merely serve to further sensationalise crowd responses to danger.     

Monday, 20 August 2012

'The riots in their own words' documentary

There are 2 interesting programs about last year's riots in England available on the BBC iPlayer. One looks at events from the perspectives of The Rioters, and the other looks at The Police views. When doing research on contentious matters that involve conflict between 2 sides, it's always a good idea to look at both sides, to try and get a more balanced view, and so the BBC is to be commended for doing that. Both show  interesting and sometimes powerful accounts from people involved from both sides, and are well worth watching.

There’s too much from me to comment on in detail, but one thing I saw was interesting. In the one that looked at The Rioters, there was an interview with a woman who was involved in the initial rioting in Tottenham on the Saturday after Mark Duggan was killed. She was quite open about how she had no problem about people fighting the Police, but said she and others physically prevented people from looting her local pet shop and Doctor's surgery. To me, this shows how rioters are often selective in the targets they choose to attack, and show the myth of a 'mindless mob out of control'. There were many different crowds involved in the August 2011 riots, with differing motivations, but they roughly fall into three broad areas: a) crowds that wanted to stand their ground and fight the Police, b) crowds that took advantage of the Police being tied down elsewhere to engage in looting of goods they wanted, and c) crowds that came in from outside an area who then attacked commercial properties indiscriminately (as they were not from that community and saw all shops in the vicinity as a legitimate target). Failing to consider these differences (and the wider social context in which the riots occurred), results in an over-simplistic analysis of what happened (or even no analysis at all!), and risks failure in understanding how the riots developed and escalated as they did.

For an in-depth and detailed analysis of what happened in the riots, check out the excellent book  Mad mobs and Englishmen, available on Kindle, and the following article looks at how statistics were often misreported during the riots. Finally, the Press Office at London Metropolitan University put out a Press Release I wrote at the time of the riots, arguing for a more objective & less emotive analysis of what was going on.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Crowd support for Team GB at the Olympics

Now that the Olympics have finished, the British media is having a field day analysing the success of Team GB, who exceeded expectations by coming 3rd in the medal table. A constant theme I heard when British medal winners were interviewed, was how they felt the crowd was a major factor in their success. It's often a common sense cliche that the home team has an advantage because of the support they get from the crowd, but in this case the successful athletes certainly feel it helped them. Early psychological research into social facilitation argued for the benefits that audiences can have on performance, but subsequent findings have argued that it can be a more complicated picture than that. What's important is not just the audience per se, as the relationship that the perfomer has with their audience is crucial. So the crowd in the Olympic stadium cheering on the team GB athletes may well have helped push themselves enough to do better than they might have done had the Olympics been elsewhere. My 5 year old daughter certainly thought that I helped Mo Farah win Gold with my support for him during the 10000m final, although I'm not sure if he could have heard me shouting at the TV in a hotel room in Dublin! For anyone who didn't see the BBC presenters getting equally excited when he won the 5000m, you can see it here.*

A recent book edited by Jetten et al (2011) provides a wealth of evidence for the positive benefits that crowds and collectives can have, and reflects a growing trend in Social Psychology away from early approaches that tended to assume that being in collectives necessarily means a deterioration in performance and decision-making. I do hope that the more positive coverage that crowds have received over the last 2 weeks results in more balanced coverage of other crowd events in future, but I won't hold my breath!

Jetten, J., Haslam, C.& Haslam, S.A. (Eds.) (2011). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

* BTW a hilarious web-site has been set up as a tribute to Mo Farah;

My favourite image is the one below- he's so scared of the Teletubbies, his name's reversed!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Keep Calm & Carry on history

I recently found a web-site that details the historical context behind the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters that have become very popular in the UK ;

Apparently the posters were produced by the British Government in WW2 and would have been distributed on the eve of a German invasion in an attempt to prevent mass panic in the British population. As the invasion never happened, the posters were never published, but some originals were recently found and publicly released.  They became an instant hit and perhaps inevitably inspired a whole range of spoof images, my favourite of which is below. I find them quite endearing as I think they represent a quintessentially 'stiff upper lip' approach to adversity which was part of British culture at the time. It also makes me smile to think that officials at the Ministry of Information (responsible for British propaganda during WW2) thought that if the nation was facing imminent catastrophe, seeing this poster would help the public keep calm. I'm not at all a fan of approaches that assume mass panic, but if one was going to buy into a 'panic model' (as I'm sure officials at the MoI did), then surely it would take more than a mere poster to stop people panicking!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Occupied Times

Interesting article by Cliff Stott & John Drury on the ideological positions behind representations of crowd behaviour in social discourse. Printed in Occupied Times, a free, not-for-profit newspaper born out of the #Occupy movement, that's 'dedicated to sociopolitical, economic and environmental justice'.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympic Hysteria?

It's interesting to see how the public excitement about the Olympics has been represented. There's far too much media coverage for me to attempt to give a representative view of all of it, but one little snapshot grabbed my interest.

During a concert that was held in London's Hyde Park in the run up to the opening ceremony, Boris Johnson the Mayor of London addressed the crowd saying that the enthusiasm about the Olympics was like a 'benign virus' sweeping through people. This suggests that there is something 'pathological' about crowd behaviour, even when there's no suggestion that there is anything remotely sinister or negative about the crowd in question. Other terms often used to describe crowds (such as 'contagion' and 'hysteria', 'panic', etc) also represent a discourse of disease and/or irrationality. I think this reflects a pervasive (but fundamentally flawed) view in social discourse that even celebratory crowds should be treated with caution, just in case a less 'benign virus' sweeps through people with devastating effects. Why can't we just accept that years of research into all kinds of crowds shows that they can behave much better than often expected, and come up with a less loaded way of describing them?! 

On an amusing footnote, for anyone who hasn't already seen it, the hilarious footage of the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt almost killing his publicist with his attempt at bell-ringing can be seen here!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Upcoming conferences on riots

A couple of conferences are happening at the end of the summer in southern England that will look at riots, revolutions and related issues. I'm doing a talk at one that's being held 5-7th Sept at the University of Brighton Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics annual conference, called 'Riot, Revolt, Revolution'. More details as they come should be available here.

There's also one being co-organised by my previous University (London Metropolitan Uinversity) and London South Bank University at LSBU on 28 September 2012; 'Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects: The Riots one year on'. More details can be found here.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Article on safe crowd management in Olympics

Article in the Guardian newspaper by fellow academics on how it's vital to communicate with crowds in the forthcoming Olympics to ensure safe crowd management and not to assume that people will 'panic' if they become aware of a threat. There is also a bit that was edited out that can be seen here

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Thoughts on the acquital of PC Harwood...

The British media is today covering the acquital of PC Simon Harwood on manslaughter charges for the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in the city of London, April 2009. PC Harwood was on duty as a member of the Metropolitan Police Sevice's (MPS) public order unit, the Territorial Support Group (TSG), and was caught on camera pushing Ian Tomlinson to the ground shortly before he died.

After the jury decided he was not guilty of manslaughter, more evidence came forward about a list of previous complaints against PC Harwood for violent or inappropriate conduct that could cause some to question whether he should have been in the Police service at all. However, due to a series of organisational failings, he was allowed to retire from one police force (the MPS), join another (Surrey), and then re-join the MPS and return to active duty in the TSG. While the Press is right to focus on this lapse in vetting procedures, I think there is a wider issue that needs to be considered as well.

To me part of the tragedy for Ian Tomlinson and his grieving family is that his death seems to have been at least in part a by-product of the use of indiscriminate public order techniques that result in innocent bystanders being targetted with force by police, and in this case with fatal consequences. The day of the protests, Ian was trying to walk back to the shelter he was staying at, but unfortunately for him, the police had set up a vast containment (or 'kettle') of protestors outside the Bank of England. He was unable to make his way round the cordon before being caught up in the melee between police and protestors, and in the confusion, he was struck by PC Harwood before being pushed to the ground, staggering to his feet, and collapsing and dying soon after. It doesn't look like Ian was contained within the 'kettle' himself, but I would argue that the use of such indiscriminate tactics on the day created an atmosphere of hostility between the police and crowd members, to the extent that all people in the vicinity could have been seen as a potential threat by the police regardless of whether they were involved in the protests or not.  Academic research (eg Reicher et al, 2004 & Stott, 2009) has argued that police public order strategies can result in a self-fulfilling prophesy, because if you view crowds as a potential threat, and treat them as a threat, they may then become that very threat.

Ian Tomlinson was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his family is right to demand justice for what his inquest decided was an unlawful killing. However, what also worries me is that the use of indiscriminate public order tactics sets up a psychological dynamic which means such tragedies could happen again, if all people in the vicinity of a protest are treated in a uniform way.

An open letter of solidarity from the Defend the Right to Protest Campaign to the family of Ian Tomlinson can be found here

Reicher, S., Stott, C., Cronin, P. & Adang, O. (2004). A New Approach to Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 27, (4), 558–572.

Stott CJ. (2009). 'Crowd psychology and public order policing'. Liverpool, University of Liverpool, UK.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Olympic torch & global health conference

Busy day today! Up at 6.30 am to see Olympic torch make its way through Brighton (photo below), followed by showing a poster of my research on mass emergencies at the Global Health conference at the University of Sussex;

Just seen more coverage of the Olympics security 'debacle' (as it is now officially called) where yet again reality is over-taking satire. It seems that the contractor responsible for security (G4S) can only give updates on a day to day basis of how many staff they have recruited, but so far, they only have got 4,000 out of the 10,000 they said they would provide, which does not bode well, given the Olympics are starting soon & athletes are arriving already.

Furthermore, West Midlands Police are being asked to provide nearly 400 officers a day to cover staff at Olympic venues in Coventry that G4S cannot provide, and a spokesman from the Police Federation was on the BBC's Newsnight, worried that they may be further stretched if asked to provide support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to help during marching season, or if there is a repeat of last year's riots in the near future.

Maybe I should stop watching the satire programme Twenty Twelve & just stick to the news!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

paper on emergency response

Just read an interesting article on how people respond to emergencies such as terrorist attacks by Montine Walters, the Olympic Resilience Officer for the Greater London Authority. It makes the point that rather than being prone to mass panic or shocked into inaction, bystanders of mass emergencies can and do often co-operate to help other survivors, and that these 'zero-responders' can be a useful resource before the emergency services arrive.

'In the Face of an Emergency: What Makes a Responsive and Resilient Society?'  Journal of Terrorism Research, Vol 3, Issue 1, 2012

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

2012 programme

Just seen a rather amusing episode of the spoof documentary comedy Twenty Twelve that follows the organising team for the 2012 London Olympics through a catalogue of disasters and organisational incompetence. Especially funny are the meetings of the special catastrophisation unit that meets with the Police to deal with security issues relating the games. I do hope this is fiction though, as one of the Police officers in it had a rather similar name to a serving senior officer in the Metropolitan Police!

P.S.- 12/7/2012
Main item on the news today is that the UK government are having to bring in 3500 extra troops to cover a shortfall in the security guards that the contractor G4S has just admitted they won't be able to supply in time for the Olympics.The BBC programme Newsnight which is not known for its humourous one-liners was hilarious when covering the story. Apparently they contacted various government Press Offices and tried to get someone to come on the programe to talk about the story, but noone was available. The presenter Eddie Mair then said in a very dead-pan voice,'we asked if they could send a soldier, but they just hung up'.

Looks like reality is now trying to compete with fiction for the funnier storyline!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Google scholar profile

I went on a workshop recently on how to manage my papers and how they are cited, and learnt how to create a citation profile on Google scholar. It created some figures and tables that I don't fully understand, but it's quite handy in that it lists all publications with my name on in one place as well as how often they are cited. It can be accessed here, and lists the academic work I've done on mass emergencies if you find my blog too populist!

Monday, 2 July 2012

7/7: One day in London

Just watched a very powerful and moving BBC programme focussing on personal accounts of the 7/7/2005 London bombings (

At times the tales are quite harrowing and upsetting, but what I think shines through is the remarkable resilience shown by those affected both during and after the explosions. None of those interviewed talk about panic, but instead provide accounts of unity, co-operation, and concern for others. About 75 minutes through it, one of the survivors mentions how before the explosions, people on the tube were all thinking of their own little worlds, but after the blasts they all of a sudden became one. This chimes very well with research we did into 7/7 that found altruism and co-operation were the norm rather than mass panic, and that this was often explained by how having a shared sense of fate created a common identity amongst survivors that encouraged mutual helping rather than selfish behaviour.

See here for a post I did on this blog after the 7/7 inquests closed last year. A paper I co-wrote on survivors' reactions to the 7/7 bombings can be reached here, and a non technical paper that covered a wider research project into mass emergencies I was involved in can be found here.
Finally, John Drury's posting on 7/7 (who was my co-author on this work) and the narratives that developed around it can be found here.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

'Mass Panic' not responsible for Love Parade Disaster

Just come across an interesting article that explores the Love Parade Disaster in Duisberg, Germany in  August 2010, where 21 people died and over 500 were injured in a fatal crowd crush. The authors conclude that the tragedy did not happen because of selfish 'mass panic' or a stampede, but because of a phenomenon they call 'crowd-quake' where physical pressures in the crowd created a domino effect whereby people fell over and got crushed by the sheer density of other crowd members.

Therefore, crowd safety management strategies should focus on how to prevent such potentially fatal pressure building up rather than relying on out-dated approaches that assume crowds will behave selfishly and 'panic'- a concept which seems increasingly unreliable in the wake of this report.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Interview on local radio about Police Liaison Teams

I did an interview at 07.40 BST June 21st for BBC Radio Sussex on the recent use of Police Liaison Teams on protests in Brighton and the controversy it generated. They also spoke to a member of the protest group Smash EDO at about 8.30 on the same programme. It should be available on the BBC iPlayer until 28/6/2012 (

What I noticed about the 2 different interviews was that while mine was briefer and I waffled a bit at first, I felt I got much easier treatment from the interviewer than did the speaker from Smash EDO. The presenter was contradicting and interrupting him, and the whole interview seemed much more adversarial than the experience I had. I wonder if this has anything to do with the context in which such interviews are set up, in that so called 'experts' in the field often get treated more respectfully by the media than 'protestors' who can get harsher treatment from journalists. While it makes for a more pleasant experience for me personally when I get asked to speak as an 'academic', it does worry me that people speaking on behalf of protest campaigns may become more reluctant to speak to the media if they feel they are going to be treated unfairly. This could have implications for the balanced representation of such campaigns, and responsible media outlets should encourage balanced and fair reporting- not take sides in sometimes contentious debates.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Upcoming radio programme on crowd behaviour

The BBC's Radio 3 are doing a programme to be broadcast on sun 24th June, where they will be speaking to some of the top experts on the Psychology of crowd behaviour. I won't be on it, as I'm in Malta then, but if there's another revolution in my holiday destination (as there was last time I went on holiday to Tunisia- see here for the details) I'll start blogging furiously!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Report on Aug 2011 riots

Just seen a link to a story by the Voice criticising media coverage of the August 2011 riots in England based on a report put out by academics at the University of Leicester. Not seen the report itself yet, but they highlight that the riots were often falsely portrayed by the media as involving predominantly young black males, which is too simplistic and unfairly stigmatises a section of the community, rather than looking at wider explanations for how the riots happened and spread.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Controversy over use of Police Liaison Officers

The use of Police Liaison Officers at demos in Brighton has generated an interesting debate. My last post detailed how this tactic was developed by Swedish Police (Holgersson & Knutsson, 2011) and was first used in Brighton when the English Defence League appeared over the Jubilee bank holiday weekend, and counter-demonstrators came out to oppose them. These teams were used again during an anti-war march on the bank holiday Monday called by Smash EDO (a campaign against a local factory that makes electronic equipment for military use-

They did not get a good reception from some protestors who objected to their attempts to mingle with the march and did not trust their claims to be attempting increase mutual trust by setting up a dialogue between protestors and Police. I'm not in a position to comment on how genuine the motivations of the Police are in this matter, but I think it shows how historical antagonism can prevent such trust emerging.

Smash EDO have for a long time not trusted the local Police, as there have been allegations of collusion between the Police and the company that owns the factory to obtain information about the protestors for a civil injunction. More recently a high court ruling said that Police were allowed to store information about any protestors on a 'domestic extremism' data-base regardless of their actions or degree of involvement. The case was brought by an 87 year peace activist involved in the Smash EDO campaign, whose details have been recorded on such a database (
Also, one of the current members of the Police liason teams is known to activists as the local intelligence Officer who has collected information on protesors on previous demos. Such historic mistrust may mean that some protest campaigns will find it difficult to trust the intentions of these new Police Liasion Officers, and may be unwilling to engage with them until any such mutual trust emerges. Therefore, consideration of any relevant historical contexts is vital when looking at the use of such teams. 

The debate over the use of PLOs is evolving, and the links below are to FIT watch who criticise their use, followed by a reply from the academic who has helped implement them;
Also follow the debate between Police and protestors via the following Twitter call-signs;
@SusPolPLO, @policemonitor

Holgersson, S. and Knutsson, J. (2011), ‘Dialogue Policing: A Mean for Less Crowd Violence?’ in T. D. Madensen and J. Knutsson, (eds), Preventing Crowd Violence: Crime Prevention Studies. Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers

Sunday, 3 June 2012

EDL in Brighton part 2

The English Defence League made another abortive attempt to gather in Brighton this weekend. This time around 30 of them congregated in bars around the city, quickly followed by over 100 anti-fascists. After some scuffles near the sea-front, the Police quickly seperated both sides and escorted the EDL in a moving kettle to Brighton station and away from the town.

What I thought was interesting about this incident, was that while there were far more Police on duty than the last march in April (I heard that there were 900 Police from around 10 different forces, with officers drafted in from as far away as Devon and Cornwall), their policing strategy was very different. All officers (except the mounted ones) had baseball caps on (rather than protective helmets), and there were dedicated teams of Police Liaision Officers wearing orange tabards, whose role was to mingle with the protestors and set up a dialogue with them, establish protestors' intentions, and explain what the Police were doing. This mirrors tactics used by the Swedish Police, and has helped to increase trust between Police and protestors and reduce the risk of collective disorder happening.

Time will tell how effective this approach is, but it may mean that demonstrations are policed in a significantly different way if it's adopted as a long-term strategy.

Reports of the day can be found at;

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Poster of my research

I'm very pleased that a poster I entered for an internal competition at my University has won second prize!

It summarises the interview studies I did into mass emergencies with John Drury when I was at the University of Sussex, and can be seen at;

Monday, 14 May 2012

Liars & Outliers Book review

In  2010 I attended a conference on Security and Human Behaviour at the University of Cambridge (, where academics explored ways of helping people operate more safely in an increasingly uncertain world, and spoke about the resilience of crowd behaviour in mass  emergencies. After that I offerred to proof read a draft of a book by one of the organisers, and he very kindly sent me a copy, so I thought it only fair to give it a quick plug;

Bruce Schneier's new book 'Liars and Outliers' is a very readable book that looks at how society depends upon trust to operate, and that things would quickly grind to a halt if people did not place trust in each other for a multitude of vital social functions. It is grounded in sound theoretical perspectives, drawing upon well established psychological explanations for human behaviour, such as social dilemmas, where immediate individual interest may not always be for the greater collective good. It's helpfully peppered with tables that illustrate the issues involved in such social dilemmas, and supported by a variety of evidence from economic, technological, and psychological approaches- well worth a read.

Published by John Wiley and Sons and details of how to get copies are on his web-site;

Friday, 4 May 2012

Student protestors acquitted

Good news today for two brothers who were unanimously acquitted by a jury on charges of violent disorder at the tuition fee protest outside Parliament on Dec 9th 2010. So far there have been 11 acquittals and one conviction from the charges arising out of this demo, and there have been accusations of the Police either attempting to mislead the Court or of outright lies in their evidence.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Metropolitan Police stock-piling rubber bullets

Rather worrying story that an investigation by the BBC has found that since the summer 2011 riots in the capital, the Met have increased their stock-pile of rubber bullets from 700 to over 10,000.

The history of their use in Northern Ireland during the Troubles (and still to this day) has shown that they do not reduce the chances of public disorder, nor its severity once it occurs. Furthermore, they can and do have lethal effects on those unfortunate enough to get in the way (who are not always the intended target, as they are not very accurate).

Indeed, the use of forms of distance weaponry (such as rubber bullets and water cannon), mean that the Police will be further detached from people on the ground, which can only reduce the chances for dialogue and mutual trust between Police and crowds, and make increased disorder more likely in future.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The battle of Church Street

Rather large and at times quite full on protest in Brighton today, as anti-fascist protestors gathered to prevent the far-right group March For England from marching through the town. Police had to cut short the original planned route to the seafront, as they were having difficulty clearing the route of protestors, and ended up taking the march down a small side street in the centre of town (Church Street), where protestors barricaded the road. The Police managed to finally force their way through with the use of horses and riot gear, but only after some fairly intense skirmishes, with injuries on both sides. People present were drawing paralells with the battle of Cable Street in 1936 where anti-fascists prevented Oswald Moseley's blackshirts from marching through a largely Jewish area in East London. I saw at least 8 different Police forces used today, so the cost of policing today's march will not be cheap!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Alfie Meadows trial update

Link below to an update and on-line petition about the trial of Alfie Meadows and others who are on violent disorder charges following the tuition fees protests in Parliament Square, London, Dec 2010.
The jury couldn't agree a unanimous verdict on Alfie, so there may be a re-trial.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Guardian article on Hillsborough

In commemeration of the 23rd anniversary of the Hillsborough football disaster this weekend, today's Guardian covers an article recently published by academic David Waddington. It looks at how South Yorkshire Police force dealt with 2 major crowd incidents: the 'battle of Orgreave' during the 1984-5 miners' strike, and Hillsborough. It shows how Police initally tried to cover up their failings during the build up of events that led to 96 fans being crushed to death, and then blamed 'drunken' fans for the tragedy- a claim that was utterly rejected by the official report into the disaster.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

panic in Indonesia?

As I write this, reports are still coming in about today's earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, but it seems that mercifully a catastrophic tsunami like the one seen in December 2004, has so far been avoided.

Nevertheless, yet again the word 'panic' is being used by journalists to describe people's behaviour without properly considering what's going on. In the following video clip shown by the BBC (, the terms 'fear' and 'panic' are used in the voice-over.

However, from a quick look through the clip I saw the following actions;

1) A woman is on the phone (presumably contacting friends or loved ones), while her visibly distressed companion holds onto her for comfort

2) Police and soldiers are directing traffic, and helping people cross the road. Traffic seems busy, but people are following directions and no-one seems to be rushing around or getting in each others' way
3) Mothers are sitting on the ground comforting their kids

4) People are sitting on the floor of a mosque, either praying or comforting each other

All these actions show to me that social bonds have not broken down, and people seem to be acting in ordered and even pro-social ways- not the selfish, irrational, or anti-social behaviour that descriptions of 'panic' would imply. Aceh in Sumatra sufferred around 170,000 deaths in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, so it's not surprising that when people heard a tsunami alert that they may have been scared and would wish to leave low-lying areas and seek the safety of higher ground, but I can see nothing in this clip that suggests people are panicking. Instead they are behaving in sensible and logical ways to escape danger from what is a credible and possibly imminent threat.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Bang goes the theory programme

Link below to a BBC TV programme about crowds. Seems to make a reasonable attempt to engage with current evidence, but it tries to cover such a massive range of issues across the board that they don't really get the chance to do justice to each topic. Best bits are the first 5 or so minutes looking at the psychological processes involved in football and protest crowds and about 14 minutes in that look at the physical pressures involved in crowding at concerts

10 O Clock Live on 'panic-buying'

This week's 10 O'Clock live programme on Channel 4 covered the recent fuel crisis, with Charlie Brooker giving his take on 'panic' in a very amusing way about 5.42 into the programme. My favourite bit is when a BBC journalist is almost chasing a woman filling up in a petrol station forecourt, telling her 'it's all a bit worrying isn't it?', and she does her best to ignore him!
Expect lots of colourful language;

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Psychologist on BBC news

Fellow academic Cliff Stott talks about how we should avoid using the term panic to describe people's behaviour during the current fuel crisis, and instead look at ways of encouraging people to act collectively rather than individually;

Friday, 30 March 2012

It's not just the media...

Since my previous post on what I felt was irresponsible reporting of the recent fuel crisis, I feel I should add in the sake of fairness, that while the media could have covered the story better, one could argue it was the spectacularly ill-advised and ill-informed comments by politicians that sparked the 'panic-buying' in the first place.

My sense is that those involved in the fuel supply business and emergency planning in general are not best-pleased with the pronouncements put out by politicians like the Cabinet Minster Franics Maude, telling people to stockpile petrol in Jerry cans. Or as an anonymous contact involved in emergency planning delicately put it;

“Francis Maude is not only monumentally stupid by telling people to buy highly volatile liquid and store it in their homes at a time when the fire engines may be short of petrol to respond to the resulting fire, but is also encouraging them to break the law, as Jerry cans hold 20lt and the legal limit of fuel you can store at home is 10lt split between two 5lt plastic containers.”

On a more serious note, a woman from York is now seriously ill in hospital with 40% burns after trying to decant petrol in her kitchen, and the fumes ignited from a flame from the cooker;

So politicians need to be very careful what they say when they offer 'advice' on how to deal with possible fuel shortages, and think of public safety rather than any possible ulterior political motives, such as trying to undermine the proposed industrial action by tanker drivers (which were today ruled out over Easter in any case).