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.