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 But it has evolved into a regular attempt to re-dress the coverage of crowds away from the outdated & ill-informed positions that falsely assume that they are irrational and unable to act sensibly, because they are prone to 'disorder' or 'mass panic'.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!


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