The Battle of Trafalgar gives an account of the anti-poll tax demonstration on 31st March 1990, one that is radically different from that presented by TV news. Eyewitnesses tell their stories against a backdrop of video footage showing the day’s events as they unfolded. This is one of the UK’s first camcorder activist films, made from amateur and freelance footage, unseen at the time and portraying a chillingly different vision of events from that shown in the media at the time.
Demonstrators’ testimonies raise some uncomfortable questions: Questions about public order policing, the independence and accountability of the media and the right to demonstrate.
Two decades later and these issues cannot be more prescient. With the rise of new social media and widespread recording technology, as well as increasingly repressive laws and policing powers and a pervasive 24-hour news culture – the relationship between the media and police in relation to the right to protest and the medium of film have only become more complex and problematic, as can be seen through the recent media representation and prosecution of student protesters and rioters.
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You remember the outrage and condemnation voiced by the media and politicians after the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax riot in March (1990). You remember the vicious, unprovoked attacks on police shown on the evening news that Saturday. But you won’t remember the speeding vans bouncing demonstrators off bonnets or the repeated baton charges that came without warning, since these were ignored by news transmissions. This film carefully reconstructs a step-by step analysis of the demonstration, combining unseen footage with a multitude of eyewitness accounts. It unashamedly gives no voice to the police, levels a two tiered accusation at them; at best they were badly organised; at worst they were downright confrontational.
Mark Wareham Independent Saturday 15 September 1990
Last March, the huge anti poll tax demonstration in London turned into an ugly riot, with a mob hurling missiles at policemen, setting buildings on fire and looting shops. Last March a peaceful, disciplined demonstration became a violent melee because police grossly over-reacted, charging marchers with vans and horses, bearing down en masse on terrified crowds and beating up innocent people.
Two perceptions of the same event: the difference, says this film, is that the first was the picture painted by the media; the second is how it seemed to people on the ground who have, until now, lacked the platform to tell it from their side of the barricades. This they do here charting the events of that day through amateur footage and eyewitness stories, and suggesting that the violence was indeed orchestrated- but not by the marchers.
Sandy Smithies Watching Brief The Guardian Tuesday 18 Sept 1990
But the anti-poll tax events of March 31 this year do have some historical fascination, and “Battle of Trafalgar” (Channel 4) suggested that they will resonate for some time yet. A freelance video company called Despite TV produced an hour long documentary, which carefully reconstructed the demonstration from freelance footage, shot on the hoof and largely unscreened at the time. What it showed was, often elderly people of distinctly un-student-like demeanor being violently attacked.
Last night’s documentary was probably one sided as a police recruiting film, albeit for those on the other side of the Whitehall barricades. But at the end two lawyers make comments which surely warrant further investigation. One alleged that police subsequently “heavied” evidence by turning beer cans into concrete blocks for their reports; the other suggested that there was magisterial panic as a result of press headlines a still more crucial question for the future of free access television was raised virtually as the credits started to role under new legislation, police can now impound the kind of freelance “snatch” video material on which this whole documentary was built. In future, how strong will be their urge to make sure that footage such as we saw last night is not allowed to make it onto the air?
Sheridan Morley The Times 19 September 1990
The background images sometime appeared contrived as an attempt to give authority to what the witnesses were saying, but overall the programme effected a persuasive condemnation of the various news channels, which, apparently in the race to be the first on the box, had been content to make the average marcher look like a criminal, and had thereby exonerated the police’s heavy handed response.
“We were utterly shocked by the way the media handled the films that they had. They were edited and cut, and showed only a whole day of carnage, which is not true. In future, anything I see on television or read in the papers I will never ever believe,” said Barbara, one gentle spoken eye witness who could have not looked less anarchic if she had tried.
The strength of the Battle of Trafalgar was its flagrant partiality. It was in fact a highly convincing piece of propaganda and there is surely nothing wrong with that. As the Media Show so obligingly spelled out for us last week, we can only hope for several different portrayals of events in the quest for objectively.
Aurea Carpenter Daily Telegraph Wednesday 19 Sept 1990
Producer: Despite TV
Directed by: Despite TV
Production Company: Despite TV
Funded by: Channel 4
Distributed by: Spectacle