Saturday, October 06, 2007


Public protests are, by their nature, designed to gain publicity for a cause. As a veteran of such occasions over the years, I know that this is not straightforward process. A certain ritual is involved, especially in the inevitable numbers game. Police issue attendance statistics which are between a third and half the size of the organisers. Papers report up and down this scale according to their editorial sympathy or otherwise. Statisticians scratch their beards and go somewhere for the middle.

Then if the subject of the protest is "newsworthy" (popular and mainstream) reporters will take some interest, irrespective of it's actual size. Thankfully, that applied to today's Burma rally in London's Trafalgar Square. A turn-out of less than 2,000 was frankly a bit disappointing. But PM Gordon Brown met Buddhist monks and others in a photocall at No 10 before heading off to say there almost certainly wouldn't be a November 2007 general election. And Burma has been front page news for ten days, with global concern. So the BBC gave the demo coverage, and so will tomorrow's papers.

But if the topic had been less amenable to government interests or less immediately accessible to the increasingly narrowly defined mainstream 'news agenda', then a gathering ten times that size wouldn't have guaranteed even so much as a mention. Remember marches against the former Chilean junta during the Thatcher years? They got 20-30,000 people and were almost invisible, press-wise.

These days, the game has shifted. Facebook's remarkable 350,000 global social networking site in support of the Burmese monks (register to access) has attracted huge attention in itself. The demography of protest is measurable virtually as well as actually. And IT means that small-scale individuals can take on corporate interests as never before. The Burmese junta has had to work very hard to keep information and support out as part of its repression. To a significant extent it has failed. You can kill your opponents, but you can't stop the spirit of freedom in the long run...

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