The arms fair and the media

Originally published on the Pluto Press blog.

It has now been six days since the main day of action called by the Stop the Arms Fair coalition against DSEi –the world’s largest arms fair- held in the Excel Centre in East London. The dust will always take a little while to settle after big campaigning days such as Tuesday, but enough of a picture has emerged to process it through the word mill.

Firstly, we were not successful in shutting down the arms fair. If this sounds like too much of a pipe dream to have seriously been considered a possibility, it is always worth remembering that a concerted campaign by peace activists in Australia did bear this very result. Though we are unsuccessful this time around, we can take some comfort from the fact that it has been achieved before, and will be achieved again.

Secondly, when most of your waking hours are spent focusing on the Militarist Beast you start to form something of a parasitical relationship with it. All the meetings; the hours spent producing and distributing flyers and our newspaper; the planning of our direct action on the day –DSEi has become so all consuming that the reality of it inevitably comes as something of a disappointment.

Where were all the cameras on Tuesday? Why was the mainstream media not live blogging the minutiae of the protests –as they are wont to do with such alacrity on stories of lesser news value, and with fewer repercussions on people’s lives?

It seems that there has been a fair bit of coverage after all, but much of it has focused on DSEi more broadly, throwing in a paragraph about the protests; maybe a quote from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). Liam Fox’s speech, in which he gave political backing to the ‘defence’ industry, has been a jumping board for a number of articles; as has the Pakistan pavilion that was shut down for brochures bearing advertisement for banned cluster bombs. Perhaps the most grotesque exposition of the arms fair comes from the Telegraph piece (‘London’s arms fair: anyone seen that invisible tank?’) about gold-plated guns, complete with a picture of an overgrown man-child and a hysterical young woman pointing their pimped out sub-machine guns at the camera. How very jolly for them.

There has been at least something about the arms fair in most of the liberal press, as well as the FTTelegraph and BBC, though the more insular, independent media offer the most extensive coverage.

Despite the protests being dispersed around the city –near the Excel Centre, at Parliament, BAE Systems’ HQ, and the National Gallery- many of the actions would ordinarily warrant much more coverage than they did, especially if taken collectively, and particularly given the political and economic context of Britain’s ongoing weapons sales.

By way of a few examples: the Space Hijackers came up with the inspired ‘Life Neutral Solutions’ –a fake company modeled on the spurious logic of carbon offsetting, whose branding and jargon was so appropriately anodyne that it fooled as many people as saw it for what it was. A couple of days before DSEi opened its doors, six intrepid kayakers paddled out into the path of the approaching HMS Dauntless warship, to prevent it from entering the Royal Victoria Docks by the exhibition centre. They managed to hold it up for a number of hours before arrested.

Equally as media-worthy, the National Gallery hosted a private reception in one of its ornate rooms for the arms dealers on Tuesday night. A number of activists attempted to find out which room, with a view to disrupting the event. While none were successful in this endeavour, a large crowd had gathered by 6 o’clock to ‘die-in’ outside the building, and to harangue those attendees that dared run the gauntlet of shame. The police were out in force to manhandle activists away from the entrances, and roughly stop-and-search people they deemed suspicious. Still, despite the public interest (surely?) in the fact that one of our most respected institutions, the National Gallery, had warmly invited the arms trade into its inner sanctum, -its legitimacy rubbing off onto the arms dealers’ suits like pollen on bees- there were precious few cameras, and little written about it afterwards.

The cynical journo within me is screaming “propaganda model!” as an explanation for all the absent column inches, but perhaps the reality is more depressing –that despite DSEi being the mother of big deals for a number of peace activists, and something of a circus for the arms dealers themselves, very few people outside of this limited pool care as much about the arms trade as much as we do.

Possibly this is because very few people ever consider there to be an arms industry. If this is the case, then there are irrepressible rays of hope. Discourse, linguistics and the framing of debate have long been seen as important, as Gramscian musings on Hegemony, or more recent studies of public attitudes towards Israel/Palestine will attest.

In any potentially controversial area being able to choose the language with which an issue is discussed is vital. (One exemplary linguistic contestation can be found in the ‘Pro Life/ Pro Choice’ tug of war…) In no industry is this truer than in the arms trade. One cannot talk about ‘the arms trade’ without making a normative judgment, embedded in the very language you choose to describe it –whether you invoke ‘the defence sector’ or ‘merchants of death’ you are making a value judgment before the first adjective passes from your lips. With this in mind we might feel some encouragement by the fact that a big chunk of the mainstream (non trade) media chose to refer to DSEi as ‘the arms fair’ rather than the ‘defence technology expo’.

It might seem like a small point, but there is nothing the arms trade fears more than having its veil of legitimacy plucked from its skulking back, and revealed for what it is: an ethical badlands of corruption, violence and deceit. By framing the debate in mainstream media as ‘the arms fair’, it acts to drag a reluctant industry into a battle terrain it is ill-equipped for: one where politics and ethics hold currency.

We will have to see over the next few weeks and months whether any momentum of public opinion against the arms trade is built up. With budget and service cuts continuing unabated at the same time as the government floods almost £700 million of subsidies into the arms trade, such a critical mass of public opinion could yet be forged.


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