Broadcast Documentaries
Battle of Trafalgar
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Battle of Trafalgar
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Released in 1990

An account of the anti-poll tax demonstration on 31st March 1990. Raising questions about public order policing, the independence and accountability of the media and the right to demonstrate.

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 days events as they unfolded. Demonstrators’ testimonies raise some uncomfortable questions: questions about public order policing, the independence and accountability of the media and the right to demonstrate.

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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

…a frankly tendentious alternative account of the riot that followed the London poll tax demonstration on March 31. It suggests that the version of events presented by the media which sparked such uniform expressions of disgust from the Home Secretary and his Labour shadow was concocted by the police. The case is underlined by the selected witnesses who say they were astonished by the television news programmes over that weekend. The police declined an invitation to answer questions arising. The film may generate all the controversy that the producers could want. Its major weakness is that it accepts the destructive rampage, by a minority of the demonstrators, as a natural consequence.
Sean Day-Lewis Sunday Telegraph 18 September 1990

The only Nelsons in this battle were of the half variety. Last March’s anti-poll tax demonstration in London, which degenerated into a violent shambles, is recalled and analysed, with many participants describing their anger at the police tactics ( or lack of them). Accusations proliferate that either the riot was deliberately provoked by the police, or that their handling of the situation was woefully inept. More allegations relate to the news media’s selection of film footage. Highly controversial stuff.
Martin James Pick of the Week Sunday Correspondent 16 Sept 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

The second “Battle of Trafalgar” has yet to find its place in the history books and will probably not qualify for the waxwork reconstruction at Madame Tussauds. 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.

Various caveats need to be entered: the film did not claim impartiality, nor did it attract spokesmen from either the police or any of the television news organisations, which the programme accused of bias in their subsequent coverage. It was there- as a film company’s title Despite TV might suggest-to prove there was another side to the story of how an initially peaceful mass demonstration became a riot on a spring Saturday evening in central London.

There has always been something peculiarly English in the notion of political protest as an extended social gathering. Some of the eye witnesses here did appear almost amazed not to find cake stands and tombola’s set up in Trafalgar Square prior to their arrival. What they found instead were ranks of police, who at certain moments are alleged to have driven vans through crowds of pedestrians whose freedom of movement was already restricted by barriers. The police did say that they were rushing to the aid of colleagues who were unquestionably under fierce attack from a small minority of demonstrators. But as a nun remarked, this was Trafalgar not Tiananmen Square; we are supposed to do these things differently.

Certainly, there was panic on both sides: I happened to be in Trafalgar Square that evening and the fear was a thick as fog. But the real questions are: does the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, with the wisdom of six month’s hindsight and reflection, feel that his men in any way either failed or overstepped their duties? And do the editors of any Television news organisations feel that pictures were suppressed to improve the image of the police or to worsen that of the demonstrators.

Several of the eye witnesses seen last night clearly believe that there are affirmative answers. All television is by its nature selective, and a hand held camera is not in itself evidence of a greater truth. When a man say ” Then we saw the burning of South Africa house and thought it was about time,” it was not difficult to dismiss his subsequent remarks as being somewhat partial. But many witnesses were of much more thoughtful nature, and notably worried by what they saw as a radical change in the character of the old British Bobby as he becomes an agent for the enforcement of government policies.

The question is not simply whether the demonstration could have been better planned or contained, but whether the chaos was confrontational. Nor is there any suggestion that the television coverage was completely one sided, since ITN did indeed show the beaten up photographer. The issue is whether the police were behaving as neutral law keepers, and that issue can not be resolved until both sides are prepared to debate it in public.

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

Last nights Critical Eye (C4) offered the opportunity to see the police pressing charges in crowded Trafalgar Square. First you saw them press charges on horse back and later they did the same from inside a small fleet of vans. According to those who were among the crowd, the vans reached 30 m.p.h. the people in the way ran for their lives. These were images which were largely missing from the news coverage of the event at the time.

When, last March, a poll tax demonstration collapsed into rioting and looting in the centre of London, the version of events presented on the news settled for a brisk, easily grasped narrative in which the trouble was attributable to the opportunism of anarchists, bent on turning the march to their own ends – roughly, damage to public property and police officers. “The Battle of Trafalgar” came in at a more oblique angle, attributing the aggressions displayed by the marchers to wayward policing.

The programme displayed yards of hitherto unseen film, much of it sickening: the steward in the bright orange jacket looking on powerless at a baton charge, for instance, and the marcher holding a milk shake while a troop of policemen stormed past him were both resonant of what it might be to be caught up in trouble rather than to be looking for it. Other scenes were more directly provocative. Those round shields the police carry look inoffensive enough when used to stave off flung debris but they take on an altogether different function at the point at which they are held edge outwards and jabbed into the faces of the crowd.

While the film ran, marchers appeared at the side of the screen providing their recollections. Much of this seemed to be coming from entrenched positions: consider, for instance, the force of the “Obviously” in the following piece of testimony “South Africa house had began to burn down, and everyone was obviously cheering and thinking its about time.” Meanwhile, the illusion made by one contributor to a parallel to Tiananmen Sq was a lazy as any piece of tabloid thinking, and dismissable simply by using all that extensive film evidence to undertake a quick tank count (there weren’t any).

Unfortunately, the most vivid questions the programme raised had to go unanswered. Were the forces of law and order panicked, out of control, or even willfully interested in stirring things up, a number of predictable conspiracies lingered ( one speaker pointed out how “criminalising” these demonstrations is always going to be more in the governments interests than in those of the demonstrators) and you could claim it was the duty of the documentary to substantiate its claims, rather than to leave them flapping temptingly, playing on your worse suspicions. In the programmes defense, though the Metropolitan Police had declined to take part, which was a slight to the producers: this was a programme thorough enough to warrant a response.
Only Television Giles Smith Independent Wednesday 19 1990

Aurea Carpenter on a documentary about the anti-poll tax demonstration. Last nights Critical Eye (C4), a documentary reappraisal of the anti poll tax demonstration of 31 March this year, followed so hot on the heels of the first two editions of the Media Show that it could almost have been produced as a sequel. While Emma Freud broached the issue of media manipulation, the emotively titled Battle of Trafalgar confronted it head on, with all the force of a discharged cannon ball.

It was clear from the outset that this programme, made by Despite TV, had no pretensions to impartiality. The message was hammered out unrelentingly: it was the police’s sudden, brutal and uncontrolled assault on the crowd-not least in vans at speeds of up to 40 m.p.h.- that spread mass fear and panic; the police who excited ordinary folk to chant along to a reworking of a Beatles classic, We All Live in a Fascist Regime!; and the police who precipitated the destructive chaos that ended what had promised to be a peaceful protest march. The events of the day were carefully reconstructed by eye witnesses, whose talking heads were super imposed in profile over previously unseen footage of the action, provided by both Despite TV’s camera crew and independent amateur video enthusiasts.

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/
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