The worst aspects of that response were exemplified by the Channel Four broadcast Street Riots: The Live Debate. I know just how poor this programme was, because I was there, invited to be part of the audience because of what I had written. I assumed that any programme linked to the justly lauded Channel Four News would be undertaken in the same sort of spirit. This was perhaps rather naive of me.
I wish now that someone had recorded the informative and encouraging discussions around the tables during the long period when the audience - mostly composed of those directly affected by the riots or involved in dealing with the aftermath - were gathered waiting for the broadcast to start. One young man noted this, standing up and asking for a moment of everyone's time to make the point that the spirit of cooperation and communication amongst the various groups and factions represented there was so positive he felt it worth acknowledging.
I smelled a rat when we were called in to take our seats, and it was clear that we were being filtered into simplistically polarised positions. I was with those on the left of the studio and supposedly to the right of the debate, next to a 'vigilante' martial artist who had actually defended his parents' home without recourse to violence, in the same row as the man who was kicked off and robbed of his motorbike and was still wincing in pain from his injuries, behind those whose shops had been looted and livelihoods destroyed. Yet there was still a prevailing spirit of goodwill amongst the audience, with, I suspect, many of us most anxious, at that point, about the alarming prospect of appearing on and talking to camera. There was a shift in the atmosphere when Krishnan Gurumurthy strutted onto the set in his high heels, carrying with him a miasma of self-importance so intense it was though someone had a lobbed an anchovy into bowl of pic-a-mix. The tension began to rise.
The purpose of the 'rehearsal' that followed, and similar planning sessions that took place whenever the studio was off air, became clear as soon as the cameras started rolling. Almost every participant who had something constructive or conciliatory to say was overlooked, as the 'debate' focused on the contentious and reductive.
There was also something of a stooge on the panel. Adrian Mills was introduced as the husband of a restaurateur whose premises were looted. He is also a minor TV presenter in his own right and he was turned to whenever Gurumurthy failed to elicit the strident 'hang 'em and flog 'em approach he was seeking from my side of the floor. I'd much rather have seen the marvellously sanguine and dignified Trevor Reeve on the paid panel. Or better still, Jan Sainte. She and her mother lost their entire handmade, largely bespoke stock, looted from their premises in Peckham. No insurance payment will cover her for the time she needs to rebuild her stock and clientele. I've lost count of the number of fatuous idiots who have suggested that the looting was some sort of deliberate anarchic response to 'the bankers'. Her suggestion, that small businesses like hers should be offered at least a temporary financial bail-out, should have been given airtime and a response from Ian Duncan Smith, especially in the week that banks came under scutiny for failing to provide adequate loan services to SMEs.
It was participants like her, giving up an evening of what must surely be one of the worst weeks of their lives, whom I felt most sorry for as the programme progressed. There would, of course, have been more time for their contributions if several minutes of airtime hadn't been wasted on some bloke reading out bits of the Twitter feed. This was presumably to get the C4 hashtag trending for the benefit of future adverstising revenue, but if I'd gone there because I'd lost my business or been terrorised in my home and I'd been silenced while the inane observations of Chunkymuff off Twitter were given airtime, I think I'd have walked out of the studio.
I don't know if the Question Time debate on the BBC was any better. I caught only a fragment of it - John Prescott raging incoherently like a giant, grey, animated testicle - and it wasn't available afterwards on iPlayer. I did see the Newsnight debacle with David Starkey, sadly, and wondered who thought it was appropriate to wheel out a expert on the monarchy to speak with neither expertise nor insight on the matter of public disorder. They must have been mourning that Starkey had only two feet, when his mouth would clearly have accommodated so very many more. That show, too, was undoubtedly deemed a great success, trending away on Twitter, generating self-referential column inches as the media endlessly debated itself under the guise of talking about the riots. The Channel 4 debate and the Starkey sideshow added nothing in the way of explanation or analysis, and both programmes detracted from and distorted the issues under discussion. They might have been entertaining, but the BBC, at least, should have paid more attention to its remit to inform and educate.
I was surprised to be given the last word in the C4 debate, given 'ten seconds to talk about something positive that might come out of the riots'. I suspect I was supposed to say something worthy about education. What I said, though less coherently, was that truly inspiring leadership had come from ordinary citizens and had helped to compensate for the crushing lack of real leadership from our political masters, whose responses I described as polarised between the Guardianista sermon and the Daily Mail outragegasm.
More than any other generation of politicians, the present ones respond to headlines rather than generating them. Their speeches play immediately to their respective galleries, and indicate no consistent, coherent approach. They are seldom even memorable, though not because of a refreshing lack of soundbites (excluding, of course, David Cameron's unfortunately acronymed 'War on Gangs' or broken record repetition of the mantra about a 'broken society') but because of a terrifying lack of content. The one consistent factor seems to have been the assurance of 'robust' responses, particularly in terms of sentencing miscreants. Except, of course, that the unusually stiff penalties are merely reduced on appeal, just as any withdrawal of benefits is likely to be. These appeals have to be financed from the public purse, making this knee-jerk robustness a very expensive cosmetic exercise.
This level of civil unrest does not call for a radical response in terms of punishment, but for a fair and clear-sighted idea of the long term consequences. Those who already had criminal records before their offences during the riots should not receive harsher than normal sentence. If they do it will reinforce their sense of themselves both as a threat to normal society and beyond that society's redemptive reach. It will entrench their gang loyalty - if they have one - even more deeply. In this instance, to demonise is to glamorise.
Those who had no previous criminal record should also receive no more than 'normal' punishment for the crimes they committed during the riots. These are the ones, especially those who are very young, whom I fear for most. If they managed to grow up in communities where almost the majority of people their age get into trouble without turning to crime themsleves, they are going to feel a burning sense of injustice if their actions during the riots are deemed to merit much stiffer penalties than those their peers have recieved for similar, repeated crimes before the riots. These are the young people who may become permanently criminalised by their actions during one horrifying, emotive, but isolated event. Some account must be taken on the mob hysteria that prevailed on those nights of violence. Surely it would be better to offer those with a previously clean record appropriate sentences that would be expunged, permanently, from their records if they commit no further offence within three or five years?
In the unliklely event that I do go back to the classroom next month, I would be very reluctant to discuss the polarised political response to the riots. But I would use news stories from the riots. I'd use stories about Tariq Jahan, appealing so eloquently for calm after the horrifying death of his son; Louise Smith resolutely defending her business from a 300-strong mob; Mary Cohen organising the clean-up in Clapham; Trevor Reeve, refusing to demand revenge and showing his superiority both to the lawless mob that destroyed his business and the increasingly strident one that claims to be baying for justice for people like him. These are people worth learning about, people worth learning from. I'd encourage my pupils to ignore the politicians and switch off the broadcasters.