Does class identity excuses public disorder?

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September 8, 2011


The Experts: Why should middle class disorder escape punishment?


Marilyn Stowe


Public disorder, rarely out of the news of late, hasn’t been confined to the streets. Last week at the Royal Albert Hall, 7,000 music lovers and countless radio listeners witnessed an eagerly awaited Proms concert descend into shouting and chanting by protestors. So frequent and noisy were the interruptions that the BBC took the concert off air for the first time in the Proms’ history.

Rioters who were judged to have committed disturbances and breaches of the peace have been shown no mercy by the courts, even when there were no signs of violence or theft. Politicians and judges have made it clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated. Back at the Proms, meanwhile, no arrests were made and what happened at the Royal Albert Hall received relatively sparse coverage in the press. It was written off as an isolated, middle class incident.

So is that what happens when the peace is seriously breached not by unemployed people in downtrodden areas, but by activists and middle class types at concert halls? Does the rule of law apply to one section of society, but not another?

Unlike the public disorder on the streets, the protest at the Royal Albert Hall was designed to be clever and witty. It followed the BBC’s refusal to cede to a group called The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which had demanded that the BBC cancel an invitation issued to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Instead the Prom sold out, with people paying up to £90 apiece for tickets.

On the night the orchestra’s musical director, Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, picked up his baton. The soloist, Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham, picked up his Stradivarius violin. Then around 30 protestors dotted around the venue began a noisy chant about Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid”. They sang their protest to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

The orchestra played on, but the concert was taken off-air and inside the Royal Albert Hall, the protest turned angry and ugly. There were scuffles with audience members and one person who was there said that the atmosphere felt “like a riot”. After the protestors were ejected by security, the orchestra received seven ovations.

The identities of the protesters are known, but none have faced any public order charges. Why not? If this small group of individuals caused harassment, alarm and distress – which it certainly sounds like they did, not just to the musicians but to audience members – why shouldn’t they be held to account under section 4A of the Public Order Act? When racially aggravated – and if the members of the orchestra deemed the verbal attacks to be racist attacks, they would fit the working definition of racial harassment – such a contravention is capable of attracting two years’ imprisonment at the Crown Court.

I note that the following day in Greater Manchester, another group of anti-Israel protestors – less educated this time, and less “witty” – made its mark. Graffiti was scrawled across houses, bus shelters and the offices of a local newspaper. “Free Palestine”, they wrote. “Free Gaza.” “Jew scumbags.” The police are involved this time and the culprits are being hunted.

So why are those who interrupted the Proms with similar sentiments and who succeeded in causing disruption and damage not being held to account? What is the difference?

I suspect that the costs of removing that offensive graffiti will be cheaper than the costs of the BBC, and therefore taxpayers, of broadcasting the concert this week minus the interruptions. If the Manchester protestors are apprehended, criminal prosecutions may well follow. But shouldn’t it be the same for the Royal Albert Hall protestors? Or does one law apply to the little man who defaces a bus shelter, and another to the member of the intelligentsia who upsets a classical music concert?

We are in danger of condoning conduct with potentially serious consequences because of the class identity of those who commit such crimes, while refusing to tolerate similar behaviour from those with demonstrably less education and therefore different ways of expressing themselves. It would seem that the rule of law applies to everyone in theory, but not in practice.


Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law


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