Alan Renehan sees problems with local responses to the national media
assault on Liverpool
The James Bulger case provided the cue for another wave of anti-Liverpool
reports in the national media. About a fortnight after the death of two-year
old James, the Sunday Times splashed a major feature - 'Self-pity
city' - that articulated the sentiments underlying most discussion of the
inner cities today (28 February 1993).
The article by Jonathan Margolis was full of prejudice against working class
people in Liverpool. Margolis described a city populated by a rabble, and
asked if it has gone mad: 'Well, that's Liverpool people...they sound like
tired mothers bemoaning their husbands' and sons' violence, while quietly
tolerating their excesses as, well, natural.'
'United as Scousers'
The message behind all of the media images of shell-suited scallies and
irresponsible mothers should be clear enough by now: Scousers are scum.
Understandably perhaps, Liverpool's local newspapers, the Echo and
the Daily Post, have complained about the bias. However their response
has been to present Liverpudlians as poor unfortunate victims. Victims of
unemployment, victims of poverty, victims of crime and now victims of the
'poison pen vilification' of Fleet Street (Echo, 24 February 1993).
Although the 'self-pity city' jibes are a malicious caricature, the pathetic-sounding
tone adopted by the local press has been influential in Liverpool in response
to the Bulger killing and the national media coverage which followed it.
As a local resident wrote a day after Auberon Waugh had penned a diatribe
against Liverpool, 'so many different tragedies have united and bound us
together as Scousers' (Echo, 5 March 1993). Many have united to support
events like the 'walk of sorrows' retracing the last steps of the two-year
old from the shopping centre to the embankment, a route which has been compared
to Jesus walking with the cross.
Alan Bleasdale's new play reflects the view of Liverpudlians as isolated
and rather suicidal characters, united by the fact that they are 'On the
Ledge' and, of course, by that good old Scouse wit. While even the local
police join in the defence against the 'Mersey-bashers', another correspondent
to the Echo informs us that there are 'two types of Liverpudlians...the
wreath-laying ones that insert pages of condolences and then there are the
stone-throwing yobs' (5 March 1993). So when tabloid journalists rubbish
Scousers as a violent mob, the local press responds by pleading for mercy
on the grounds that most people from Liverpool are really soft and compassionate.
Instead of the angry 'city that dared to fight' of the eighties, Liverpool
in the middle of today's slump seems to be a city of atomised individuals,
bitter about the situation they find themselves in but unable to see a way
out of it. For some Scousers, the prevailing sentiment appears to be that
if we are going to be victims, we'll be the best at it.
This view has become more widespread as any idea of fighting back against
the consequences of the slump has been removed - at least temporarily. While
more redundancies are handed out at Ford Halewood and ICI, and the economic
position of Merseyside deteriorates further still, we are simply asked to
mourn a young boy and feel sorry for the people of Liverpool.
Contrary to what the national media says, it was not only people from Liverpool
who projected their own fears and insecurities on to the Bulger case in
this way. It might have been Scousers who filled the pages of the local press
with memorial notices for two-year old James. But it was middle class women
from London, who had probably never been anywhere near Bootle shopping mall,
who set up Mothers Against Murder and Aggression in response to his death.
The main thing that's different about Liverpool is that its people probably
have more reason than most to adopt the victim mentality. The city's economy
is in ruins, its people hammered by the Tory government and badly let down
by local Labour Party politics. As a consequence, many individuals in Liverpool
feel the current sense of insecurity in British society particularly strongly.
But they are only the best-known examples of a dangerous national fashion
for getting maudlin and wallowing in despair.
The defensive 'Liverpool v the world' approach now influencing politics in
the city identifies the wrong enemies. It allows those in Liverpool who are
putting the boot into local people to present themselves as the Scousers'
champions. So Labour council leader Harry Rimmer can preside over yet more
cuts in jobs, working conditions and services, and still be presented as
the warrior of the people fighting the 'racism' of the Southern press.
Which brings me to my final point. The whole discussion of the Bulger killing
has been hijacked to stimulate a discussion about imposing more draconian
legal controls over people's lives. The prospect is for more surveillance
and identity cards, more punishment, more helicopters, more paramilitary-style
policing; and all that is demanded in Liverpool at the moment is for people
to feel sorry for the city.
It's a bit like a collective expression of the sentiment that the bloke
in the bottom flat where I live put to me when I first moved in: 'Hiya Al,
I'm Terry. I've had it hard, kidda. Me brother hates me, me mom's ill and
me old man has run away with me wife.' We need something better than that.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993