Monday, 24 January 2011

A Busman's holiday in Tunisia!

I recently went on holiday to Tunisia, where I found myself caught up in a revolution, which was quite fortuitous for me, considering my research interests involve the study of crowd behaviour. Below follows an e-mail I sent to the BBC about my experiences of being there and being interviewed by the media while I was out there
   
Dear XXXXX,

further to the conversation we had while I was in the Tunisian resort of Sousse last friday, I would like to add some thoughts about how I think the recent situation in Tunisia was covered by the British media, and how the opportunity to present a potentially new and interesting angle to the story was sadly missed. I felt that the coverage in general tended to be over-sensationalised and bordered on being alarmist at times, which not only presented a partial picture of the situation, but could also have contributed to unnecessarily raising anxiety levels of both those in Tunisia, and their loved ones back home who saw the coverage.

While I found the worst culprits were as usual amongst the tabloid press, there were times when I felt that even the BBC could have been a little more even-handed in its coverage of the situation. For instance, one of the interviews I did was for Radio 5 Live, where I was interviewed right after a holidaymaker in Hammammet who had barricaded himself into his hotel room with his wife and 3 young children. My attempts to portray the picture as a little more nuanced, and that I didn't think tourists would be targeted in the disorder didn't seem to be given that much attention by the journalist I spoke to, and the interview seemed to be cut short.

Therefore, I worry that the inference of pervasive fear & distress amongst holiday-makers in Tunisia was considered a better story than that it was actually quite safe for the vast majority of holiday-makers, as it didn't seem to be in anyone's interests for tourists to be harmed. While it was clearly a distressing experience for the specific family concerned, I met them on the plane out the next day, and we were all laughing and joking about our experiences. They certainly did not strike me as deeply traumatized by their experiences, but I worry that is not how the situation will be remembered, as it is less newsworthy than the mental image of tourists being barricaded in one's hotel while the resort 'burns'.

Moreover, while there was probably also a lot of fear amongst holiday makers about what was happening, and a desire to get home, I would argue that much of the distress would have been based more on their worries of what might happen, rather than what actually did happen. The footage I took of rioting crowds in Monastir, clearly shows they were selective in the targets they attacked (such as properties belonging to the family of the President, Ben Ali). Indeed, when my partner and I were caught up in a riot, we found that not only were crowd members not threatening towards us, many were coming up to us, telling us that we were safe, and why they were targeting certain buildings & not others, their view of the president etc. The only time we felt concerned for our safety was when the Police arrived, and there was a general fear that they would open fire on the crowd, as they had already done elsewhere. The only footage I have seen where foreigners were deliberately targeted, was when a car-load of Swedes on a hunting trip were stopped and attacked when the crowd found they had guns on them, believing they were foreign mercenaries. Clearly that was a wrong judgment on the part of the crowd, but given the fluid nature of the situation in Tunis at the time, it is perhaps not that surprising that they came to this conclusion when they found the guns.

I worry therefore, that there is a danger that the media has pursued an angle on this story (e.g. terrified British holidaymakers caught up in the middle of a revolution etc) that buys too much into outdated views- not only of how crowds behave, but also how people are far more resilient in the face of adversity than they are often given credit for. This reflects a deeply pathological view of crowds that is rather pervasive in social discourse, but not supported by the evidence that a wide range of academic studies into crowds over the last 50 years have found.

Please contact me if you require further information on this topic. I attach fyi a booklet I produced with a colleague on a project we did into mass emergency behaviour, and a link follows below to academic papers we have published on this topic.

best wishes,

Dr Chris Cocking
Dept of Psychology
London Metropolitan University



You-tube links of footage I took of rioting crowds in Monastir, Tunisia



He's not the President- he's a v naughty boy! parts 1&2
Footage of protests in Monastir, Tunisia 13th Jan 2011, taken from the Ribat castle, where 'Monty Python's the Life of Brian' was filmed. You can see that while the crowd comprehensively destroy a cafe that belonged to the extended business empire of the Ben Ali family, they are selective in their attacks & no other properties in the vicinity are targeted  

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