A social matter

CIR reports on the turmoil that resulted in a series of riots in major cities up and down the country in August

We’ve become sadly accustomed to the increasing prevalence of civil unrest at the global level, but not quite so much in our own back yards. For four nights in August, though, England played host to some quite home-grown chaos. First, in London, where a peaceful vigil turned full-blown riot in the area of Tottenham opened the doors to yet more scenes of violence across the capital. Gangs – mostly angry youths but even children – rampaged through the streets firebombing police stations, setting vehicles and shops alight and indulging in what looked like almost surreal bouts of late-night shopping, looting anything from pots of vitamins and t-shirts to mobile phones and flat screen televisions. The discord quickly spread to nearby Wood Green, Hackney and Dalston, then further to Croydon and Clapham.

In the days that followed, disturbances were reported throughout Bristol, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester, and with particularly tragic consequences, Birmingham. Three deaths were reported in that city, among countless injuries there and beyond. Almost 2,000 arrests were made across the country, and over 1,100 subsequent charges made by the time events had calmed almost a week after the Tottenham vigil for local man, Mark Duggan, who had been shot dead a week before by armed police. It was that fateful march made by locals to the police station on 6th August to demand justice that precipitated the chaos.

It was not long before politicians were hot-footing it back from their summer holidays. Following an emergency meeting of the UK’s Cobra committee, Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the criminality, adding that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. “You will feel the full force of the law,” he declared. “If you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishments.”

A thoroughly modern matter Amid the criticism levelled at the police for the initial lack of force used against the perpetrators, early concerns focused on keeping the public, their homes and local businesses safe from harm. In addition to specific action to keep staff safe and protect assets, a number of businesses in the affected areas invoked business continuity and crisis management plans, made early contact with insurers and in some cases gathered photos and videos for submission to the enforcement authorities. Events like these can be as disruptive to business continuity as what may be regarded a ‘regular’ terrorist event and today, mass public disorder of this sort can leverage social media to move much faster. Social media and networking have developed a significant role in the business environment, presenting risks and opportunities in almost equal measure – the former seemingly with the upper hand.

Networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have both been blamed for fuelling the unrest, but with BlackBerry taking most of the flak. RIMS’ BlackBerry Messenger has more than 45 million active users worldwide, and there has been much debate over whether the services of such communication tools should be suspended during such disturbances.

Much has been made of David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham’s call for the discontinuation of BlackBerry Messenger. He pointed out that the police are unable to gain access to the encrypted service. And yet, the police have long had the right to access certain data where there is suspicion of criminal intent. Further, cooperation with the authorities has already seen the service provider, RIM accused of behaving oppressively. Were events caused, as some might argue, by technology? I think not; this would be to dismiss wider discord caused by the reality of a disaffected section of society, rising unemployment, fewer perceived opportunities for today’s youth. While technology may have precipitated the various gatherings, this has long been the case, with the use of such sites as indymedia.com to organise protests, some of which can be peaceful; others not so.

Well, the service was not suspended, to a considerable sigh of relief on the part of those who find social networking difficult to live without. It is hoped that the same will be the case during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Indeed, the positive application of social media is widely recognised and interest in using networks to this end is making a gradual but definite impact on businesses. Messaging systems were used throughout the crisis by the authorities and also by corporates seeking to move and to reassure staff. At the social media level, a recent study by Burson-Marsteller found that 79 per cent of the largest 100 companies in the Fortune Global 500 index are using at least one social media platform such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube or corporate blogs. That said, many firms still no have full time online monitoring in place – something worth looking at for future-proof risk management.

The majority of the continuity and resilience professionals CIR spoke to cited staff safety as the key concern throughout the disturbances – with the priority ensuring that people can take reasonable measures for travel to and from work or work from home as appropriate. For local retailers, it really was a case of battening down the hatches and increasing security. Where recovery sites were located in affected areas, plan C was into place. Most practitioners will agree that the key to success in any event is communication. As to whether firms even had this kind of event on their risk registers comes down to their view of probability/likelihood and impact. An easy trap to fall into is to get stuck into the detail about probability of an event occurring rather than focusing on the impact.

Social malaise

The cost of the riots comes in many forms. The Association of British Insurers thinks its members may face over £200m ($320m) in claims. Even people who are not insured will be entitled to compensation from the police, ie. taxpayers, under the Riot (Damages) Act of 1886. On 11th August, Cameron outlined measures to help businesses and homeowners who had suffered. Pressure is also mounting on the government to rescind or reduce the 20 per cent budget cut over this parliament imposed on the police.

An event of this kind will naturally prompt fear of insurance hikes for SMEs, although ratings agency Fitch says while pricing may rise in loss-affected areas, recent unrest will not be a catalyst for major price changes in the UK. The policies most likely affected during these riots are residential property, motor, commercial property, and business interruption. It will be most difficult to gauge the ultimate insured costs of business interruption. Business interruption policies typically pay the insured a portion of their lost income when a business was unable to operate under certain circumstances. Some of the more complicated and not easily decipherable claims will likely lead to litigation, which will add to the ultimate costs of the riots and delay payments.

Looking ahead, concerns over policing around the Olympics have naturally been brought into question. It was by most unfortunate coincidence that members of the International Olympic Committee were in London that week to check on preparations for next year’s games. Big questions were raised then about England’s social malaise.

Above all, the riots of 2011 show England in a rather rotten state. It is not technology or risk management, but welfare policy, attitudes to young people, and much more besides that are at the heart of the issue.
England is actually no stranger to rioting – the 1981 Brixton riots being among the worst in recent history, but those of 2011 will most certainly be remembered as one of history’s most sorry sagas. What was unique about this uprising was the speed at which events escalated – and this is what must be considered when seeking to manage the impact of any similar trouble in the future.

As for why events kicked off and how they became as serious as they did is a matter of opinion. Several conspiracy theories are doing the rounds. Whether or not you choose to believe them is academic when it comes to managing the fall out.

Questions surrounding education or opportunities for what justice secretary Kenneth Clarke refers to as a criminal “feral underclass”, are one matter; how new leadership at the Metropolitan Police decides to tackle problems at the community level, another. The government will need to get to grips with all of these issues, though, if we are to avoid a repeat of these grisly scenes. No doubt, rigorous inquiries will soon reveal how they intend to achieve this.

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