« Previous | Main | Next »

The forgotten story of the London riots

Post categories:

Richard Fenton-Smith | 10:42 UK time, Thursday, 11 August 2011

Woolwich fire

"Cover your face! Cover your face!" a teenage girl ordered her friends, as she handed out scarves freshly looted from a clothes shop. Nearby, a boy in his mid-teens, hood pulled tight over his face, was commanding his friends through a loud speaker, rounding them up before their next assault.

It was Monday night. I was in Woolwich, south-east London. My hometown. Born there, schooled there, still live there.

When I arrived at around 20:45, I saw a burning car outside Woolwich Arsenal station. "It's a police car," a clearly frightened young woman told me as she speed-walked away from the scene. Teenagers raced past us, arms loaded with trainers and t-shirts - some of them stopping casually to sell their loot to punters outside a local pub.

They were coming from the direction of the high street, where I discovered around 300 young men and women - mostly school age - in a violent stand-off with not-very-many police officers. Shops, banks and betting shops all had their windows caved in and with the police pinned at one end of the town, the young men around me casually prised open shop shutters. Big cheers went up as they broke in, as score of looters swarmed like locusts, grabbing anything within reach.

By around midnight, the police finally took control, but not before dozens of shops were damaged. Two were gutted by fire, along with a pub which was also burned out. The railway station remained closed the next day, because the damage to nearby buildings was so bad.

On Tuesday morning, like many people, I devoured the news coverage about the riots. But the more I read, I saw a pattern emerging. Woolwich hardly got a mention. London's Evening Standard had a map of the riot hotspots, but it didn't even show my part of south-east London.

Similarly, on Wednesday the Daily Telegraph printed a map of mob violence, which pin-pointed the worst-hit areas such as Croydon, down to districts like Camberwell Green, where "15 rioters went unchallenged by police".

I wish Woolwich only had 15 people running riot. Instead there was 20 times that amount.

I wasn't the only one to notice, either. Greenwich Borough councillor, Nigel Fletcher, tweeted his exasperation, accusing Sky News of "airbrushing the Woolwich riots from history".

When I tell people I live in Woolwich, I'm often met with a mockney snigger of "Saaarf-eaast Landahn". Unlike Hackney, Ealing, Clapham, Camberwell and Camden, it's not very 'media luvvy'. So come Tuesday morning, newsrooms would have been buzzing with what happened in these more fashionable neighbourhoods. Perhaps Woolwich just wasn't cool enough to count.

Fortunately, 5 live is different - or at least, I think so. As I waited on the phone on Monday night, waiting for my turn to speak to Adil Ray, I heard people from all walks of life, from across London, getting the chance to tell the nation what they were witnessing. The BBC News channel, BBC World News and BBC Breakfast also wanted to speak to me.

As a journalist, I understand that it's impossible to cover every angle of a story. But it's been a wake-up call to have watched a town centre being wrecked and for it to largely go unnoticed. I felt what viewers, readers, and listeners feel when they say 'nobody is listening to us', and it got me wondering: where else in the country are big stories being ignored?

Richard Fenton-Smith is the series producer of 5 live Investigates


  • Comment number 1.

    I thought the very same thing my own view is that they don't want to publicise the riots in woolwich because they don't want the negative publicity surrounding the olympics also they dont want to draw attention to the area at a time that its going through a programme of regeneration .

  • Comment number 2.

    I had a similar experience to Richard when presenting a "Riot Special" on BBC WM a couple of nights ago; our news reports suggested there had been looters in Birmingham City Centre, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich - but listeners told me other areas had been affected eg the Windmills Shopping Centre in Cape Hill, Smethwick which had been looted but not mentioned.

    I suspect this is partly a resources issue especially in such a fast moving situation - news organisations can't be everywhere. If nothing else though, it proves the value of interactive news, whether on 5Live or local radio. The listeners are our eyes and ears.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thank you for this article!! As somebody who lives within a mile of Woolwich too, I've been equally frustrated by the lack of coverage and it has been really quite upsetting. Even my friends in other parts of London dismiss or ignore what happened despite me telling them because it hasn't been getting the media coverage you'd expect, and I think they think I'm a crackpot! Like you I wonder what else is covered up - I heard Colliers Wood was hit badly too but no mentions.

    I appreciated your brave venturing out and later tweets on the night - with so much rumour it was nice to have a source that could be trusted.

  • Comment number 4.

    I did see Woolwich in quite a few news reports, however I did not see one mention of the troubles on the Walworth Road. Several mobile phone stores were targeted as well as Argos,Superdrug,Santander and some bookies.

  • Comment number 5.

    There was trouble in Bromley High street and East Street and in Sevenoaks Way, Orpington..none of that reached the media....Do not approve of violence and theft...tho we all have to take into consideration that Society has bred this response...great regard for the police who do not want to resort to water cannon or rubber bullets...they are in the front line and see social deprivation every day...not like the 18 millionaires in the cabinet...

  • Comment number 6.

    Is everyone seriously expecting a complete list of these riots and shop break ins? The most important and serious ones were covered and it was clear there would be local disturbances too.

    I am sick of this "18 millionaires in the cabinet" business, and the woman in Peckham saying Cameron should live there for a week and see how he likes it. Actually her own MP Harriet Harman doesn't even live there, she lives in leafy Dulwich, and she is from an incredibly wealthy family. Just see that having money doesn't make you a bad or non-empathic person, please. Cameron and Harman and all the others right and left, none of them want a repeat of the social breakdown of the last few days, and the tragic sight of that poor father in Birmingham.

  • Comment number 7.

    Very surprised that there hasn't been more mention of the Birmingham,Winson Green father,Tariq Jahan,who's son was killed the other night.He spoke with such indignity and him appealing for calm under such dreadful circumstances affected alot of people and did so much to help restore some sense to not only Birmingham but to the rest of the country.A blog should have been devoted to this special man.

    Can I thank Adrian Goldberg ( post 2 ) for his fine show on Radio WM and just pass my thanks on also to the other WM presenters and reporters who did an exceptional job in keeping all of us in the West Midlands up to date with what was happening.

  • Comment number 8.

    Re post 7.Line 3. Should read ' .. he spoke with such dignity......'

    Apologises to all.

  • Comment number 9.

    I was really upset that no one mentioned anything about woolwich. There was nothing on sky about it nor BBC. Actually some footage was uploaded from woolwich but for some reason it was incorrectly assumed as being from liverpool. Here are some pictures showing the aftermath of the destruction.


  • Comment number 10.

    I completely agree. I could see and smell smoke from my son's bedroom window coming from Woolwich and I was eagerly watching the news for news of what was happening. There was a brief mention on the BBC and on Sky, but I received my updates from Twitter via photos and updates. I was and still am very angry. I haven't been there since, but I will go on Saturday, take photos and post them on Twitter. It's a real shame that one area is deemed more worthy of coverage than another.

  • Comment number 11.

    Media, police, government, all avoid the issue and point the finger where it should be pointing. For years now the courts and the judges have been on the side of the criminals throughout the U.K. Bring in as many american experts and be as zero tolerant as you like, but if the law the courts and the judges undermine all effortsits all a waste of time and money. Don't take my word for it, just watch and see the slap on the wrist sentences the judges hand out to their criminal pals..

  • Comment number 12.

    Thank you BBC Proved my point for me

  • Comment number 13.

    Thanks for this post, Richard. I heard your excellent report on the BBC news on the night, while I was trying to alert other media outlets as to what was happening, with no effect. It took days for the Guardian to even acknowlegde Woolwich on their 'comprehensive' map and then they had a rethink and decided to call it Greenwich. (They may have changed it back; I gave up looking). I was also very disappointed on behalf of all the young people who organised a clear-up that the media seemed to want to focus on Clapham Junction for this 'good news' angle. The apparent unwillingness to include southeast London in the reports made me extremely angry and I wrote about it here: https://claireburlington.co.uk/2011/08/09/report-from-the-invisible-quadrant/
    To have such a big event in the area where you live ignored by the media does make you feel that 'no-one's interested' or worse, 'we don't matter' - precisely the sort of feelings that can contribute to theems that can contribute to this kind of violent disturbance in the first place.

  • Comment number 14.

    Apologies - I posted that accidentally! I meant to say:
    'the sort of feelings that can contribute to the development of this kind of violent disturbance in the first place'.


More from this blog...


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.