You’ve probably heard of the “yellow vest” movement.
It began in France in November 2018, when demonstrators wearing high-vis jackets took to the streets to protest against rising fuel prices and the government’s tax policies. The first weekend saw 280,000 people take to the streets across the country.
The protests have continued every Saturday since then, and have come to represent a wider discontent with President Macron’s economic performance.
But the story of the “gilets jaunes”, as they’re also known, is not just about populist anger with the centrist policies of Monsieur Macron.
As anyone who’s ever come across discussion of the yellow vests online will know, social media is full of claims that “mainstream media” outlets have decided not to cover the protests.
Just last week, ex-MP George Galloway described a “yellow vests blackout”, declaring: “we can’t get a second of footage from Paris on British mainstream media”.
So is it true? Has the mainstream media ignored the gilets jaunes? We’re going to look at coverage from the UK’s biggest broadcasters.
A lot of the criticism online centres on the BBC. A quick search of the BBC website reveals some 20 webpages tagged “France yellow vest protests”. And there are plenty of examples on the BBC News Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts of stories about the protests.
But what many online object to is what they see as the BBC’s failure to report the story on television.
We haven’t got access to a comprehensive list of all BBC News items going back to November 2018. But searches of YouTube, BBC iPlayer and other platforms reveal the broadcaster has covered the yellow vest protests since their inception.
On 29 November 2018, two weeks after the first demonstrations, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, featured a detailed discussion of what the gilets jaunes movement means for French politics. The following night, they reported on the background of the movement and how it was being organised.
Newsnight’s coverage of the protests continued: we’ve found at least three reports in December 2018 and a further discussion the following January. In April 2019, the gilets jaunes featured heavily in a long Newsnight item looking at President Macron’s relationship with populism.
Meanwhile, the BBC News channel has repeatedly covered the protests.
We’ve found footage of TV reports from November 2018 onwards (30 November, 1 December, 2 December, 8 December, 15 December, 22 December, 30 December) and in 2019 (10 January, 2 February, 9 February, 18 March, 7 April, 20 April, 27 April, 1 May, 11 May, 14 September and 19 November).
We should also note that on 2 December 2018, the BBC News item on the yellow vests began with a “sting” — a short graphic animation — titled “France protests”. Creating a sting usually indicates that a broadcaster has reported on the story before and expects to do so again.
From what we can tell, there has been slightly less coverage of the recent protests against the French government’s planned pension reforms — which the gilets jaunes have got involved in — though the story was featured on BBC News on 5, 6, 18 and 29 December 2019, 12 and 29 January 2020, and in the 6 December 2019 edition of BBC Breakfast. Andrew Neil also mentioned both sets of protests on the 5 February 2020 edition of his primetime BBC2 show.
Though we should caveat all this by remembering it is certainly not a comprehensive list of BBC TV reports on the issue.
What about other UK broadcasters?
On 4 December 2019, Sky even featured an interview with the man credited with inspiring the yellow vest movement, Ghislain Coutard. Again, this is not an exhaustive list of Sky’s coverage.
And our very own Channel 4 News?
Unlike Sky and BBC News, which run 24/7, Channel 4 News only broadcasts for one hour a day. As a result, there are fewer news items overall — and less time spent on any one story.
That said, there are examples of Channel 4 News covering the gilets jaunes protests in 2018 (17 November, 24 November, 1 December, 7 December, 8 December, 11 December, 15 December), and 2019 (two items on 12 January, 7 February, 20 April, 1 May, 5 December).
A decline in recent coverage?
As we’ve already discussed, the methods we’ve used to gauge the extent of gilets jaunes coverage are far from perfect and should not be considered comprehensive. Nevertheless, it is slightly harder to find evidence of TV news items on the protests from the last few months.
That may be what George Galloway, for example, had in mind when he complained of a “blackout”. He seems to suggest — without evidence — that this is a concerted effort on the part of the mainstream media, perhaps a politically-motivated one.
But we would offer an alternative explanation. The protests have continued for over a year now, and though there have been some twists and turns, the story has remained broadly similar: a significant number of people are taking to the streets, usually at the weekend, to protest against President Macron’s policies and other economic problems.
As with any story that drags on for a long time without significant developments, it has arguably become less newsworthy.
And that’s especially true when we consider what else has been happening in recent months — the general election, Brexit, the coronavirus, Donald Trump’s impeachment, the Australian wildfires, to name just a few.
With limited resources, senior editors have to decide which stories to cover — and which ones are less urgent.
There are plenty of important issues that simply don’t make the cut, or which go from being top of the news agenda to less broadly-covered over time.
An example of this would be the Ebola crisis, which was initially headline news around the world. There is still an outbreak ongoing in the Democratic Republic of Congo — with the World Health Organisation announcing new cases just this week — but it is infrequently mentioned in the mainstream UK media, having continued for a number of years.
Indeed, we can see a similar pattern in the way newspapers covered the French protests. Using the Factiva newspaper database, we’ve found six hundred articles in UK national titles that include the words “gilets jaunes” since November 2018.
A graph produced automatically by the Factiva software based on our search shows use of the term in the press peaked in December 2018 and January 2019, dropping off significantly in February and bumping along the bottom throughout the rest of the year.
This is echoed in data from Google Trends, which shows us the distribution of web searches for the phrases “gilets jaunes” (shown below in blue) and “yellow vests” (shown here in red).
From this information, it looks like the UK public’s interest in the protests was most pronounced at the start of the movement and has since declined. Though of course, we can never know for certain whether this was caused by the level of media coverage, or vice versa.