Fathers 4 Justice: Design-a-movement

The leader of Britain's high-profile campaign group tells how he constructed its image.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘Lobbying MPs isn’t my cup of tea.’

Matt O’Connor isn’t your normal political campaigner. As founder and mastermind of Fathers 4 Justice, over the past two years he has pioneered a direct-action, media-friendly brand of protest. Demanding rights for estranged fathers to see their kids, his activists have stormed family courts, thrown purple powder at the prime minister, and scaled the walls of Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman and Robin. The latest came yesterday, when three superheroes clambered on to a ledge of the Foreign Office.

Fathers 4 Justice was launched in December 2002, when over 100 protesters dressed as Father Christmas staged a singing sit-in in the lobby of the Lord Chancellor’s office. What started as a small band of activists is now a household name, claiming 12,000 members and opening up branches in Canada, Australia, Holland and the USA. In January this year O’Connor was named by GQ magazine as the ninety-second most powerful man in Britain, while Fathers 4 Justice coordinator Jason Hatch (aka Batman at Buckingham Palace) was shortlisted for the Channel Four political awards. The group boasts celebrity support from Bob Geldof and Pierce Brosnan. What is the secret of its success?

Sitting in the Match Bar on Clerkenwell Road, O’Connor tells me that he is trying to build a new movement to replace defunct political parties, those ‘three lumbering giants dragging all their baggage into the twenty-first century’. He admires radical political campaigners of the past, who ‘stood up and fought for what they believed in, you see so little of that these days’ – and traces the organisation’s direct action tactics to civil rights movements: ‘Ghandi, Martin Luther King, the Suffragettes.’

But while these radical movements of old were built on mass mobilisation and a clear political programme, Fathers 4 Justice is perhaps less a political movement than a PR agency. It owes its success not to popular pressure or political goals, but to a bloke with some media-saviness and bags of determination.

Rather than the organisation’s leader, it would be more accurate to describe O’Connor as its designer. He talks about ‘my vision’ for Fathers 4 Justice: ‘I did a huge amount of research before I started it. I started another campaign first and evaluated that.’ He thinks up most of the stunts, writing an annual schedule at the start of the year. ‘I like a bit of flair’, he says; he did a photoshot montage before taking over the Royal Courts of Justice, to ensure maximum visual effect. Indeed, he is a designer by trade, and runs the organisation as a sideline to his design company. Fathers 4 Justice has no real employees: the design company’s marketing assistant doubles up as a contact for the campaign group.

O’Connor’s personal views explain many of the group’s tactics. He got the idea for the superhero costumes from a film called Unbreakable, in which a father survives a train crash – the message being that ‘every father is a superhero to his children’. The ‘Pythonesque irony’ and ‘self-depreciating humour’ of the superhero costumes also appeals. Meanwhile, the assault on Buckingham Palace was based on O’Connor’s theory that the monarchy is one of the three powers controlling the country (along with parliament and the church), and the fact that ‘every family judge sits in front of the Queen’s crest; she has to take responsibility for what is going on in her courts’.

Members pay £30, but don’t play much of a role in the organisation. The stunts are kept between the small number of individuals involved, and O’Connor and a handful of collaborators draw up the organisation’s few policy statements. According to London member Martin Cook, the organisation’s ‘Blueprint for Family Law’ was written by O’Connor, Gary Birch (the parliamentary coordinator) and Michael Cox (a barrister). ‘There has to be a dictatorial line’, says O’Connor. ‘If we had democratic committees, we wouldn’t be where we are. This is the way the organisation is run – if you don’t like it go and join another one.’

There are also a number of small regional branches. Cook says that London branch meetings get around 30 people, and that they mainly play a support group role. He estimates that there are around 20 Fathers 4 Justice activists in London, many of whom don’t go to branch meetings – ‘the meetings and activism don’t necessarily correspond’.

So as an organisation, Fathers 4 Justice is just a body of subscribers, a scattering of support groups, a handful of activists, and a master designer. In terms of membership base, there is little to distinguish it from another organisation that works in this area, Families Need Fathers, which highlights the same issues and also charges a £30 fee.

Fathers 4 Justice owes its status less to political goals or members, than its ability to grab the headlines. ‘It’s an ad hoc organisation, but you still have to create a credible social image’, says O’Connor, justifying the £1000 spent on a 50-foot wide PVC banner. A survey by Reputation Intelligence in September 2004 showed how, since mid-2003, Fathers 4 Justice has received an increasing number of article mentions in the national press. The storming of the High Court in June 2003 contributed to around 30 mentions for that month; after climbing Tower Bridge there were nearly 100 mentions; while the purple flour attack on the prime minister in May 2004 topped 400 (1). Throughout this period Families Need Fathers was barely referred to. And it’s not just the UK press – O’Connor says that the New York Times has been trailing him for an upcoming front-page feature.

Making an impact is about having the right media skills. The US direct action group, the Ruckus Society, offers consultancy and training groups to help you make a ruckus, whatever your chosen cause. Similarly, O’Connor gives advice to his activist rivals. He criticised the hunting lobby’s invasion of the House of Commons: ‘what did they do, gesticulate? What a wasted opportunity. You want to do something with a bit of panache’. And he thought that the anti-war demo was old-skool. ‘A demonstration isn’t worth a wank; it was a waste of time. What you needed was something far more dramatic. They should have caused civil disobedience, shut a road, closed a railway, caused economic damage.’

Fathers 4 Justice’s stunts seem to have left their mark on policy. The Reputation Intelligence analysis showed that politicians from the prime minister to the children’s minister were forced to address demands for better contact arrangements for fathers. The phrase ‘fathers’ rights’ has become an established part of the political lexicon – at the start of 2002 it barely clocked any mentions in the press; by July 2004, it was receiving nearly 50 articles a month (2). ‘Look at the results’, says O’Connor, citing the fact that the Family Law Association has changed its tune, and Tory leader Michael Howard is ‘saying exactly what we’ve been saying’.

How can breaking into Buckingham Palace have such an impact? This comes at a time when institutions that were once the gatekeepers to the public arena, such as parliament, political parties, and academia, have lost much of their social weight. When there is no means to mediate disputes, and decide which matters are most important for society as a whole, individuals can hijack the political stage. The media becomes a substitute public arena; rather than winning the support of your colleagues or fellow citizens, you just have to catch the eye of the cameras. The protests we see are not to win mass support, or make a political point, but merely to spark publicity.

It’s doubtful whether many people are aware of Fathers 4 Justice’s policy aims. The media analysis found that 31 per cent of articles mentioning the organisation focused on policy, compared to 61 per cent for Greenpeace and 81 per cent for Liberty. Most people probably recognise them as they would a famous brand: just as Nike is a tick, Fathers 4 Justice are the ones in the superhero outfits.

However, there are some real issues behind the campaign. Broken families are a messy battleground, with few social guidelines as to what is expected from the different parties. We witness the painful plight of ‘McDonald’s dads’, those men who sit in McDonald’s on a Saturday afternoon, desperately trying to connect with kids who no longer know them. O’Connor’s tale of his dealing at the hands of the family courts is horrendous; in a series of hearings, which cost him several thousand pounds, he watched his contact time being repeatedly slashed. The family courts are a disgrace, a secretive bureaucratic institution that apportions children between mother and father.

But in many cases, it seems that the drive for activists is more their personal acrimony than any political convictions. And the content of the stunts is less about policy reform, than about displays of desperation. By hanging up a crane, or clinging to the ledge of Buckingham Palace, they show just how close to the edge they are. The stunts are often followed up by tabloid profiles of dads revealing their pain and devastation, often pictured with their head in their hands or peering grimly at the camera.

Although Fathers 4 Justice criticises the state, it also invites it in, asking for a better deal in the family courts, with a presumption of equal contact for father and mother. This essentially means asking the state to side more with them in their bitter war with their partner. And there is a danger of blaming the government for every private woe – O’Connor tells me that the government’s child policy ‘turns children into units of production’, and is partly to blame for rising crime. If the state is to blame for every personal distress, it by implication has the responsibility to sort them out. When she was handcuffed to a Fathers 4 Justice activist in September 2004, the children’s minister Margaret Hodge demurred: ‘Of course fathers miss their kids. But the idea that the state can sort out this entrenched animosity and bitterness in a relationship, I think is stretching it a bit far.’

As an individual, Matt O’Connor is a driven, personable guy, who has had a hell of a time at the hands of the family courts. But far from building a new political movement, he provides a case study of how it’s possible for individuals to make headlines in a disengaged age. No messy meetings, marches, or petitions are required. Just a good head for a stunt, and a good eye for an image.

Read on:

TV UK, 15 October, by Rob Lyons

(1) ‘F4J heralds a new era in political campaigning’, Reputation Intelligence, 15 September 2004

(2) ‘F4J heralds a new era in political campaigning’, Reputation Intelligence, 15 September 2004

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Topics Politics


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