Written by:
Lester Holloway

Race and the media

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Runnymede’s online editor Lester Holloway reflects on how far the media has come in 50 years since the first Race Relations Act

I was delighted to be invited onto BBC London radio’s Dotun Adebayo show last night to talk about Britain’s black communities in the 50 years since the first Race Relations Act of 1965. (Listen to the show here).

One of the factors that has defined the way we see ourselves is the media, the battle to resist stereotypes in the mainstream media, and the emergence of a black media to define ourselves.

As someone who worked at The Voice and was editor of New Nation newspaper, I mentioned on the show that Claudia Jones was among the most influential black British figures over the past 50 years. She founded the first black paper, the West Indian Gazette, to create a community conversation in print over our condition, experiences and future.

It was a mantle later picked up by Val McCalla and Alex Pascall, when they founded The Voice after the inner city uprisings of the early to mid-1980s.

The context in which those papers were founded wasn’t just the strife and struggle to survive in Britain, but also the need to push back against the way immigrants from the Caribbean, and their children, were portrayed in the national media.

Our parents and grandparents were the butt of jokes and stereotyping  – from the Black and White Minstrels to Love Thy Neighbour to Jim Davidson’s ‘Chalky’. Positive and multi-dimensional characters were few and far between. As a result, the media collectively created a distorted public perception of immigrant communities.

Some things have changed. When Professor David Starkey made his comments on Newsnight that “white youth had become black” there were hundreds of complaints. Yet despite these encouraging signs, the mainstream media is still beset with negative racial stereotyping.

Parallel to that is the exclusion of the black perspective from national discourse. Nowhere is that more apparent than the virtually all-white club of newspaper columnists relentlessly ‘fighting back’ against a tide of ‘political correctness’ they see enveloping them and sinisterly eroding their quintessentially-English way of life.

Yesterday Simon Heffer wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that the Paris attacks last week mean that ‘Enoch Powell was right’ about immigration, linking a small handful of religious extremists with ‘warped ideas of multiculturalism’ and suggested that ‘majority culture’ was threatened by ‘minorities’.

Where is the perspective from black and minority ethnic communities in the mainstream media to counter this pernicious narrative? Sadly the likes of Heffer contribute to a national discourse on race, integration and immigration that is singularly lacking the contribution of our diverse communities, and the way they enrich British culture.

Whole communities are lumped together in peoples’ minds and the failings of individuals, or groups of individuals, are equated with the majority of law-abiding people from that community.

Those manufacturing the opinions we all listen to come from backgrounds which simply do not understand the experiences of much of the black community, however good they believe their intentions sometimes may be.

Hardly any wonder that race and ‘integration’ public debates are laden with suspicion and paranoia, and that immigration – secret shorthand for ‘all things ethnic’ – tops opinion polls of subjects that most concern the electorate.

Yet aside from the question of how ‘anti-racist’ Britain has become in its’ social attitudes a cursory look at the statistics of deprivation and disadvantage and its’ clear that we still are a racially-divided society.

Back in 2009 I wrote an article in The Guardian on the ‘Media’s all-white club’. This was prompted by my research into the racial diversity of BBC Radio 4 presenters. Out of 100-plus regular presenters just two were Asian and none from an African or Caribbean background.

This, despite the fact that Rajar figures showed a greater proportion of BAME communities listened to Radio 4 compared to the national population.  So this notion of a white middle-class listenership wasn’t entirely true.

In reality the listenership wasn’t being reflected in the studio. And it was even worse behind the scenes. The backroom staff – the producers and assistant producers – were almost exclusively white. Trevor Phillips coined the phrase ‘snowy peaks’ to describe the upper echelons of business, but Radio 4 also had snowy valleys as well.

The Runnymede publication ‘A Tale of Two Englands: Race and Violent Crime in the Press’ suggested that ‘culture’ has re-introduced racism through the back door, as a sort of byword for race. This is just one of the ways that negatives attitudes to race have become more subtle over time.

Today, as Ishmail Blagrove said on BBC London’s show last night, racism is constantly changing its’ shape to avoid detection. Muslims are in some ways the ‘new black’ experiencing public hostility as the Windrush generation did from the 1950s’, the hijab is the new dreadlocks and Islamophobia the new racism.

But negative portrayal of African and Caribbean youth hasn’t abated entirely. The mentoring group REACH carried out a study in 2011 into media representation of young black men found that ‘In the mainstream news, young men and boys were regularly reported in relation to negative news values, just over 4 in 10 stories being crime-related, while stories about wider social issues, such as education and health, were not as frequently or prominently reported.

However, close to 7 in 10 stories of black young men and boys related in some form to crime – a comparatively higher figure than in coverage of young men and boys more generally.

Take the London riots of 2011. “Moron” is one of the kinder words tabloids such as The Sun used. On the inside pages words such as “cockroach” and “rat” were used to describe the rioters. Dehumanising words.

The riots panel – set up by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister – didn’t have a lot to say about the media but did acknowledge the perceptions about media coverage expressed by the young people they spoke to. The report noted:

We heard from many about the negative images of young people portrayed by the media, which help to fuel a negative stereotype of young people. This then shapes society’s views of the value young people can add and impacts on employers, local residents and young people themselves. Only 14 per cent of people in the Panel’s Neighbourhood Survey feel that the media is positive about young people. This feeling was also widespread among the young people we spoke to.”

Of course the London riots weren’t a ‘race riot’ – young people of all backgrounds took part. But there were many who recognised the similarity between coverage of the disturbances in 2011 with coverage of the Brixton riots in the early 1980’s.

Added to this were the issues not adequately explored in the tabloids such as the perception that the shooting of Mark Duggan was an example of oppressive policing. Issues of high youth unemployment in the inner cities, social exclusion and the impact of government austerity cuts on local youth services.

These are issues that disproportionately affect Black youth. So race did play its’ part, if not in the disturbances themselves then certainly it was implicit in the media coverage.

This is important because the media there to serve everyone and if it is not sufficiently sensitive to the perceptions of sections of society and is not reflecting and representing them properly then there is an issue.

To draw a parallel with the police, the diversity debate – from the Lord Scarman report to the Sir William Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence – has centred around changing the ‘canteen culture’ by hiring more officers who are able to challenge attitudes. The argument goes the more Black and Asian officers there are the more comfortable they will feel about challenging policies and practices.

The issue is of crucial important because media is supposed to reflect society back on itself, when in reality is better reflects the attitudes of those who do not understand parts of society or see it through the prism of their own eyes.

The Runnymede Trust have been writing about race and the media since the ‘Race and the Press’ published in 1971, and ‘Publish and Be Damned?’ in 1976. Looking at those reports again it was clear that there had been progress, but not nearly enough, not nearly fast enough. Here’s a quote from ‘Publish and Be Damned?’:

In January 2006, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Iain Blair caused a furore by calling the media institutionally racist. The incidents that sparked his comments were the murders of white lawyer Tom ap Rhys Pryce and Asian builders’ merchant Balbir Matharu.

“Sir Ian, now Lord Blair, argued that the two murders, and their treatment in the media, demonstrates how the press devotes more space and focus on white and middle-class victims compared to those of ethnic minorities. His point was that murders in minority communities appeared “not to interest the mainstream media” and were relegated to “a paragraph on page 97.

“The media responded furiously. The Times decided to focus on Sir Ian’s clumsy comment on the Soham murders rather than his point about media bias.”

On last nights’ radio show Dotun Adebayo made a good point; the murder of Stephen Lawrence struck more of a cord with mainstream society because his parents were aspirational and sought to be middle class, whereas the earlier murder of Rolan Adams, in similar circumstances just down the road, did not because Rolan’s parents, who I know personally, were more working class.

Harman and Husband, in their 1974 book ‘Racism and the Mass Media’ analysed press coverage from 1963 to 1970. They found that race relations coverage tended to focus on signs of racial conflict and to give very little attention to the access of black people to housing, education and employment.

40 years later we still see scant attention given to serious issues of racial inequality in housing, education and employment, despite 40 years of research reports showing that by some measurements – particularly employment – Britain is frequently going backwards.

Amir Saeed, in his 2007 paper by Amir Saeed on the media, racism and Islamophobia, argued that:

The media representation of minority groups is a ‘double-edged sword’. First, it marginalises minority voices, thus, they are virtually ignored or invisible. Simultaneously actual representation of minority groups is often construed in negative discourses.”

One of the key issues here is lack of diversity in the media itself. Last year Nesrine Malik asked ‘Why is there still so little diversity in the British media?’ She said:

One of the problems for journalists of colour, and to some extent women, is that they are called on to report on minority matters or their experience of them. Universal issues are, apparently, not their concern. As a result, it is difficult for them to develop the profile, range and general “authority” that white or male journalists do.

“Even when minorities do break the mould, they tend to go unrecognised. The British media are supposed to be holding the powerful to account while also reflecting society. And yet they are less representative than most of the reviled investment banks.”

Diversity matters in the media is the importance of visible representation. This is particularly important for TV, but we must not under-estimate the value of picture-bylines in the printed press or black voices on radio.

When I was growing up in the 1970s there was excitement whenever anyone who was Black appeared on our TV screens. It was “Come, quick, there’s a black person on TV!” Of course times have changed; we’re much more used to seeing Black and Asian TV news-anchors, reporters and other presenting roles.

Some say that racial diversity at this level is often more diverse than society as a whole. And if that’s the case, it is justified in my view because it helps make-up for all those years when Britain’s multicultural society simply wasn’t represented on screen.

Broadcast media, particularly Channel 4 News, has made progress in recent years, but today many newspapers are still lagging behind.

Clive Jones, Runnymede’s chairman, said in 2005 that “British Journalism sadly is one of the last bastions of white supremacy. While the rest of Britain has been enjoying a demographic revolution, the British media remains dreadfully unrepresentative and, in the phrase Greg Dyke once used of the BBC, it’s “hideously white”.

I’m guessing Jones and others would acknowledge progress made in the intervening decade, but equally there is no doubt that the mainstream media, particularly what used to be called Fleet Street, still has some way to go.

Even the BBC, currently in the midst of a Charter Review to determine its’ licence fee, is struggling. It has not been commissioning black talent to the degree it should to reflect society, and parts of the Beeb, for example it’s’ Bristol natural history programme section, remain shockingly undiverse.

BBC apart, most of the media are private enterprises and therefore exempt from the equalities laws and duties that apply to the public sector. I would like to see all media organisations brought within the Equality Act because they are serving the public, and a new Media Equality Duty developed to underpin the recruitment, retention and progression of BAME staff. This should also cover independent production companies that are, in many ways, the worst offenders in not hiring BAME people behind the camera.

I would also like to see the Equality and Human Rights Commission begin a new investigation into racial diversity in the media (it’s been a long time since the old, now abolished, Commission for Racial Equality study), with a view to its’ findings shaping the independent regulation of the industry.

Lester Holloway is Online Editor for the Runnymede Trust

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