Is the Media Racist?

Sir Ian Blair

The 'white, male secular priesthood' who control the media were whipped into a frenzy of self-denial by the claim of Britain's most senior police chief in February that they are 'guilty of institutional racism'. Black doyen of Fleet Street and broadcast journalism Marc Wadsworth gave a robust response in a speech at London's City University. 

What I have to say is anecdotal. Impressionistic; not academic research. In my view, the media sin of institutional racism is twofold: by commission and omission.

Commission is the easy bit. It can be factually proved or disproved. The number of race stories covered in a given publication, the angle used and the prominence given. For victims of crime, comparisons can be made. Coverage of the murders last September of Sally-Anne Bowman, who was white, and Rochelle Holness, who was Black. Fact: Holness got far less coverage.

Sir Ian Blair used the less easy to prove murder cases of Tom ap Rhys Pryce and Balbir Matharu and then unwisely introduced Soham to reinforce his point about institutional racism and the press. The Met Police Commissioner should have been politically savvy enough not have conflated these issues. The Soham Murders – in PR terms - are radioactive.

Soham - Holly and Jessica 
The case caused public revulsion because it involved the killing of two pretty little girls, Holly and Jessica. Therefore emotion rather than reason dominates any debate. What Sir Blair stated had been said before by a top cop. Ex-chief of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad John O’Connor button-holed me after a television discussion programme about “yardies” some years ago to reveal how murder investigations involving Black victims were hampered by a lack of press interest. Meagre publicity resulted in fewer leads for the police to pursue."

"O’Connor, who was involved in investigating the murder of a Black girl, Leonie Darnley, from Battersea in south London, a decade ago, pulled no punches when he said: “I think most journalists agree with me on this, if you get a child murder the first thing the editor wants to know is what colour the child is. If it’s a little Black girl they take less interest in the case than if it’s a little White girl."

"Now it’s the interest the media take in a case which puts pressure on the police to give it their best shot…I think it’s a form of racism. The reason why the editors aren’t interested is presumably because they think there’s less interest from their readers.” He added: “Look at the pressure the media are putting on the police over the (Jill) Dando murder. If they’d applied a quarter of that pressure in the Stephen Lawrence case there’d have been a result out of it.” [The racist thugs who murdered 18-year-old Lawrence in 1993 were never convicted. But, after a media frenzy and successful police investigation, Barry George was jailed for life for Dando's murder six years later. Lawrence was Black and Dando a blonde Tv presenter. Ed]

In a world where it is not what you say but what people are told you said that matters, Blair's off the cuff remark that nobody could understand why the "dreadful" Soham murders became "the biggest story in Britain" was a big blunder. Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan made a hardly reported similar point about Soham in his bestselling book, The Insider: ‘It’s a story that has gripped the nation and dominated the news every day…someone raised an interesting point today, though. Would we all have been quite so gripped if they had been two Black girls? The answer, and it is a shameful one, is no.”

Yes, the situation is different now than it was in the bad old days of the 1980s. Then deeply offensive, sensationalist ‘red top’ stories about 'muggers', 'illegal immigrants', 'social security scroungers' and 'race militants' made sections of the British press the most racist anywhere in the world. Then, as now, headlines and images caused the most offence. ‘Muggers’ screaming out of a front page, invariably juxtaposed with photos of Black suspects. All Black people were, by association, stereotyped and criminalised. CCTV footage of so-called ‘steamers’ at Notting Hill Carnival was given blanket media coverage.  Let’s not forget that Carnival, Europe’s biggest street festival, was once, in media terms, seen as no more than a jamboree for crime reporters. A  couple of years ago, the Mail on Sunday tried to get me to do a hatchet job on Carnival, and offered a lot of money. But I refused. Another Black journalist did it, though.

Just as damaging; the headline: ‘Yardies’, again with the photos of menacing-looking Jamaicans. Uprisings by Black youth sent the message to their political and media tormentors: Enough is Enough. After the appallingly biased coverage of the Deptford Fire tragedy in 1981 which claimed the lives of 14 Black youngsters – demonstrators actually marched on Fleet Street to protest. Official inquiries, from Scarman (Brixton) to Gifford (Tottenham) and Macpherson (the borough of Greenwich in south east London), pointed the finger at media racism as a contributor to the mood of alienation felt by Black people in inner city hot spots. So, the media was reigned in by public opinion and the political class who did not want any more riots and international embarrassment they caused.  

A big eye-opener for me came, as a young reporter, when I was doing a night shift at the Daily Mail. Deadlines had passed. Then news came in that a white motorcyclist, Terence May had been murdered in the race tinder box of Thornton Heath in south London. The fascist National Front was based there and Black people had been catching hell from the racists but this was ignored by the media. My talented scientist friend Femi Adeladja's BlackWatch police monitoring project was burnt to the ground. And, after he had been held in police custody, Femi died of an asthma attack on the steps of a court house before he could stand trial on trumped up charges. The sub-editors at the Daily Mail acted responsibly by putting the story that Terrence May had been killed on an inside page and giving it an unsensational lay-out. But they were over-ruled by the famously right-wing editor Sir David English who insisted on the piece being the front-page splash with a racist headline. I made sure that I never did a shift at the paper again.

Things have changed. The worst excesses of the Sun and Daily Mail have been curbed. There’s an occasional Black columnist in a national. But ex-City student Gary Younge, of the Guardian, and freelance Yasmin Alibhai Brown are the only regulars. Also, and this is something we should be wary of, there’s an insidious promotion, Daily Mail-style, of individual Black ‘success’ stories; part of the Establishment’s project to create a Black middle-class buffer between polite white society and the unspeakable Black inner city dwellers. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labour is up to the same trick. Of Blair’s three Black government ministers, two were elected by no one but instead appointed by him to the House of Lords.

Years before, high-powered Mirror news executives attempted to get me to rubbish the former Marxist Tariq Ali in a profile when he was famously trying to join the Labour Party. I wrote a straight piece, not a hatchet job. Then again, I’ve done two full-page exposures in, first the Daily Mirror ('Race and Jobs. Who Comes Off Best? 1982), and then the Sunday Mirror (A Black Man. A White Man. 100 Cabs. Guess Who They Stop For... 1998). So, the Mirror Group has given me prominent space to promote an anti-racist agenda. In 2003, I got the front page, exclusive splash for the Mirror about the two teenaged Black girls in Birmingham, who were murdered on News Day in a drive by shooting. There are less than half a dozen Black journalists at the Mirror out of more than 200. This depressing picture is true every other Fleet Street paper.

Institutional racism in the media by omission is more problematic. This is about the stories that are ignored. The absent Black faces in news rooms. By Black, I mean African-Caribbean and Asian. News selection and hiring policies are at the heart of the current institutional racism of the media, as the current edition of Press Gazette highlights in a two-page spread.

New Nation editor Michael Eboda says: ‘Take away the sports pages and there are precious few stories about Black people in the national papers. I should know, my news team and I scour them every day for items we may have missed. It’s not often that we find any.’

Of the racial composition of newsroom, Edoda is more harsh: 'You are more likely to find a Black man at the annual convention of the BNP (a fascist British political party) than you are to see one making a meaningful decision at one of our national newspapers. And, from the few visits I have made to the BBC Tv centre, Radio Five Live, ITN and Channel 4, they are just as culpable.'

It’s not just the ‘red tops’ and other tabloids that are to blame. The night news was given to me that Roger Sylvester, a cousin of a close friend, had died in police custody I rang Fleet Street newsdesks with the details. The Independent at first refused the story on the ground that they were running articles about the Stephen Lawrence murder and, effectively, that was enough Black stories for them. I have to say, though, that the Indie home affairs correspondent Jason Bennetto later championed the case to produce the best coverage of it in Fleet Street.

Personally, I’d like to see a paper tackle the scandal of the unpunished deaths of Black people in police custody. Put a murderer in uniform behind bars. For, not a single police officer, involved in the killing of a Black person, has ever been jailed. I’d like to see in-depth coverage of the root causes of  uprisings in Birmingham, Bradford, Brixton and wherever else they occur – from a Black perspective. And, of course I would like to see lots of decision-making jobs for Black people and our allies prepared to make a difference in the media. This would break from what the distinguished American academic and commentator Noam Chomsky described as the ‘white, male secular priesthood’ who control the media. Today it is no longer acceptable for even the Sun to be blatantly racist. Our old enemies in the press use negative coverage of Muslims and asylum-seekers to attack us. This is an alarming trend we need to oppose.
For those of us who believe the media is institutionally racist our beef should not just be about its home news coverage. The episodic and often negative coverage of Black world news should also be challenged. Western-inspired genocide has happened not just in Rwanda and Sudan’s Darfur region but also Chad. The fight-back of ordinary Nigerians against multi-national exploiters of their great country like the Royal Dutch Shell oil company has barely been covered. Now, you can read about these ignored and almost forgotten stories on the citizen journalism website: The-Latest.Com. It's an example of the public uncovering news they can't find elsewhere in the media. I founded The-Latest because I passionately believe we, the people sick of being patronised by news executives who think they know what's best for us, should not just whinge about the media malaise but use our journalistic skills to actively do something about it.