Negative media coverage of BME issues leads, according to ongoing research by the Institute of Race Relations, to racial attacks.
When the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary team broadcast ‘Lessons in Hate and Violence’ earlier this year, the programme provoked furore. The documentary used footage taken from two years of covert recordings in various Islamic schools and investigated allegations of children being assaulted by teachers. There was considerably less publicity, however, about the fact that the Darul Uloom Islamic High School & College in Birmingham, one of the places featured, was forced to close over fears for the safety of students following threats by members of the public. As news of the documentary’s findings began to filter through to public attention, members of staff began to receive intimidating calls and emails, including one which threatened to firebomb the building.
The extent to which high profile negative publicity leads to racial violence has long been of concern for a range of organisations from anti-racist groups to local authorities and this year alone there have been several such incidents. In February, for example, the then Labour minister and ex-home secretary Jack Straw was forced to apologise for claiming that Pakistani men saw white girls as ‘easy meat’ and ripe for forcing into prostitution. Yet by the time he offered his apology, weeks after his claim, Pakistani taxi-drivers had already been attacked and a teacher had been accused of ‘grooming’.
A similar pattern emerged after the high profile Channel 4 documentary My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The programme, which was watched by over eight million viewers, left many Travellers and Gypsies ‘extremely disappointed and angry’ and, according to a spokesman for the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain, ‘We are hearing every day distressing accounts from parents whose children are being bullied and called names’. In turn, a spokesperson for the English Romany Gypsy Society told IRR News that a Gypsy girl had been grabbed by a boy at her school who told her ‘this is what you like’, following an edition of the programme which showed the alleged ‘custom’ of grabbing.
Informing and informed by a context of racial violence
The relationship between high profile exposés or condemnations of people and racial violence is not always scientifically provable. And the executive producer of an earlier Dispatches series of undercover investigations into mosques, for example, (‘Undercover Mosque’ and ‘Undercover Mosque: the Return’) vigorously denied that there was a direct link between his work and a subsequent racist attack on an imam in London: stating that such claims were part of an ‘assiduous argument for censorship’.
It may be impossible to conclusively prove an attack is linked to a statement by a politician or a claim in a programme. But there is no doubt that attacks have followed in their wake. A few days after Jack Straw’s ‘easy meat’ comments an Asian man in Northamptonshire was punched to the floor getting off a bus in an attack which left him with severe bruising. A day after this attack, a man in Carlisle stole a Qur’an from a library and burned it in front of the town hall. Graffiti painted on a memorial in Kent, saying ‘kill Muslims’ and ‘keep Britain British’ was painted a few days after the ‘Lessons in Hate and Violence’ documentary was broadcast. A few weeks later a church in Ipswich was burnt to the ground and left structurally unsafe after it was announced that it was going to be converted into a Muslim-run community centre.
What is clear is that racist attacks frequently occur in the wake of comments by politicians decrying the presence or actions of particular groups of people and they frequently occur in the aftermath of similar media exposés. Raising questions about these wider consequences, rather than acting as an assiduous form of censorship poses serious questions about responsibility and accountability.
The Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees made this clear in a report on the links between negative press portrayals and racial violence in 2004. Attacks can sometimes be traced directly to high profile exposes of groups of people, or statements by public figures. Sometimes they can’t. But the point is that regardless of the clarity of these links such activities help perpetuate a climate which is hostile, threatening and which can ultimately lead to serious harm.
Whilst it is the role of journalists to ask awkward questions and uncover the truth, and it is the role of politicians to speak out on behalf of their constituents, when these are interpreted so as to merely demonise particular groups of people the outcome spirals into a zero-sum relationship between journalists, who discover new crimes, and politicians, who call to condemn them. The one feeds the other. And in the midst of this, broader questions are lost.
At a time when racial violence appears to be increasing (23,049 racist incidents were reported to the police in 1998/9 and 55,862 in 2008/9) there needs to be a resurgence of campaigns to hold the media to account. Such campaigns need to confront the fabrication of stories where they are apparent, to document the extent to which consistent exposés of particular groups of people perpetuates racist violence and take a stand, through direct action if necessary, against the papers and programmes which poison minds and cloud issues.