The UK media seems more comfortable talking about race issues in America than those closer to home. It is the BBC’s responsibility to challenge these double standards.
Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. The roll call of African American lives lost to police brutality or in police custody is heartbreaking and begins long before the Black Lives Matter movement came to international prominence. Along with the rest of the world, the UK media has followed the news, protests and the narrative that has emerged from America on issues of race, policing and justice.
We have our own shameful roll call, but names like Joy Gardner, Sheku Bayoh or Sarah Reed spring to mind less readily. And although the issue of deaths in police custody is so serious as to merit a review by the Home Secretary, we are not having a national conversation on the issue.
Where race is a factor or an issue affects minorities, the media is unable or unwilling to grasp the nettle. Some might say that deaths in custody do not have a high profile in public discourse, but when it comes to immigration, an issue we never stop talking about, the voices of migrants, including ethnic minorities, are missing from media coverage. Race is not the only factor at play here, but it is a factor. Why is our media more at ease reporting on and analysing the situation in America?
There are many reasons but one is that in the US the frames of reference provided by the language and activism of Black Lives Matter and other social movements, and the academic and political discourse, shape the coverage of these issues. They are able to speak for themselves, not just on social media, but on politics shows on national news networks, where the political agenda is set. This is important because these shows influence how we interpret the news and what issues are considered a problem for policymakers to address.
The effect of this is currently being felt in the current Presidential Primary races, where issues of race are firmly on the agenda, not just for Republicans, but for both Democratic candidates as well. Recent exchanges with activists have illustrated that Hillary Clinton, and no Democratic candidate, can take the Black vote for granted and that no candidate can afford to overlook the issues highlighted by Black Lives Matter. Whether it’s police brutality or immigration, minority voices are finally getting heard. There is still more to be done, but the victims of police brutality and groups such as undocumented migrants have names and faces that have permeated the public consciousness through media coverage of individual cases and movements such as The Dreamers.
Many of these issues also resonate in the UK and just as in the US, all the elements needed to tell these stories and put them in context exist. But these diverse voices are not heard often enough; political analysis is often left to White men. The findings of a recent survey revealing that British journalism is 94% white, 86% university educated and 55% male were disappointing but not surprising. Ethnic minorities are under-represented relative to their percentage of the population, while women make up the majority of new entrants to the profession - but remain underpaid and under-promoted. British newsrooms need to get their own house in order and go further to include Britain’s diverse voices in both news coverage and political analysis. The BBC in particular, as the national broadcaster, has a duty to reflect Britain back to itself and the world.
The research is there for it to draw upon. Figures compiled by Inquest, for example, a charity that advises on deaths in police custody and offers support to bereaved families, reveal that a disproportionate number of those who have died in 2006-2015 in or following police custody are from black and ethnic minority communities (BAME). The charity cites institutional racism as a contributing factor. While there was widespread coverage of institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police following the Macpherson report into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, there has been no sustained media attention given to the role it played in Sarah Reed’s death and her previous experiences with the police (she was the victim of police brutality in 2012) and public institutions. As a Guardian report put it, her death raised “important (if depressingly familiar) questions about the treatment of people with serious mental illness by the criminal justice system, and how that intersects with the institutional racism faced by black Britons.”
The activism is there too. Reed’s case is one of 1,563 deaths since 1990 that have occurred in police custody or following police contact. Those of a BME background represent 14% of the population, but only 10% of these cases. However, this metric covers a wide range of police-related incidents; from traffic fatalities, to mishandlings of people's health needs in detention. But when we look at specific, targeted uses of violence by law enforcement, we can see that black and ethnic minority people are overrepresented in the death toll, comprising 30% of those shot dead by the police. This is what inspired the poet, writer and activist Siana Bangura to produce 1,500 and Counting, an independent documentary directed by Troy James Aidoo. Part of the reason she is involved in the project is because of the lack of public awareness on this problem. In an article for The Fader, Bangura writes: “In the UK, a black person is less likely to be shot dead on the streets than their counterpart in America. But we are more likely to be detained with brute force and left to die at the hands of neglectful officers. The racism in Britain’s justice system is insidious, but deadly nonetheless. British people are complacent because they do not think things like this happen here, but they do and they have done for years.” The BBC is ideally placed to amplify the work of activists like Bangura but should also ensure that in the reporting of the Home Secretary’s review, and beyond, these stories continue to be told so that the figures are contextualised.
If deaths in police custody are not high on the radar of public consciousness, immigration certainly is. From the General Election to the upcoming EU referendum it is the dog that never stops barking. But too often the debate lacks nuance. Here again, there are voices missing from the fray, specifically, the voices of migrants themselves. Research by the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University found that in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, migrants were only referenced in 15% of newspaper articles on migration and 85% of articles did not have a migrant perspective. The coverage fell largely into two camps: positive stories on immigration that tended to include a migrant voice, presenting them as a victim in need of support; or negative stories on immigration, often without a migrant voice, which portrayed them as “villains”. These stereotypes obscure the lived experiences of the vast majority of migrants, which are nuanced and complex. If we want a better debate, we need to hear about how this part of Britain lives. Despite being consistently “othered” in the press, their stories are inextricably interwoven with everyone else’s. A better immigration debate might help us to better envisage immigration as part of Britain’s story rather than an outside force being visited upon it.
Admittedly this research was based on newspaper articles. But despite the grim figures for newspaper circulation, they still drive the news agenda. There is a dynamic relationship between press and broadcast news cycles. Stories on Radio 4 Today on a Monday morning, for example, are often driven by weekend newspaper headlines. What role can the BBC play in overcoming this? They could start by making sure that even if migrant voices are not heard by the newspapers, they are included more often in BBC reports and programmes.
To give credit where it is due, some parts of the British media do recognise the problem; the Guardian, the BBC itself and other news outlets have programmes to nurture ethnic minority talent and broaden their newsrooms while high profile celebrities such as Lenny Henry and Idris Elba have called for more diverse programme makers, writers and production staff as well as on-screen talent. This is a start, though more needs to be done to turn the figures around. Often, the focus is on entertainment, but political coverage is important in shaping the lens through which the news is understood. The BBC has a range of programmes, including political analysis, in its BBC Black and Asian programme streams, and efforts are being made through its own diversity initiatives and working with organisations such as Media Diversified, to include a wider range of voices on current affairs programmes.
But in other areas, progress appears to have stalled. David Lammy MP filed a complaint about BBC Question Time in December 2015 after research by his office found that more than 60% of shows in the last five years had no contributors from an ethnic minority on the panel. As he put it: “When it comes to Question Time, the quintessential forum for debates about the way the country is run, the programme that more than any other defines the public face of power in the UK, these figures show the BBC is dramatically failing its minority community licence fee payers, and consequently the country as a whole.”
The need for diversity in the media, from behind the scenes to the front page or in front of the camera, is not an exercise in window dressing; it’s about telling Britain’s story in full. We seem perfectly capable of following the US narrative; we should not be left grasping to tell our own. While the cultural significance of entertainment programmes should not be underestimated, the voices that frame our political commentary and programming shape our understanding of the news, the political agenda and what answers are demanded of policymakers in response. There is scope for more to be done to enlist diverse storytellers and commentators on the country’s flagship political programmes on the BBC. As the public broadcaster, it is uniquely placed to facilitate better conversations which not only tell the world who we are, but also reflect Britain’s story and identity back to us.
This article was altered on 18/08/16 to correct for an inaccuracy in the reporting of BAME police deaths.