The media, and institutional racism (and sexism, classism…)

One of the nice things about people is that even if you spend all your time disagreeing with them, every now and then they can still come up with something that you do actually agree with. It makes life interesting, means pigeonholing never works, and (best of all) gives you something to blog about. Such is the case with Sir Ian Blair, who has drawn howls of protest after suggesting the media’s reporting of crime is institutionally racist; white victims are often given far more coverage than black or Asian victims, which in turn implies the police spend more time investigating their murders.

Actually, perhaps I’m being too lenient on Blair, as I don’t totally agree with him. The coverage of someone’s murder isn’t merely down to the colour of their skin, but there is definitely a nasty streak of differentiating between the “undeserving” and the “less undeserving” (or even “deserving”) dead, which Blair has touched on.

(Of course at this point I should start a rant about the other Blair, whose sanctimonious style and arbitrary designation of the deserving and undeserving poor, deserving and undeserving sick people, deserving and undeserving victims of foreign dictator’s repression etc. is partly to blame for this attitude, but I’ll stick to the point – I want to keep this first blog post reasonably short).

Critics of Blair’s attack point out that ethnic minority victims do get coverage in the press – think Damilola Taylor, or Anthony Walker, both of whose murders got large amounts of press coverage. But it is interesting to compare their deaths with those of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare – two black girls in Birmingham who were killed on New Years Day 2003 in crossfire after a gunfight between rival gangs, and whose murders received far less coverage, and whose names are not as recognisable today. Press coverage of Walker’s and Taylor’s deaths made much of the fact both were highly studious, quiet boys who attended church. Shakespeare and Ellis, on the other hand, were both promising sixth-form college students themselves and in no way criminals, yet because they had connections (mostly familial) to the gangsters who shot them, the press dwelt on those. This is most tellingly demonstrated in the photographs of the victims used by the press – both Walker and Taylor (and many other young murder victims) are usually shown in official school portraits, dressed in their school uniform. In the case of Shakespeare and Ellis, such pictures have been ignored, in favour of a photo from the night of their death, at the party where they died. The implication is clear – it doesn’t matter what else they’d done in life, their association with gangs (no matter how tenuous) and their attendance at that party, mingling amongst gang members, is the lens through which the media decided the two should be portrayed (and one I thoroughly disagree with).

Thus, from the very outset, the portrayal of victims, and their background and circumstances in the press is subject to certain prejudices. These prejudices are often along racial lines, but they need not always be; as well as race there are issues of class, gender, sexuality, occupation, education, age or even mere looks. The murder of a young Cambridge-educated lawyer is going to attract more attention than a middle-aged van-driving builders’ merchant, as was the case with Balbir Matharu, as opposed to Tom ap Rhys Price (as cited by Blair); his race is part of the reason why his death has received so little coverage (even the local press in Newham haven’t dwelled on it too much), but also because in the eyes of the press his background wasn’t particularly interesting, nor did he have a “bright” future ahead of him. Perhaps the fact that Ian Blair’s very job is under threat thanks to these certain prejudices has made him more aware of this; if his men hadn’t gunned down a law-abiding Brazilian electrician at Stockwell, but an unemployed Muslim with a history of petty crime and drug abuse (though with absolutely no links to terrorism), then the result public outrage over the slaughter of an innocent man would not be as strong, I fear.

To wrap up – we’re all guilty of this to some degree (even in this post, some of my rhetoric above slips into it). Blair is right to point that race is a factor, even if he should not have used the Soham murders as an example (right or wrong, you don’t try to point out people’s prejudices by attacking the most infamous and emotive recent example – you’ll be proven right, but they’ll never come round to your point of view). But just as it’s wrong to ignore race as a factor, it’s wrong to say (or make out) it’s the only factor – it makes it easy for fatuous and simplistic “disproving” of your point (as all anyone who disagrees is show one example of a high-profile ethnic minority murder victim), and any meaningful debate gets shoved to one side.

5 thoughts on “The media, and institutional racism (and sexism, classism…)

  1. I think the media likes healthy does of symbolism in what it reports, and so anything that confirms our stereotypes gets better press. Holly and Jessica are typical Red Riding Hood figures, in red Man U shirts. Its interesting that when Jodi Jones was killed in Livingstone, the picture released to the press was about five years out of date, depicting a prepubescent primary school kid, rather than the fifteen year old goth that she actually became.

  2. Of course, the first time Ian Blair actually apologises for something is also the first time I actually agree with him…

    I think you’re absolutely right about the range of factors that lead to different levels of coverage – in which the age, class, race, and physical attractiveness of the victim are the key ones – . What strikes me most is that Blair used the phrase “institutional racism”, and used it absolutely correctly. It’s often misinterpreted to mean “everybody in this organisation is a member of the KKK”, when of course it means just the opposite. Nobody (or hardly enybody) involved in the process of news reporting does so with overt racial prejudice – they don’t sit down at their desks and think “HURRR BLACKS ARE TEH SUCK IT DOESN’T MATTER WHEN THEY DIE.”

    But the reporters seek out stories that will resonate with their editors, and their editors pick out the stories that they think will resonate with their readers – and at every stage all it takes is a little laziness, or a little subconcious prejudice, or a little underestimating the scope of human empathy before you end up with the situation we have. Pretty, middle-class dead blonde girls get more front pages than ugly, working-class dead black guys. Heartstrings are tugged. And the stereotypes get reinforced even further.

    The concept of “Institutional $PREJUDICE” is so useful because it refers to systems in which everybody can do their job properly, without any overt prejudice, and yet the outcome will still be biased.

  3. A form of discrimination always avoided or ignored by press and many bloggers alike, is that of disabled people. Disabled people often receive either scorn/mistrust or pity.

    We are either portrayed as totally incapable (look at that poor woman suffer with that horrifically disabled child/husband/old person) or as malingerers/fraudsters, whose lives are never as difficult or compromised as we say. The reality of our day-to-day lives with a disability isn’t often considered.

    The recent BBC programme On The Fiddle, showed these polarised exemplars perfectly. The mother of severely autistic child, suffering juxtaposed with benefit fraud committed by a roofer, saying he is unable to walk or work. Such cases are thankfully exceptionally rare but impact hugely on how disabled people are perceived and treated. In reality, DWP figures put disability fraud at under 0.5%, and this figure also includes DWP incompetence and error.

    From Little Britain to David Blunkett/john Hutton, the preception is that we are all swinging the lead; that the Disability Discrimination Act has made a difference to our lives (I still cannot fit my wheelchair into many high street shop changing rooms), and we exagerate our dis-abilities; that somehow we are all capable of work. This is obviously rubbish.

    Maybe its time to see us as real people, who are a compromised to one degree or another, but who are in 99.999% of cases not defrauding the state?

    Just thought I’d point that out

  4. Rather infamously, the Daily Mail sent a couple of reporters up the M1 to the scene of a particularly vicious family massacre in the Midlands in the 1980s, only to abruptly call all back from en route, with the news: ‘We’ve just found out the name’s Singh…’
    I think there has certainly been progress since then, and as said above, the news choices often depend on several factors such as ideal-readership resonance; unusualness for the area affected (eg. St Abigail Witchells from a small, ‘commuter-belt’ Surrey village, over the Operation Trident-delegated shootings of a few miles away in south London; the Soham girls, instead of the similar-aged but inner-city Nottingham girl also brutally murdered that same week); attractiveness but also availability of photos (eg. the young Croydon model Sally-Anne Bowman).
    I think the horrific shootings of the Aston New Year’s Day victims did initially receive plenty of Press coverage, but if the reports fell away after a while, it was perhaps due more to the really-rather-baffling complexities of the court case, the defendants’ relationships and various injunctions applied to the reporting. Of course, there is a slightly protesteth-too-much about some papers’ Anthony Walker/Stephen Lawrence supporting.
    Can certainly understand Ian Blair’s complaints and suggestions. Sort-of brave of him to mix it up with an already-suspicious mainstream media too. Though, sadly, it does seem a little like complaining about the weather…

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