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.