This piece is a shortened version of the first half of episode 3 in our podcast series on racism. So far we’ve looked at the meaning of the term white privilege and the contentious figure of Winston Churchill.
The subject matter of today’s piece is racism in the UK media. I think it’s easy for many of us to think there is no prevalent issue over here – sure, there are a few questionable stories here and there, and a few attacks on immigrants, but it’s not as bad as the US right? Fox news is way worse! Think again. Racism is deeply embedded in the UK media, sometimes in incredibly subtle ways.
I want to take a deeper dive into the problem, rather than focus on headlines in the Sun or Daily Mail. From my observations, it feels like the overtly racist headlines from some newspapers are the benchmark for racism? Like we all know that’s racist many do not condone that; but that’s ACTUALLY the extreme form of racism in the media. It would be a bit of a waste to highlight this very obvious issue, as you can go and see many examples for yourselves online. The premise of this series, and TNS in general, is to offer some insight and help people think about things in different ways.
What follows are several examples of the manifestation of racism in all areas of the media that may have gone under the radar:
Let’s start with the mainstream media and specifically the BBC. It has a challenging role to play, striving for impartiality in its approach to reporting current affairs. However, I have become increasingly alarmed in the last year as to the institutions stance on many issues. For example, I used to love BBC’s Question Time, one of its flagship political programmes, when I was at school, but it has declined in value more recently, turning from informed debate to point-scoring and tribalism.
A few months back, Question Time caused controversy through Laurence Fox’s comments on the panel. I’m sure many of you will have seen clips of the episode on social media. He got into a heated debate with a member of the audience, Rachel Boyle, over the media’s treatment of Meghan Markle, which was sickening. Again, I feel like a lot of you reading this will know about that issue, as it was very public, so I don’t want to delve into that too much here.
Fox accused Rachel Boyle of “being racist”, when she pointed out his white, male privilege. We got stuck into white privilege in the first episode of the series, and I alluded to the common misconception (often done willingly I may add) of the use of the word ‘privilege’ in this phrase and how it has been somewhat divisive.
In this context, Boyle was arguing that Fox is deeply unlikely to ever experience prejudice in the UK like many minorities do. At first I thought this was going highlight a serious underlying issue in the UK; however, I was completely dismayed because as soon as she said this, many in the audience groaned like “not this again”. That was literally a few months ago and it clearly showed Britons attitude towards discussion of race.
However, with focus particularly on the media in this piece, two really worrying points stood out to me in this debate. Firstly, Fiona Bruce, the chair of Question Time, displayed problematic behaviour. Her role as an independent chair is to facilitate the debate without displaying a viewpoint. Yet, she cut off Rachel Boyle before she could properly respond to Fox’s points, thus preventing balanced debate.
She then clearly stated that she was “not taking a view”, before mentioning that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, took the view that the press was not racist towards Meghan Markle. This is a juxtaposition, as by invoking Priti Patel’s stance here, Bruce was, in turn, clearly stating a viewpoint. It seemed like a throwaway comment, but it had sinister undertones to it. It’s a perfect example of subtle British racism, shutting down the conversation.
Okay, yes Question Time is a platform for debate, but Fox’s statement that discussions of race were “getting boring” belittled this key issue. I’m not paraphrasing here, this is what he said. One must question why he was invited on the panel. This is the antithesis to informed debate and it was on a primetime show watched by thousands. It normalises this sort of behaviour. Also, it is arguable that a chair should interject at this stage, but this did not happen. The whole sequence was deeply distressing, which was further exacerbated by the many comments in support for Fox. The incident was swept under the carpet after a week, like they always are.
Secondly, at a similar time to the above example, there was an alarming blunder on the News at Ten programme. The BBC mistakenly used footage of LeBron James in coverage of the sudden death of Kobe Bryant.
The footage showed LeBron in LA Lakers uniform, the franchise that Kobe also played for, whilst describing Kobe’s legacy. The footage was from a previous montage of LeBron eclipsing Kobe’s points record, and the BBC subsequently blamed “human error” for the mistake.
“Human error” is simply not an excuse for this subject matter and it puzzles me how the BBC did not check the footage before it was aired. Kobe’s sudden death devastated many people around the world and sensitivity was a necessity at that time, especially for a powerful media institution. The BBC offended everyone who watched it to be honest, including myself, with their blatant ignorance.
Yet, undercurrent racism is rife in this so-called mistake. To show another prominent black basketball star, who looks nothing like Kobe Bryant, and wearing a jersey clearly displaying “JAMES” on the back, highlighted key issues within the BBC, especially a need for greater diversity and new voices. It is hard to believe that this same mistake would have occurred with two prominent white athletes. If it was David Beckham, they wouldn’t play a clip of Wayne Rooney would they? That just simply would not happen.
In the BBC Equality Information Report of 2017/18, it is stated that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation was 14.8% across the workforce and only 10.4% in leadership roles. This is startlingly low, meaning that white people dominate the news agenda. The recent appointment of June Sarpong as the BBC’s first Director of Creative Diversity shows some progress, but this inexcusable broadcasting mistake shows that there is a long way to go. It’s another example that could be excused as a harmless mistake, but it goes much deeper than that.
Just to quickly highlight a very recent example, many of you will have seen the Yorkshire Tea interaction on Twitter. A user stated that she would no longer buy their product after they supported BLM. Rather than branding that person a racist, because that’s what they are, the BBC branded this user, and several others, “anti-racism critics”. That is laughable honestly. The audacity of the BBC to write that in a piece. It says everything. It wasn’t a contentious issue – they were being racist – but the BBC could not acknowledge that for some reason. Just think about that phrase – ‘anti-racism critics’. That’s in the mainstream news. It makes it a plausible stance for people to take.
Let’s move on from the BBC to Sky News, with another example of racism being made an acceptable stance. On their show ‘The Pledge’, they have debates about key issues, and I want to hone in on one particular episode back in 2018, that has resurfaced, with Afua Hirsch, author of the fantastic book Brit(ish). She is a woman I greatly admire and she shared the episode last week.
In the episode, Hirsch essentially called out racism in the UK, and Nick Ferrari, a prominent broadcaster with a breakfast slot on LBC, responded to her with: ‘Why do you stay in this country?’. This is simply a polite rehashing of the age old idiom: If you don’t like this country, then get out. All Hirsch was doing was critiquing the country we live in, as we should all do, rather than blindly fall in line with nationalist sentiment. Yet, she was met with that response. You can see how upset she is by this comment, it is truly awful.
Ferrari has millions of listeners every morning and that’s the worldview he shares with them. Again, it just normalises shutting down minorities when they bring up issues of racism in the UK. He didn’t even listen or try to understand. He was openly racist on mainstream TV, insinuating that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived here for, you don’t belong here unless you’re white. For him to have such a wide audience is part of the problem. Yes, LBC have hosts who are openly politically aligned one way or another, and hold strong views, but this is more than holding strong views. This is openly racist. And yet it is seemingly acceptable? Do you see the issue?
It falls into the wider issue of ‘freedom of speech’, which has been manipulated into people having to accept hate speech as a part of that. Being openly racist can be protected with freedom of speech. I’m all for freedom of speech, it is a cornerstone of democracy, but anything that incites racial hatred, or hatred towards any specific group, surely cannot be accepted? There are extremists like Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage who have a platform as well, constantly in the media, as if their viewpoint is another side of the debate. Racism is not political, and yet it has been made political. It needs to change.
Part 2, which leads on from the second half of episode 3, will be released in due course.