It’s a rare hot, sunny day in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Young delegates representing organizations from across the length and breadth of Europe are taking their seats ahead of the afternoon’s plenary session. This is the bi-annual United conference, an opportunity for European anti-racism activists to network and share strategies with which to combat the far right. This afternoon’s topic: “How does the media contribute to combating racist attitudes?”.
Everyone’s a little tired, but the first guest speaker immediately rouses us as he declares loudly, “The media is part of the problem, not the solution!” His passionate speech sits people up straight in their seats. Around the room people from countries ranging from France to Georgia start nodding in agreement.
The speaker, who preferred not to be identified, was fresh from campaigning against the far right British National Party (BNP) in the run up to the June 2009 European elections. Frustrated with what he termed “sloppy” reportage by mainstream media outlets he called for a return to forceful investigative journalism. Against which the far right’s assertions don’t hold up.
Take the recent BNP electoral pamphlet I recently had shoved through my letterbox. Photos of ‘genuine’ British workers complaining about job losses turned out to be American models posing as the real thing. Similarly, spitfire airplanes used in the same pamphlet to protest against immigrants coming from Eastern Europe in fact belonged to a Polish RAF squadron. These discrepancies were eventually picked up by the mainstream British media, but the actual research had been carried out by anti-racism activists like our speaker, and not by journalists.
I find myself joining the chorus of nodding heads. As an ethnic minority, a British-Armenian, I feel let down by the media in Britain. I often read pieces where journalists rather emptily use words such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ as stand alone terms, failing to elaborate what they mean by them. The result being that whilst multiculturalism is celebrated, not enough time is spent explaining as to why it should be.
When the speaker emphatically declares, “We need to realize that we are on the defensive against the far right”, I find my mind racing. Personally I would like to see journalists proactively challenging racist opinions with solid, well-researched articles that provide balanced images of minorities. This would certainly attach more weight to the concept of multiculturalism.
Merely reporting facts isn’t enough. However, time and space restraints often dictate this to be the case. In such instances issues become simplified. For example there is an inadequate separation of issues such as immigration and job security. When in 2003, following Poland’s entry to the EU, thousands of Poles migrated to the United Kingdom it was reported as threatening British jobs, more often than not though Poles were filling areas of labour shortages.
When these issues are linked with commentaries on “Britishness” it’s a little hard as an ethnic minority to not feel as though what’s occurring is really veiled criticism of minorities in general. Journalists argue that what’s occurring is in fact a legitimate debate about immigration to Britain. But how can it be described as a ‘debate’ when those journalists conducting it are not representative of the communities themselves? There is a distinct lack of ethnic minority journalists commenting in the British print media.
As an ethnic minority reader it’s easy to feel a little bit ignored and unrepresented. What’s worse however is the tenuous connection made in some papers between immigration, job security and ‘Britishness’ – and it’s not difficult for the far right to play upon these links to its political advantage.
The speaker finishes up and receives a standing ovation. He looks humbled by the response.
In the proceeding comments one delegate suggests establishing media monitoring agencies. I don’t think regulation is a solution, its too open to criticisms of restricting free speech. Part of the problem is that media outlets lack accountability, so monitoring their impact is difficult. It’s equally difficult to know whether the media creates or reflects an issue. Can journalistic styles change, though? Balanced reporting should be the goal.
We break for coffee. Conversations start amongst people from countries across Europe as they share their incredulity at the state of affairs in Britain. But it seems the British experience is far from unique.
A tap upon the microphone hurried us back to our seats. The next two speakers chart similar situations, but this time showing how sloppy reporting on ethnic minorities and their issues spiraled into violence in their countries. I sat there, in the stuffy warmth of a Sheffield conference hall, rather alarmed at the comparison I was able to draw between the initial stages of these last two speakers’ experiences of alienation and my own. But getting together to discuss these experiences and hear examples of what should and can be done to make a difference, left me hopeful and with plenty of food for thought.