(Apologies for linking to many of my own blog’s postings, but I have been following this story since it first broke).
Last Wednesday saw what I believe was a first for BBC news. A racist murder featured as the main story on the PM Radio Four five o’clock bulletin. The same murder featured in subsequent bulletins and was the top story on the BBC UK News website the same afternoon. Only the Rumsfeld resignation knocked it off top spot on the six o’clock news – and the murder was discussed on Radio Five that night and again the following day.
What’s so unusual about that ? The perpetrators were not white. Previous coverage of such murders have been low-profile to the point of invisibility, in stark contrast to the BBCs coverage of racist murder where the perpetrators, or alleged perpetrators, were white.
Six examples, in chronological order, will illustrate. The 1993 murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence (830 BBC news search results) will be well-known to anyone living in the United Kingdom. No one has been convicted of his murder.
The racist murder of Ghanaian Michael Menson in 1997 – 25 results. Initially thought to have been the work of white racists, three people of varied ethnicity were convicted.
The racist murder of teenager Scott Parker (7 BBC news search results) in September 2001 will be less familiar. Unusually, the BBC have accepted, in a piece by TV editor Jon Williams, that ‘in hindsight, it was a mistake not to report the case of Ross Parker more extensively’.
The reason the murder slipped under the BBC radar ?
“On the same day that Shied Nazi, Ahmed Ali Aswan and Sarris Ali were jailed for the murder of Ross Parker, another murder dominated the headlines.
The uncle of Danielle Jones – a schoolgirl who disappeared in Essex — was found guilty of killing her. The search for Danielle had been extensively covered. The conviction of Stuart Campbell closed a chapter on a continuing mystery.
Add to that the build up to the war in Iraq and Hans Blix’s verdict on Iraq’s weapons dossier, and you begin to see how a newsworthy story about the murder of a teenager – in appalling circumstances – might be squeezed out by other stories.
The murder of Ross Parker took place ten days after the September 11th attacks – at a time when the BBC had all antennae alert for attacks on Muslims, not by Muslims. On the day he died this is what the BBC were reporting. I’d respectfully suggest that, had a 17 year old Muslim been chased and butchered in Peterborough on September 21, 2001, it would have not only have been reported on BBC news – it would have dominated BBC news – Hans Blix or no Hans Blix.
The third murder is the one the BBC are now covering, that of Kriss Donald, the 15-year old schoolboy, snatched from the street by strangers and held captive overnight before being slaughtered in the most appalling fashion. At the end of the first trial (of one of his killers, at the end of 2004) there were 36 BBC news search results. The verdict was covered in one report on the Today programme and one report on the PM news.
In June 2005 student Anthony Walker (127 BBC news search results) was killed in a racist attack in Liverpool. In their own words : The BBC has given a lot of national coverage to the murder of Anthony Walker, the 18-year-old boy killed with an axe in Merseyside last Friday. It made the One, Six and Ten O’Clock News bulletins; there were constant live updates on News 24; and it led the UK index of the BBC News website.
Why did the Anthony Walker murder get such coverage ? BBC News editor Amanda Farnsworth said “It is this racial element to the crime that makes it different …In addition, there was a planning and premeditation in the murder of Anthony Walker that was also particularly shocking. Anthony had walked away from the man racially abusing him but the man appears to have gone to find his friends, and an axe, and chased and killed the 18-year-old.”
And in October 2005 Isiah Young-Sam (16 BBC news search results) was killed in a racist attack in Birmingham.
830 reports, 25 reports, 7 reports, 36 reports, 127 reports, 16 reports.
In two racist murders the victim was non-white, the alleged perpetrators white. 957 reports.
In two racist murders the victim was white, the alleged perpetrators non-white. 42 reports.
In two racist murder both victim and alleged perpetrators were non-white. 41 reports – and of the 25 Michael Menson stories, several relate to the claim that his killers were a white gang (Mr Menson was actually killed by a Mauritian, a Turkish Cypriot, and a Greek – a Mr Hussein Abdullah was also convicted of perverting the course of justice).
Do we see a pattern here ?
It can be argued that the Lawrence case was an exceptional one, because of the response which the campaign of the Lawrence family engendered from government, the enquiry which was convened, and the effect of the enquiry upon society in general and government in particular. There is some truth in this. People will have to judge for themselves. It could also be said that some alleged racist murders where the alleged perpetrators were white, such as the killing of 80 year old Akberali Tayabali Mohamedally, receive little coverage. As the BBC did not report the trial, if indeed there was one, it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions either way.
The most telling contrast is between the coverage of the Anthony Walker and Isiah Young-Sam murders. Both were bright young black men from similar churchgoing backgrounds and loving families – yet the coverage ratio (127 stories to 16) is remarkable – especially when you consider the nature of the attack.
All murders – including racist ones – are abhorrent, and difficult to rank in order of ghastliness. The victims are just as dead. Yet the Young-Sam murder was particularly vile in that, like the murder of Kriss Donald, it was targeted rather than opportunistic.
The murderers of Anthony Walker and the alleged murderers of Stephen Lawrence were thugs with criminal records and histories of violence against people of all races. They met their victims by chance in the street – the Walker murderers were actually on their way to commit a robbery. Although it is impossible to be sure, it is unlikely that either set of murderers had planned the killings.
In contrast, the murderers of Isiah Young-Sam, like those of Kriss Donald, were cruising the streets looking for someone of the right race to attack. The murder took place at a time of heightened tension and street clashes between Asian and Afro-Caribbean Britons in Birmingham. So why did he get so much less coverage than Anthony Walker, despite ticking all Amanda Farnsworth’s boxes for a ‘racial element’ and premeditation ?
The coverage fits a pattern. It’s exactly what you’d expect to see from people who have been taught and believe that –
a) racism by the majority community against minority communities is widespread and is a major social and cultural problem
b) racist murders by members of the majority community are the most striking expression of this racism
In other words, anyone who’s studied politics or social science in a British university in the last thirty years.
Anthony Walker and Stephen Lawrence are important in this context not so much as individuals but as icons. It’s because their murders resonate with assumption a) that they get big air. The stories fit into an existing, larger narrative.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with assumptions a) or b). They are legitimate views to hold. The problem comes when you pick and choose news stories on the basis of how well they fit into and illustrate it. You run the risk of being perceived as grossly unfair – racist, even – when almost identical stories get different levels of coverage.
Unstated – and until recently, maybe even unthought, are two other assumptions.
c) racism by minority communities against the majority or any other community is not widespread and is not a problem
d) what racist murders ?
I can quote statistics from the BBC News pages forever, but it’s easier to give examples of c) and d). You’ll find a number of stories on BBC news where a member of a minority community has died and (far-left) campaigners are convinced a racist murder has been committed. The deaths of the McGowans in Telford or Ricky Reel come to mind. They’re reported because they fit assumption a). You won’t find any stories where a member of the majority community has died and (far-right) campaigners are convinced a racist murder has been committed. Protests about the killing of Gavin Hopley went unreported. The story doesn’t fit the narrative.
And “what murders ?” On 1st December 2005, the day when the Walker killers were sentenced, Jane Garvey of BBC Radio Five’s Drive programme interviewed Peter Fahey, Chief Constable of Cheshire and race spokesperson for ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) and asked him :
“Has there ever been a white victim of a racist murder in this country ?”
If the regular presenter of a daily BBC three-hour news and current affairs show is unaware of such murders what does that say about the coverage they get ?
At the time Ms Garvey asked her question BBC researchers must surely have been aware of the 2004 Home Office data (p20) which states : “Over this three-year period, the police reported to the Home Office 22 homicides where there was a known racial motivation. Twelve victims were White, 4 Asian, 3 Black and 3 of ‘Other’ ethnic origin. There were no current suspects identified for 5 of these victims, 3 of who were White, 1 Black and 1 ‘Other’.” Anyone whose only news source was the BBC would be amazed to learn from the same Home Office figures (Table 3.6) that for every non-white person killed by a white person in England and Wales, two whites are killed by non-whites.
Everyone will have their views on this – mine are not relevant here. I’m just grateful that victims are starting to be treated more equally, no matter what their skin colour. More rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner, and all that.
But the BBC’s Mark Eason does attempt an explanation-cum-justification for this sudden about-turn – which is unintentionally revealing (although yet again poor Isiah Young-Sam is ignored).
Racism was once defined as “prejudice plus power” – a definition which, in a British context, has tended to exclude all but the white population.
Yes, racism was once defined that way – in left-wing sociology and social services departments between, say, the Brixton riots and the 7/7 bombings. And “tended to exclude all but the white population” boils down in practice to “only whites can be racist“. In other words, the attitude underlying the BBCs discriminatory reporting up until last week. Mr Easton’s rather let the cat out of the bag there. Thanks for being so upfront about it.
To everyone else the definition of racism remained what it had always been – judging someone on the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character.
PS – Mr Easton’s piece is worthy of a full fisking, but I’ll just take one small poke :
“The far right has tried to exploit what it claims is the untold story of racial attacks on white people. On the National Front website they feature a long list of “The Fallen”, white people they say were killed by non-whites.”
It is absolutely true that the paucity of coverage of the Kriss Donald murder – arguably by far the worst racist murder ever committed in Britain (at least since the sectarian barbarities of the Shankill Butchers), has been a propaganda gift to parties like the BNP. But it’s a gift that was handed them by the BBC. If the BBC doesn’t report something which is of interest to large numbers of people, other organisations will attempt to fill the void. There are some murders which are only documented at various far-right sites – and it is a disgrace that the BBC don’t report them, leaving such sites as literally the only sources of information. I’ll be interested to see if the BBC cover the Charlene Downes murder trial next year.