Crime and race: was Sir Ian right?

By Martin Brunt

The latest Sir Ian Blair gaffe has taught me
a valuable lesson… always be there when the Commissioner is speaking
and don’t turn off the camera until he’s stopped.

But has it taught him anything? Does he yet have the slightest idea what journalists do?

The
day after his latest foot-inmouth moment he still couldn’t understand
why we had all focused on a brief comment at the end of a three-hour
meeting. How can Britain’s top cop have so little media savvy?

Yes,
sometimes we should be more colour-blind in choosing all stories we
cover. Those black and Asian murders we report most fully tend to be of
victims who are young, attractive, welleducated and aspiring. They
usually go to church, too. I doubt the murder of lawyer Tom ap Rhys
Pryce would have got anything like the airtime it did if he had been a
black road sweeper.

Sir Ian cited the wide coverage of the Pryce
murder and the scant or nonexistent space given to the killing of three
victims from ethnic minorities. If Sky News had reported them all we
may have been accused of fuelling the fear of crime.

The
Commissioner compared the Pryce case with that of Balbir Matharu, an
Asian man run down as he tried to stop car thieves. Well, Sir Ian’s own
press officers initially treated the two deaths rather differently,
telling the media that the first was “a vicious and gratuitous attack”

while the other was “a collision we are investigating”.

A
photograph was available of Pryce, but not of Matharu. Days later, out
of the blue, a senior officer issued a statement vowing “to leave no
stone unturned” in the hunt for Pryce’s killers. He made no such
promise for Matharu’s attackers. Guess which murder got more than three
times as many press releases as the other? It’s not difficult to see
why one story flew, and stayed in the air, while the other struggled to
get off the ground.

There are no firm rules or prejudices that
dictate our crime coverage. I have failed to sell to my newsdesk many
murders, black, Asian and white. On the first day of the Pryce murder I
had to persuade my news editor to send at all… and then it was a camera
only.

There are moments when our bulletin is so full that an alien abduction would struggle to get on.

I
have devoted more time, energy and travel to one black murder victim
than I have to any others. And it’s a case with no photographs or
emotional family interviews. The tale of the Thames torso, the body of
a little black boy thought to be the victim of a ritual sacrifice, is a
fascinating mystery that we believe has captivated our viewers, and so
it has had extensive coverage.

But it wasn’t always so. The boy’s
remains washed up near Tower Bridge in 2001, 10 days after 9/11, and
detectives failed miserably to interest any media in running appeals
for help.

Nobody cried “racist” then. Timing is often the deciding factor.

Sir Ian prompted a legitimate debate.

His
mistake, apart from dragging the Soham murders into it, was to use such
a broad brush stroke to condemn all media. And to use that phrase
“institutional racism”… ring any bells?

We expect the Commissioner to be better informed and to think through the consequences of what he says.

I can’t remember his predecessor being caught out in the same way.

But at the time he spoke last week, at the monthly meeting of his police authority, Sir Ian was already rattled.

Earlier,
some members had accused him of trying to rush through his flagship
policy of community policing, criticism he greeted as heresy. He looked
across at us and warned his attackers that the debate was turning into
a bad news story. If only it had, for his sake. We might have all
rushed out to file it and missed the much better stuff. When he told
members he had been interviewed on policing policy the night before on
Sky News and asked if any of them had seen him, he was greeted with a
bizarre wave of muttering and mumbling and a shout of “We were watching
Big Brother.”

Sir Ian said later that the last thing he wants is
a war with the media. He hasn’t got that yet, but he must be dismayed
that his comments seem to have alienated The Sun, which had been
broadly supportive of him on other matters. More importantly, perhaps,
I detect he is losing the confidence of many of his junior ranks.

The
Commissioner has had a difficult year and the next will be worse, not
just because of the report into the Stockwell shooting. If 2005 was his
annus horribilis, 2006 could prove to be his annus terminus.

It’s
hard to know what he can do to restore his image, short of wrestling a
suicide bomber to the ground outside New Scotland Yard. If he does, I
had better make sure the camera is rolling.

Martin Brunt is Sky News’s crime correspondent

 

Michael Eboda
RACE CARD IS BACK IN BLACK NEWS

Last
week, for a few days at least, reports on the reporting of minority
ethnic victims of crime dominated the news. It was front page in
several dailies; practically every columnist had a go at it; it took up
numerous hours of radio talk-show time and on TV guests were drafted in
from Brixton to Birmingham to offer their opinion on the subject.

It
was almost as if a collective effort had been launched to prove, in the
most ironic way possible, that Sir Ian Blair was wrong. “Of course the
media cares about black murder victims, we’ve been going on about
nothing else all week.”

The truth in more normal times, though,
is quite depressing. Take away the sports pages and there are precious
few stories about us in the national papers. I should know, my news
teams and I scour them every day for items we may have missed. It’s not
often that we find any. Especially any about minority ethnic victims of
crime.

The coverage of three stories in particular – the murders
of Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor and Anthony Walker – were cited as
evidence that such crimes against black people are taken seriously by
the media. The Daily Mail proudly pointed out what it had done in the
Lawrence case, and, yes, its famous 1997 “Murderers” splash was both
brave and impactful. However, until then they’d shown scant regard for
the story, having run a mere 20 articles in the four years up to that
point.

And you do wonder how seriously they would have taken it
had Paul Dacre not discovered that Stephen’s father, Neville, had once
worked for him as a decorator.

I suspect that Sir Ian was not
merely talking about the number of articles on crimes against black
people that hit the news, but more specifically the tone of them – the
angle.

For example, the focus of many of the reports that
appeared about Stephen’s murder was on where the police had gone wrong,
not the fact that a young, black man with a promising future had had
his life cruelly taken away from him for no other reason than the fact
that he was black.

And in the Damilola Taylor and Anthony Walker
murders, the media often seemed overly interested in whether they would
become another Stephen Lawrence (police racism etc.) and concentrated
remarkably little on the human-interest angle – the tragedy of the loss
of life of the boys concerned.

Similarly, much of the focus on
the shooting of Toni-Ann Byfield was on the “drug dealing” of her
“father”, rather than the horror of a seven-year-old girl executed in
cold blood because she had seen her “father’s” murderers.

Compare
that with the way they covered the equally abhorrent killing of Tom ap
Rhys Pryce, where the detail was all about the fact that he was a
Cambridge-educated City lawyer, with a fiancée and who, according to
the tributes paid, was a generally nice guy, and it is easy to
understand why Sir Ian Blair said what he did.

And it’s pretty
easy to see where it all comes from. All you have to do is look at the
average newsroom. You are more likely to find a black man at the annual
convention of the BNP than you are to see one making a meaningful
decision at one of our national newspapers. And from the few visits I
have made to the BBC TV centre, Radio Five Live, ITN and Channel 4,
they are equally culpable.

Almost without exception, the
columnists were white, all the news editors are white and all the
editors are white. Given that, I’d find it remarkable if they didn’t
treat stories about people of a differing ethnicity differently.

A former editor of two of the country’s biggest newspapers seems to agree with me.

Writing
about the Soham murders in his brutally insightful private diaries, The
Insider, Piers Morgan says: “It’s a story that has gripped the nation
and dominated the news every day… someone raised an interesting point
today, though. Would we all have been quite so gripped if they had been
two black girls? The answer, and it is a shameful one, is no.”

Michael Eboda is editor of black newspaper New Nation

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