'Discrimination has become more subtle'

THE GLOBAL protests over the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons have again brought into focus the debate about freedom of speech and how we all live together with respect.

It also served as a stark reminder of the power of the media in determining how we all get along — with the images sparking such bitter conflict that lives have been lost in different corners of the globe.

The disturbances in Birmingham last year also show how powerful the media can be with some stations being blamed for stirring up hatred between two communities — again lives were lost, but this time on Britain’s streets.

At the Campaign for Racial Equality, we receive countless complaints from the gypsy and traveller communities who’ve been the victims of a backlash from newspaper campaigns about them taking over the greenbelt and setting up illegal encampments all over the country. Complaints range from distressed parents whose children have been bullied at school, to assaults on men and women and homes targeted by alarming acts of violence. But there are also positive stories of how the media have helped to build more integrated neighbourhoods: prior to local elections, for example, by combating the hate filled messages of far-right groups, or putting a human face on those who have sought asylum in our towns after fleeing their war-torn countries.

This is a landmark year for the CRE, as we celebrate our 30th anniversary and that of the 1976 Race Relations Act. The Act was a ground-breaking piece of legislation and has helped to tackle the overt racism that used to blight Britain.

But discrimination has become more subtle. If we look at the situation in Britain today, people are becoming more — not less — segregated by ethnicity.

CRE research on people’s friendship groups showed that for 95 per cent of white Britons, most or all of their friends are white. The proportion of ethnic minority Britons who have mainly or exclusively ethnic minority friends is 37 per cent.

Ethnic minorities are still facing discrimination in all spheres including education, employment and politics.

But it’s not just about changing laws; it’s about changing minds and attitudes.

And the role of the media in this huge task has never been more important.

The CRE’s Race in Media Awards (RIMA) — now in their 14th year — were set up to reward excellent coverage of race issues. Thankfully, we are no longer rejoicing simply because a soap opera has introduced a black family into its storyline. There is a handful of black columnists on (what was once)

Fleet Street, certainly more than in my day, and there’s also a Muslim female columnist in The Sun.

In news reporting, we’ve gone from a situation where racial crimes or minority victims simply weren’t covered, or were only featured by the ethnic media, to more balanced and objective reporting.

Bearing this in mind, a blanket condemnation of the media in this respect is no longer helpful, nor accurate.

In the language the media uses, we’ve moved away from people being called ‘coloured’ — and no-one kicking up a fuss — to more appropriate terms such as Black and Asian.

Even the right-wing tabloid press is more nuanced and less predictable than some campaigners like to suggest. It was the Daily Mail that ran the headline ‘Murderers’ over the alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence — a single act which made a huge difference in the Lawrence campaign. The Mail on Sunday has also toned down its language about gypsies and travellers.

But there is still a long way for the media industry to go; both in its coverage of the issues, and in the make-up of the people who cover them.

Issues like Islamophobia, the fight against terrorism, inter-faith conflict, immigration and the rise of the far-right still present major challenges for the media. Some choose to say nothing rather than tackle a difficult issue for fear of causing offence. These are issues that need debating and the media’s role in setting the tone is crucial.

The under-representation of people from ethnic minorities in the media industry also remains a massive problem that needs to be addressed.

The NUJ Membership Survey in 2004 found that ethnic minority groups made up too small a percentage of the total sample to enable a statistically sound analysis. Of the total number of returned surveys, 95 per cent were from white journalists with 5 per cent from journalists of ethnic minority backgrounds.

Likewise, a survey of ethnic minorities in the broadcast industries showed that they were most likely to be employed to vacuum the popcorn from our cinema floors.

The print media lags far behind broadcast on this front. One Fleet Street editor admitted to me a few years ago that the only brown faces he sees in his office belong to the people who empty the bins. That editor was taking practical steps to remedy the situation, and I know he is not alone in trying to remedy this predicament, but his words do go some way to illustrate the problem the print media faces. Part of the problem is that it’s an industry that has always been as much about who you know as what you are capable of. New recruits are those who are on the editor’s radar in the first place — usually people who are just like them.

In an attempt to overcome the hurdles of segregation, and the racial barriers it puts up in society, the CRE is pursuing what it calls the ‘integration agenda’. An integrated society is one where everyone signs up to a single core set of values held in common.

The fragmentation of our society by race and ethnicity is an issue for us all.

In telling our national story, the British press can encourage participation and interaction, while supporting and upholding equality. The media is in a position to help make integration in our society a reality. The changes in the industry haven’t happened by accident.

They’ve happened because so many people have worked hard to change things. RIMA exists to celebrate these individuals and organisations. People are still working hard, which is why I’m an optimist, and look forward to the changes the next 30 years will bring.

Visit www.rima.org.uk to find out more and to enter online. Closing date for applications is 17 March

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