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The media and the riots

THE "MEDIA and the Riots" conference was billed as being "about people who are marginalised, stereotyped or ignored by big media, getting heard". Held at the London College of Communication in November, it was organised by LFB member Marc Wadsworth, who thanked the Branch for its support.

Academic and community activist Professor Gus John gave the keynote speech, challenging the view that the riots were "suddenly visited on an orderly society" and could have been foreseen. He said it was clear that, when it comes to police, relationships with the black community and reporting on that community, little has changed in over thirty years.

Aftermath of riots in Woolwich; © Matt Salusbury

Aftermath of the August riots in Woolwich

Several speakers from the floor supported the view that that the reporting and analysis of last summer's events, not to mention government reaction, was essentially racist, and the result of preconception and prejudice, with the media making little attempt to question the official line about the causes behind the riots.

The media was criticised for being:

  • too ready to accept the police version of the shooting dead of Mark Duggan in Tottenham (who, as it turned out, had not been carrying a gun);
  • unquestioningly accepting of the suggestion that most of the rioters were gang members or had criminal records (when common sense suggests that those arrested would disproportionately include those already known to the police)
  • too happy to go accept the view that the riots (or "uprising", as many participants preferred to call it) could be traced to single parents/absent fathers, criminality and other aspects of so-called "broken Britain".

NUJ president Donnacha Delong and Sarah Niblock, head of journalism at Brunel University, both sought to explain poor coverage by local papers as the result of poor staffing levels and the fact that young people cannot easily afford to train in the media or work for the local press - unless they're from relatively privileged backgrounds. Thus they become detached from their audience - all the more so when the papers are run from outside the areas they serve.

The media was seen by many as being a part of - and driven by - the establishment. Special criticism was meted out for the BBC Newsnight use of David Starkey as a pundit (for reasons that no one really understood) and his comment that "whites have become black" - thereby blaming the black community, even though many rioters were white.

Unthinking attitudes were also criticised in discussion around a film by reporter Tom Parmenter for Sky News, shown as part of the conference. Here, young men from south London were interviewed - but more about what they looted rather than why they did it.

Ultimately, the conference's main message was that the "voiceless" (in Martin Luther King's words) need to be heard. Difficult as this may be, it is the media's duty to make this possible.

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Last modified: 06 Dec 2011 - © 2011 contributors
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