Revealed: How UK media fuelled race prejudice
Backed by a centuries old news tradition, with thousands of print titles, a solid platform of radio and television programming, and a growing Internet online presence, most UK journalists would firmly proclaim "We in Britain are proud of our tradition of a free press."
But the hard news is that the mass media - TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and on the Internet - are free to be prejudiced in covering Black communities. And free to maintain closed doors to Black and minority ethnic journalists.
These failings of the British media are not new. They were identified and called into question almost thirty years ago by Jamaican-born Stuart Hall, then a fellow at the Contemporary Cultural Studies Centre, Birmingham University. He told a visibly shocked BBC television audience in November 1971 "there is something radically wrong with the way black immigrants - West Indians, Asians, Africans-are handled by and presented on the mass media". Black images
Nineteen seventy-one was a year of heightened emotions for him. He was painfully aware that the texture and tone of black images in the media had worsened. His newly gained powers to act as director of the contemporary cultural studies boosted his confidence. Late in the year, on the crest of academic success, he contributed a powerful statement on "Black Men, White Media" to a BBC television debate on racial images.
Negative racial images cannot not be resolved by "a few more black faces on the screen, or by an extra documentary or two on immigrant problems," said Hall. Nor could the causes be traced simply to "casual discrimination on racial matters within the broadcasting organisations".
Warming to his subject he said: "Its roots lie deep within the broadcasting structures themselves, and good liberal broadcasters, as well as bad racialist ones, are both constrained by these structures. Established values
Class, race and power all play a part in media organisations and Hall outlined a convincing scenario as follows:
"Broadly speaking, the media exist in a very close, sympathetic relationship to power and established values. They favour a consensus view of any problem: they reflect overwhelmingly middle class attitudes and experience. Basically, this unfits them for an authentic portrayal of the black community and its problems.
"The media tend to favour experts, privileged witnesses, middle men - whereas blacks are predominantly an out-group, outside the consensus.
"The media reflect organized majority and minority viewpoints -whereas blacks are relatively unorganized. The media are sensitive to middle class ways of life - whereas blacks belong to the skilled and semi-skilled working class.
"The media favour the articulate - whereas blacks are relatively un-articulate, and their anger and frustration often out-runs the terms of polite debate.
"Above all, the media are defensive about the sacred institutions of society - whereas black people most encounter problems in these sensitive power-areas: employment, public discrimination, housing, parliamentary legislation, local government, law and order, the police." Conflicts of interest
No one has so compellingly and carefully dissected how the British media's acclaimed freedoms mask its powers to hurt and deprive defenceless black people. Understanding the conflict of interest between the media and black people is fundamental, said Hall.
"The mass media play a crucial role in defining the problems and issues of public concern. They are the main channels of public discourse in our segregated society. They transmit stereotypes of one group to other groups. They attach feelings and emotions to problems. They set the terms in which problems are defined as 'central' or 'marginal.'"
This marginalisation is not of recent origin; it has historic precedents, said Hall. He knew, as did Eric Williams, Trinidadian author of the canonical work Capitalism and Slavery, that the "sugar and slave men" - London's wealthy West India lobby - were favoured customers of the Bank of England. Hence he said:
"My own view is that black people have had an invisible presence for centuries in British history: they have been the hidden component in the fate and fortune of Britain as a world-imperial power. In the very moment when that world-historical role is being diminished, blacks have come in large numbers to work and live in what is laughingly called the 'host' society. They have always been - and are now visibly - central to the society's "quarrel with itself." You exclude them from access at considerable peril to society as a whole." Mass persuasion
Hall's tenacity was extraordinary. He cited a range of charges against media broadcasting that suggest a pernicious form of mass indoctrination.
"When blacks appear in the documentary/current affairs part of broadcasting, they are always attached to some 'immigrant issue': they have to be involved in some crisis or drama to become visible actors to the media. But problem-centered programmes like these select and process participants in terms of very rigid programme-formulae.
"Blacks participate, then, in broadcasts defined by the media as 'black' problems: and they do so within constraints, given in the very professional definition of what constitutes 'good television', by the producers themselves. It is very rare indeed to see a programme where blacks themselves have defined the problem as they see it. Now it matters a great deal whether studio discussions are based on the premise that black people constitute a problem for Mr. Enoch Powell, or that Enoch Powell constitutes a problem for black people."
Hall traces this false "black problem" agenda to its source. "Such programmes are inevitably based on the liberal consensus assumption that we are all proceeding, slowly but inevitably, towards a racially integrated society". But not many blacks would agree with this assumption, Hall suggested.
"Actually, for blacks, this premise of integration is a highly problematic question. There is much more evidence that Britain is, slowly but inevitably, drifting towards the creation of a permanent black minority of second-class citizens, large numbers of them living in poverty and deprivation, and subject to discrimination as a group.
The media's view of black people contrasts sharply with the views held by blacks about themselves. It is plain to see, says Hall that "The liberal postulate about 'integration' is a politician's and broadcaster's utopia. No black group would, realistically, choose this framework for a discussion of its problems. But, not only is this more realistic view never made the consensual basis of broadcasting, but it is extremely rare to see on television an examination of the real conditions on the ground, in the black/white communities, from which integration or its opposite - permanent conflict - might emerge." Real issues masked
As a result, the media ignores the real issues with which black people must contend says Hall.
"This is because the media, on the whole, naturally gravitate to the liberal middle-ground: they find conflict and oppression - the real conditions of black existence - difficult and awkward. They tend to redefine all problems as failures in communication.
"There has been little, attempt either in drama, documentary or features to explore and express the rich, complex, diverse and troubled experience of blacks. There have been few, if any, programmes sufficiently in touch with the grass roots of black opinion to recreate in broadcasting terms how the world looks from that position.
"The broadcasting formulae seem to inhibit ordinary people talking in their own terms about their own experience to the rest of society. The visible debate, therefore, about blacks, conducted in terms primarily set up by the race relations industry, leaves the vast, invisible majority of blacks untouched and unrepresented. They are a repressed part of what - from the viewpoint of the, broadcasting studios - is virtually 'unknown country'.
"When the debate does surface, it is virtually impossible to hear any but a handful of middle class blacks - like me - and spokesmen for the black community - like most of the people in this studio speaking for the rest.
"On the whole, less articulate blacks are mercilessly processed and patronised when they do appear on the screen. What inhibitions, what constraints, what forms of self-censorship, what shallowness of social contacts ensure that the media will be so deeply unrepresentative of the ordinary men and women in this society?
"Blacks are not puppets attached by strings to some set of issues defined as 'black problems.' They form a natural minority in any cross-section of opinion from a large industrial city in England. They are crucially affected by everything which affects the rest of the society - education, welfare, common market, law and order. They have a right to access when these questions are being discussed." Arena of discussion
Then Hall took his audience beyond conventional assumptions of the media. Emerging black communities, with their distinctive viewpoints and problems, are entering the arena of media discourse.
"In recent years, there has been, within the black communities, a growing sense of identification with black consciousness and culture, with movements for liberation amongst black countries and minorities elsewhere, and a growing impulsion to link informal segregation in Britain with more overt forms of racism elsewhere. Just as there has been a powerful thrust towards defining Britain as naturally and inevitably white.'
"Now neither of these strands in public opinion are going to disappear because such controversial attitudes and conflicts are difficult for broadcasters to handle. Where such attitudes exist among blacks - and they do - they must be allowed clear expression: without the broadcasters silently labelling them 'black power' and therefore 'extremist' and therefore 'wrong' and therefore excluding them, or 'cooling them out' in the studio. The thrust towards black consciousness - like the thrust towards more overt racism - are deeply rooted in the real historical situation: they won't disappear because they affront broadcasting's liberal sensibilities."
Returning to his theme Black Men, White Media, Hall spoke directly about key targets of black concern: the drama and entertainment programmes that reinforce stereotypes. These, he said exert a much stronger impact on the formation of popular attitudes than current affairs programmes.
"Children's television, for example, is still 'whiter than white.' The affluent thrillers have more stereotyped black villains and problem families per square footage than they ought to in a society which is confronting an extremely dangerous problem.
"My impression is that this whole area of drama, serials and entertainment is treated as 'routine broadcasting' where, the race question is concerned: yet it may be precisely here where the fundamental damage is being done.
"The important point about television entertainment is that it educates the popular consciousness informally; by dealing with real-life problems and situations in fictional terms, it creates images without appearing to do so. And it powerfully attaches feelings and emotions to these images - feelings which can then be triggered off in more explosive situations." Fatal flaws
Hall's analysis reveals fatal flaws in the self-righteous beliefs of journalists. He also previews topical issues of "institutional racism" experienced by many black people as he concludes:
"What concerns me is the unwitting biases, the hidden premises, the invisible attitudes and loyalties, the concealed links between broadcasting and power, broadcasting and class which prevent the media from articulating this experience in clear and authentic terms.
"I doubt whether a little tinkering with the schedules will do here. I believe the constraints are written in to broadcasting structures as we presently have them: and I believe that, if the situation does not rapidly change, broadcasters, like politicians, will face a massive withdrawal of confidence from the invisible half - black and white - in the society: a silent revolt of the audience."
Stuart Hall's achievement lies in the rational intensity he brought to the 1970's race-media debate. His politically potent arguments are just as central to our contemporary media concerns - from press freedom and the role of class, power, and institutional racism to the most intricate questions of minority images and employment in the press and journalism schools to mass communications studies and media ethics. Today, with mounting criticism of negative black images and under-representation in the media, Hall's brilliant analysis helps us to understand why colour-coded newsrooms and views of modern society must be changed. (Stuart Hall holds an MA from Merton College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. He came to prominence at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and thereafter as Professor of Sociology at the Open University from 1979. He has written or contributed to key works on culture, media studies and politics. Grateful acknowledgement is due to the publishers of Savacou, Journal of the Caribbean Artists Movement, vol. 9/10, 1974, in which the article Black Men, White Media by Stuart Hall appeared.) http://www.thechronicle.demon.co.uk/tomsite/8_6_1rev.htm