Defusing tension by getting things right

29 July 2005 – Shortly before the bombers dumped their rucksacks on tube trains and buses in London on Thursday 21 July, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, announced the first Local Press Awards for good practice in coverage of asylum issues.

As Ms Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty and one of the judges, said “It’s really nice to be celebrating the positive for once instead of complaining about the negative.”

Ms Bemma Donkoh, UK representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees commented: “Telling their stories allows very powerful messages about the value that refugees bring to the countries that give them shelter to be communicated.”

But perhaps one of the most potent admissions came from Ms Kirtsen Hearn, Chair of the Equal Opportunities and Diversity Board of the Metropolitan Police Authority, who said, “When negative stories appear in the media, more (racist) attacks occur. When the stories suggest that scarce resources are going (to asylum-seekers) especially away from poor communities, there are even more attacks.”

The link between such attacks and negative media coverage was highlighted in ‘Media Image, Community Impact’ a report from the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees (ICAR) commissioned by the Mayor of London last year.

Predictably we hear little of such links from the media itself, although some journalists are becoming more anxious about the impact of their work. The senseless killing of Kamal Raza Butt in Nottingham on the Sunday after the bombings, and widespread attacks on mosques, should be warning enough to others. On holiday from Pakistan he was taunted as ‘Taliban’ before the fatal assault. Nine people, including juveniles, have been arrested in connection with his death.

However, initial restraint in the media following the London bombings of 7 July has given way to more frenzied coverage as the police investigation continues. Emotions are raw, and there is fear too, not least among those who believe they are regarded with suspicion because of the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs.

Sensational and inaccurate headlines like ‘Bombers Are All Spongeing (sic) Asylum Seekers (Daily Express, Wed 27 July) do little to reduce the sense of alienation that drives people to desperate acts (whether it is ‘suicide bombing’ or racist attacks) against innocent people.

Now more than ever it is important for the media to provide space for a diversity of views about the causes of and solutions to such alienation, as John Denham MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee argued on C4 News (Wed 27 Jul).

MediaWise is proud to have been associated with both of these Mayoral initiatives – which chime well with our Refugees, Asylum-seekers & the Media (RAM) Project. RAM Communications Officer Forward Maisokwadzo, an exiled Zimbabwean journalist and co-ordinator of the Exiled Journalists’ Network, was one of the press award judges.

We hope others will join us in encouraging similar awards to be developed throughout the UK in recognition of the positive efforts of local newspapers to improve understanding and promote community relations.

We shall continue to argue that fair and accurate coverage are essential if Britain is to be a safe haven for everyone. Violent extremism is fuelled by propaganda, and propaganda can take many forms – including a narrow news agenda that ignores the diversity of views and experience which make for a healthy democracy.

Mike Jempson
Director, The MediaWise Trust

The winners of the Mayor of London’s Local Press Awards were:
NEWS REPORTS: Highbury & Islington Express
FEATURES: Wembley Observer
VISUALS: East End Life
FAITH, BLACK, ASIAN & MINORITY ETHNIC NEWSPAPER: Al-Muntada (Iraqi Community Association)

Copies of The RAM Report by Rich Cookson & Mike Jempson are available (£15 inc p&p) from MediaWise, 38 Easton Business Centre, Felix Road, Bristol BS5 OHE

(Bulletin No 111)

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