Listening time for editors

19 January 2003 – Journalism has come under attack from all quarters recently: from the UNHCR, from the police, and from within its own ranks. There has been anger over the coverage of the murder of DC Oake, the arrest of asylum seekers, the ‘ricin’ scare, the ‘internet-porn’ arrests of celebrities, and the increase in so-called ‘black-on-black’ crime…the list goes on.

According to the tabloid press, Britain is running alive with poison-wielding asylum-seekers, gun-toting black drug-dealers and porn-obsessed child abusers, and the country is being run by power-crazed, image-conscious war-mongers. As the latest reality TV show ‘Without Prejudice’ has demonstrated week after week, the tabloid message – ‘Let’s get rid of the lot of them’ – is getting through.

Some editors may preen themselves with a nonsensical conviction that by upsetting everyone they must be doing something right. But there are plenty of journalists who feel uneasy about the way their trade is going, and worry that fewer and fewer segments of society put much faith in the media.

Headlines that intrude into people’s grief, imply guilt before charges have been laid, or pander to people’s fear, may pay journalists’ wages by selling papers. But those same journalists know that they have a polarising effect. The net result of generating fear and suspicion is to clear the way for demagogues who feed on paranoia generated by scare stories, and thrive on cheap, nasty analysis and crude solutions.

Britain’s black communities are rightly incensed that inner-city poverty and the perennial violence that accompanies it only merit headlines that sow discord and misinformation about ‘black-on-black’ crime (whoever talks about ‘white-on-white’ crime?). Such superficial journalism says as much about the paucity of newsroom knowledge and contacts within the Black and Asian communities as it does about skewed news values.

A similar ignorance perhaps explains the poor coverage afforded to Britain’s Muslims. Moderate opinion is rarely given space, and the public are fed the notion that Islam is the religion of fanatics. Small wonder that the Muslim community is as distrustful of the British media as they are of Bush’s agenda. Has it not struck editors that they may share a responsibility for driving young idealists to believe that only a ‘jihad’ will set the record straight?

But it is asylum-seekers (for which read almost anyone looking or sounding foreign) who bear the brunt of the hatred being stirred up by the popular press. Over the last year, the Express group has demonstrated that cynical playing of the ‘asylum’ card can boost circulation. Attacking government policy is one thing; making money by scapegoating people who seek safety and security is another.

Rich post-imperial Britain may top the list of European countries to which asylum applications are made (this could be read as a compliment) but poor Pakistan has to cater for 4 million refugees, and there are as many Palestinians who have lived as refugees for 50 years.

Newcomers to the UK are understandably distrustful of the press. Yet there are hundreds of exiled journalists among those seeking asylum in the UK – men and women who have fled persecution for doing their jobs. Instead of promoting a knee-jerk news agenda, editors would much better serve their readers by hiring some of these brave colleagues to supply a better insight into the lives of asylum-seekers, and the reasons why they risk so much to come here.

The same principle applies to coverage of other minorities. Better representation in the newsroom would enrich us all.

Misrepresentation can work wonders, of course. By flying kites about the Communications Bill, the press were able to bounce the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport into guaranteeing that press standards would not fall within the remit of Ofcom, even though the same proprietors will be able to control the news agenda on radio and TV stations from later this year.

Bolstered by their consistent success in scaring off the politicians, editors will no doubt put up a spirited defence when they appear before the CMS Committee inquiry into privacy and media intrusion. But smug leader columns trouncing their critics will do little to recuperate lost trust in the role of journalism.

With the country on the brink of war, what is needed more than ever is a clear-headed and trustworthy media. There may be little sympathy when editors start bleating about the inevitable censorship that accompanies war.

As journalists properly insist, untrammelled power is a dangerous thing – and that applies to the media, too. If the media are to persuade the public that they can be trusted, editors should take heed of their critics. What we need now, more than ever, is a sensible debate engaging all sections of the community about the role and responsibilities of the media in a democracy.

Mike Jempson
Director, The PressWise Trust

Note for editors
The PressWise RAM Project ( is building a directory of exiled journalists who would welcome newsroom experience in the UK.

PressWise is also working with journalists and media NGOs to create a space for debate about the role of the media in a democracy.

(Bulletin No 78)

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