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Media coverage of riots ‘biased’

FORUM: Marc Wadsworth

A LACK of diversity and cultural awareness in Britain’s newsrooms led to biased reporting of the August riots, according to a conference report.

The conference, Media and the Riots, brought together black academics, activists, journalists and young people to discuss how the disturbances that broke out across the country earlier this year were covered by print and broadcast media.

Organised by veteran journalist Marc Wadsworth for the Citizen Journalism Educational Trust, the forum took place at the London College of Communication on November 26.

While it was conceded that some media organisations had attempted to report the underlying issues, overall concerns were raised at the forum about language and pictures used, reliance on racial stereotypes, as well as the way debates were framed.

Education expert Professor Gus John, who delivered the keynote address, said: “Much of the reporting of the so-called ‘riots’ was simply disgraceful.

“The media appeared to have embarked on a moral crusade, setting down benchmarks by which the ‘rioters’ should be judged in the court of public opinion, and by which the judiciary should also set about the task of teaching them a lesson; a lesson that would serve not only as a deterrent to others but as a form of appeasement for an outraged nation that needed to see the state take its revenge on behalf of us for what they, the ‘feral’, ‘feckless’, ‘criminal’ and ‘amoral’ had dared to put us all through.”

CONCERNS: Gus John (second from right) at the conference

The BBC were singled out over their motives for inviting historian David Starkey on TV programme Newsnight, where he caused outrage by claiming looting was the result of white British people having ‘become black’. Starkey also quoted from Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.


One participant said that presenter Emily Maitlis seemed to refer to a copy of Powell’s speech, suggesting the BBC knew ahead of time what he intended to say.

The BBC were also criticised over an interview with writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe, in which presenter Fiona Armstrong wrongly suggested he had a history of rioting.

A list of recommendations were created, including the community becoming better equipped to engage with the media, journalists developing community tools for improving standards of reporting, and the setting up of a media forum.

It was also put forward that training and mentoring could be provided to help get more diversity in newsrooms.
Wadsworth, a journalism lecturer at City University, said: “A few years ago the former BBC director general, Greg Dyke, said the BBC was ‘hideously white’. Not much has changed since then and the reporting we see reflects that.

“Editors and black journalists need to stop looking at calls for diversity as us asking them for a favour. A more diverse newsroom means better reporting and better stories. It is just unthinkable and very backwards that newsrooms in this country still do not reflect the racial make-up of our population.”

Responding to criticisms regarding the riot coverage and Darcus Howe interview, a BBC spokesman said: “We accept this interview was not ideal, however the presenter did not intend to show Mr Howe any disrespect. The question about protesting was poorly phrased, for which we apologise, and the situation was compounded by a number of technical issues leading to the presenter and Mr Howe talking over each other."

“This was a challenging and at times heated 10-minute debate examining the causes of [the August] riots and looting. Whilst we acknowledge that some people will have found David Starkey's comments offensive he was robustly challenged by presenter Emily Maitlis and the other contributors who took issue with his comments…

“In relation to our riots coverage, we do feel it was balanced."

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