It’s question time, I think, so let’s start with an easy one: what do the following people have in common? Jade Goody, Toni Comer, and Patrick Mercer?
Yes, they’ve all been in the headlines – but the right answer is that they’ve all been in the headlines for the same reason: race. Jade Goody became UK Hate Figure No.1 because of her perceived racist bullying of the saintly Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty; Toni Comer is the 20-year-old (black) woman who was caught on security cameras being apparently beaten by (white) police in a Sheffield car park; Patrick Mercer is the Conservative MP who told a reporter that when he was a colonel in the British army he “came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours.”
There are, of course, many more examples of recent media stories that have involved race. Gun crime in south London; last week’s government report suggesting that some teachers are “unwittingly racist”; the non-promotion of senior Scotland Yard officer Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei.
So here’s the more difficult question: do the media over-report race issues? Is there, as the Daily Mail suggested this morning, “something almost McCarthyite in the way the liberal establishment responds to every suggestion of [racism]?” Or is it, as others suggest, one of the most pervasive and damaging features of the society in which we live, which needs to be constantly exposed and analysed?
Fortunately, I don’t have to answer these questions: my job is to ask them. (I have always closely identified with the former editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, who when he was asked after the end of the Second World War if he would be prepared to stand for parliament, replied: “Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I only know the questions, not the answers.”)
A Guardian columnist wrote this morning: “Many British institutions are struggling to adapt to the new realities of multiethnic, multicultural Britain” (yes, including the BBC, described so memorably by our former director-general Greg Dyke as “hideously white”). But there are others who argue that in fact, compared to many other countries, the UK hasn’t done too badly. I heard the other day about a group of Somalis who have come to live here from Sweden because they found Britain to be a less racist society.
So does relentlessly reporting and analysing racism and racist behaviour risk exacerbating it? Do resentments and misunderstandings grow in the glare of the headlines? I’ve been reporting, on and off, on these matters for the best part of 30 years – from the rise of the National Front in the late 1970s (in 1978, Margaret Thatcher spoke of people’s “fear that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”), the riots in Bristol, Toxteth, Brixton in the 1980s and then the debate over the growing Asian and Muslim minorities through the 1990s and into the current decade. And of course for much of that time, parallel debates have been under way in many other European countries.
I’d be interested in your thoughts. One final, unrelated thought from me, in the aftermath of the vote on reforming the House of Lords (I imagine it had you on the edge of your seat for much of Wednesday evening): when some MPs vote in favour of something because in fact they vigorously oppose it, which apparently is what happened on Wednesday, is it really a surprise that we reporters sometimes fail to treat them with the respect they insist they deserve? And if you really want to make your head hurt, try answering this question for the benefit of a visitor from Mars: who exactly sits in the House of Lords under the current system?
As I said, thank goodness I only have to ask the questions.