Midsomer race row
The county of Midsomer is, we are told, "the last bastion of Englishness". It is a fictional place set in the present but exhibiting the characteristics of the past - the villages fall victim to medieval levels of violent crime and the residents are exclusively white.
Neil Dudgeon (centre) will take over the central character when the new series begins
Now we learn that one of the creators of ITV's popular detective series Midsomer Murders, Brian True-May, has been suspended for arguing that the lack of cultural diversity on the programme is because "it wouldn't be the English village" if it included ethnic minorities. "It just wouldn't work", he told the Radio Times.
It is interesting that Mr True-May should pick on this word "Englishness" to describe his vision of the rural village because it was exactly the same word that emerged from research into rural attitudes to race in England conducted by academics at Leicester University.
Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland recently published a paper entitled Tackling Rural Racism that used interviews and focus groups to explore the views of white rural residents. It found that "the rural was also often referred to as being the embodiment of 'Englishness'".
"Unfortunately, all too often racist or xenophobic comments were evidenced in the interviews and focus groups, and victims frequently related how they were made to feel unwelcome or were ostracised as 'outsiders'."
Although ethnic minorities are less prevalent in England's rural communities (estimated at around 1.4% compared to 8% or so nationally), the English countryside is certainly not exclusively white. This has led to some concern that those BME residents living in the equivalent of Midsomer may be an invisible group, air-brushed from community life in the same way that black and brown faces are excluded from the cast of Midsomer Murders.
Twenty years ago, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) published a ground-breaking report into attitudes to race in the largely rural South West of England. Keep Them In Birmingham [119KB PDF] took its title from a remark made by a white student on a Plymouth construction course interviewed for the project. The CRE said the findings painted "a disturbing picture of racial prejudice and discrimination directed against ethnic minority residents" in the region.
"What unquestionably exacerbates the problem by reinforcing local prejudice is the presence in the region of large numbers of white migrants from other regions who regard themselves as refugees from multiracialism. In the approving words of a county councillor and college governor: 'People have come here because they want to get away from the problems caused by the coloureds.'"
In 2003 the Observer newspaper interrogated police records of racist incidents to see where they suggested cultural tensions were most acute. "Race attacks are almost 10 times more likely to happen in rural areas" the paper concluded.
"Northumbria tops the list, but is closely followed by Devon, Cornwall and south Wales, where racial crimes affect 1 in 15 and 1 in 16 of the ethnic minority population. Other race crime hotspots are Norfolk, Avon and Somerset, Durham and Cumbria. Between them, the top 10 worst areas in England and Wales for racist incidents are home to just five per cent of the total ethnic minority population."
It is almost a truism to say that those places which are less familiar with ethnic minorities are more likely to be disturbed by their presence. When the Carnegie Trust recently put together its Manifesto for Rural Communities [1.02MB PDF], the report noted that many such places "are poorly equipped to respond to 'newcomers', whether they are minority ethnic households/individuals, migrants or indeed immigrants from urban areas. Local communities are often not aware of 'what it is like for newcomers' and 'newcomers' are often unaware of the culture of the local areas they have moved into."
The 2010 annual report [2.56MB PDF] from Dorset's Racial Equality Council also makes the point that the problems of exclusion and prejudice for ethnic minorities in rural communities have not gone away. "The work that we have done during the last year demonstrated that there has never been a greater need than now", adding that response to a new advocacy project "confirmed our long held belief that many in our communities suffer in silence and are not challenging racist or discriminatory behaviour".
When the New Statesman commissioned an article on rural attitudes to race in 2006, they spoke to Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, a former colleague of mine at the BBC who now runs a pig farm on the Devon/Cornwall borders and markets sausages under the brand The Black Farmer.
"Our parents established beachheads in the cities; it is now up to our generation to move out of those beachheads and claim the rest of Britain as our own" he told the magazine. "If we wait for the climate to change, we will wait for ever."
The theory that the arrival of ethnic minorities and migrant workers will, over time, diminish racist attitudes in the English countryside is matched by a counter-concern that it will increase tensions. It may be that the success of Midsomer Murders, as Brian True-May suggests, relies in part upon its "whiteness", but it paints a portrait of rural England at odds with changing times.
The Leicester University academics Jon Garland and Neil Chakraborti recently put it like this:
"Rural villages are often portrayed as problem-free, idyllic environments characterized by neighbourliness and cultural homogeneity."
The reality, they suggest, is that:
"[V]illage space is not neutral but is instead racialized and contested, and that it is feelings of insecurity among white rural populations, exacerbated by the presence of a markedly different `other', that results in the marginalization of minority ethnic groups from mainstream community activities."
To me, that sounds like an intriguing backdrop to an episode of Midsomer Murders...