Main content

We need more nuanced reporting of race from the BBC

Max Wind-Cowie

Tagged with:

There are few topics of conversation as certain to turn ugly and emotional as quickly as that of race. We have, in our society, a paucity of dialogue and vocabulary to describe feelings of identity, ethnicity and belonging. So we over-simplify a debate that is inherently complex and end up unnecessarily hurting one another's feelings.

The BBC, while not responsible for this absence of nuanced conversation, certainly isn't helping.

The temptation to pander to grievance is one that the BBC rightly resists for the most part in one direction while actively encouraging in the other. 

Racialist politicians - by which I mean politicians who see race as a defining characteristic in terms of political and national interests - do not get an easy ride on the BBC (as evidenced by the delightful, squirming humiliation of Nick Griffin on Question Time). 

But those who wish to misrepresent our society as a racist one are given free reign. So, while every utterance of the Nick Griffins of this world is scrutinised and challenged by interviewers, Bonnie Greer's ridiculous assertion on Question Time that "It's not safe to be a Muslim in Britain" was treated as an unremarkable statement of opinion rather than a dangerous and subversive warping of reality. 

It's also the case that the back stories of guests from ethnic minority backgrounds invited on to Newsnight to discuss issues facing young black and ethnic minority people are disturbingly niche - ex-gangsters, hip hop artists and gang members focusing the discussion not on aspiration and achievement but on policing and counter-culture. 

What does it say to young black men and women watching the BBC's output when they are routinely informed by those supposedly representing them that they share a justified grievance on the basis of the colour of their skin? And what message does it send to Muslims, both living here and in other countries, when the British national broadcaster allows the very security of British Muslims to be called into question? 

These are dangerous and disingenuous portrayals of modern Britain - of the experience of ethnic and religious minorities here and of the attitudes and actions of government and public services. They must be challenged as robustly as racism rightly is.

So what to do? I would suggest two small measures that might improve the quality of the BBC's engagement with issues of race and identity, both concerned with the booking of your guests. 

The first would be that, when seeking out voices of concern on immigration and integration, you reach for people who are able to articulate a discomfort with the pace of diversity on grounds that are neither bigoted nor rooted solely in questions of resource. When I run focus groups with working class people (of all ethnicities), a common argument is that mass immigration has made them uncomfortable as it has eroded the civil and community life of their neighbourhoods, their social fabric. This isn't a racist argument. But nor does it fit neatly into a safe little box marked 'economic concern'. These are voices you need more of. 

Secondly, let's have a black person on Newsnight defending stop and search. Let's find a Muslim who is worried about the creeping use of Sharia. There are plenty of both and these voices must be heard on the BBC to remind both ethnic minority Brits and white Britons that diversity occurs within communities, not just between them.

Max Wind-Cowie is head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.

He recently took part in a College of Journalism event about the reporting of race.

His fellow panellist, High Muir, has also written a blog about his views on the reporting of race. 

Tagged with:

More Posts