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Friday, July 2, 2010

Journalism professor calls for progressive journalists to tackle racism

Richard Keeble Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln, UK, highlighted the role of the media in promoting multiculturalism at the opening session of the conference “Learning to live in a multi-cultural world”, organised by Initiatives of Change, Caux, Switzerland, 2 July 2010

Why are we here in at this amazing Mountain House, in Caux? Well. We all live in multi-cultural societies and we all have multi-cultural blood running through our veins. My family, for instance, can trace its roots back to Australia, Scotland and Ireland. My partner of 39 years is French. Our son, after spending two years teaching in Japan, is now a researcher at Murdoch University in Australia. The mother of his partner there is Greek, her late father Irish. In this context notions of racial, cultural, national purity are nonsense. We should celebrate our multi-cultural heritance.

And yet ethnic violence, crude nationalism and racism (often fuelled by underlying economic grievances) are globally on the rise. Most recently minority Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan have fallen victim to appalling violence.

In the UK, despite all the rhetoric about multi-culturalism over recent decades, evidence suggests a backlash is underway. Just take a look at the members of the new Con-Dem coalition government: the majority are Oxbridge educated, white and male. Eighteen of them are millionaires. Some seven per cent of Britons go to private schools and yet a recent report concluded that some 54 per cent of top journalists in the UK went to private schools. 45 per cent went to Oxbridge. So much for cultural, class diversity!

Commentators on the coverage of the election by the major broadcasting companies also remarked on how again most of the reporters were white and male. Indeed, a recent report funded by the UK government and compiled by the charity Business in the Community found that some of the best-paid professions such as the media, law, banking and politics were seen by ethnics as subtly hostile or openly racist towards ethnic minorities. More than one-firth of ethnic minority people in employment have heard racially offensive comments at work.

How the media can stoke hatred and ignorance

We are here because we know that the role of the media in all of this is vast – for instance, it can stoke xenophobia, stereotypes, hatred and ignorance. The controversy which exploded across the world following the publishing of the Mohamed cartoons in a Danish newspaper (resulting in more than a hundred deaths) served also to highlight the enormous responsibility of all journalists – and the complexity of the issues relating to freedom of expression, respect for difference and so on.


In the UK, the mainstream media too often perpetuate damning stereotypes about asylum seekers. A study by Article 19, the international organisation campaigning against censorship, of six daily newspapers found widespread use of such labels as “bogus asylum seekers”, “asylum cheats”, “scroungers” and “parasites”. In many of the reports the immigrants were dehumanised; the Daily Mail, for instance, referred to a consignment of immigrants. Asylum seekers were often painted as criminals and threats to public health – as supposed importers of AIDS with words such as “exodus”, “flood”, “swamp”, “deluge”, “mass influx” fuelling fears. Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University and Guardian media commentator, concluded: “In papers which pride themselves on their ability to tell human interest stories, human interest stories about people fleeing torture, oppression and gross poverty have been entirely absent.” Analysis of television coverage by Cardiff University School of Journalism found similar stereotyping.

At a more subtle level, cultural prejudice (which can confine black Africa to the margins of media coverage) can seriously distort new values – and mean that incredible stories of progressive political and journalistic action are marginalised. And so we must work to change those news values, sourcing conventions and practical routines that perpetuate stereotypes and exclude solution-oriented reporting.

Take, for instance, Liberia. Following mainstream media reporting, you may associate that country with child soldiers, the hacking of limbs by the combatants in the recent brutal civil war there. And yet Liberia has been the site of a little reported and yet extraordinary peace and peace journalism movement.

Extraordinary movement for peace – missed by the Western media

Let me explain: A peace movement called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace played a crucial role in the ending of hostilities in Monrovia. Organised by social worker Leymah Gbowee, thousands of Christian and Muslim women staged silent protests and forced a meeting with President Charles Taylor and extracted a promise from him to attend peace talks in Ghana. Gbowee then led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to continue to apply pressure on the warring factions during the peace process. They staged a sit in outside the Presidential Palace, blocking all the doors and windows and preventing anyone from leaving the peace talks without a resolution. In other words, the women of Liberia became a powerful political force against violence and against their government.

Their actions helped bring about an agreement during the stalled peace talks. As a result, the women were able to achieve peace in Liberia after a 14-year civil war and later helped bring to power the country’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Since her election, unprecedented numbers of women have assumed leadership positions. Women comprise 17 per cent of the Senate, 12.5 per cent in the House of Representatives, 31 per cent among junior and senior ministers and 33 per cent among local government officials. Today, there are around 200 women’s organisations throughout Liberia and a series of regionally broadcast radio programmes have recently prominent women leaders in various fields.

These radio programmes have been used to foster dialogue among women’s groups about topics of particular importance to women, including health, education, and peace building and have provided networking opportunities for women interested in contesting elections. And since its formation by a group of Liberian journalists interested in sustaining peace, democracy, human rights, free expression and development in their country the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building has helped sustain these peace moves through the provision of training and research for the media in peace building, advocacy and development.

All these remarkable achievements are happening largely away from the glare of the western media.

Moreover, in western Europe the promotion of multi-culturalism and human rights is more often rhetoric than reality. Human rights, for instance, were evoked scandalously to legitimise the “war on terror” and the illegal war in Iraq in 2003 – with all its terrible consequences: the abuse of prisoners, the massacres of civilians, the creation of millions of refugees, the impoverishment of whole nations, the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons – where they have been tortured – or disappeared. In the UK, black and Asian people have been seriously discriminated against by the police in anti-terrorism strategies – with blacks now seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. More than 310,000 black and Asian people were searched on the streets in 2008/09, the figures rising more than 70 per cent over the last five years.

We might even say there is an excess of morality of one kind in the media and the dominant political culture in general. The mainstream media are forever swamped in predictable media moral panics: over declining media standards, over violent video games, irresponsible parents, rowdy students, football hooligans and so on. And each week some one or some group is damned as “evil”.

Crucial role of progressive journalists within the mainstream

How do we confront these issues? How do we theorise our strategies? Well, clearly we should not exclude activities within the mainstream. While its closeness to dominant financial, military and ideological forces means that the professionalised mass media in advanced capitalist countries function largely to promote the interests of the political/industrial/political complex, at the same time the contradictions and complexities of corporate media do provide spaces for progressive journalism. The careers of journalists such as Martha Gellhorn, Nicholas Tomalin, John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein are proof enough. In this context the work of organisations such as the International Communications Forum, PressWise and the Media Diversity Institute are crucial – working for changes from within the professional sector.

Indeed, we are also here because while we know the media too often promote dangerous cultural stereotypes, in many parts of the world the media are part of the solution – assisting in conflict resolution, encouraging understanding between races and cultures, campaigning for positive changes.

In Media Values, the book I have just edited, drawing together the writing of 27 journalists and artists inspired by the ICF founder Bill Porter, Fabrice Boulé describes the programme he has developed promoting the journalism of peace and reconciliation in the Great Lakes Area of Africa. Even in the Congo, where a little reported civil conflict has caused more deaths than any other conflict since 1945, journalists are working together to promote peace.

There are many other examples of practical moves by journalists to promote civil harmony and progressive peace. In Germany the Peace Counts projects brings together a network of international journalists to work in trouble spots – such as in the Ivory Coast – inspiring journalists to work for reconciliation.

Just recently in the UK, The Guardian revealed that 216 CCTV cameras had been installed by the police in two predominantly Muslim though relatively crime-free neighbourhoods of Birmingham. As a result of the newspaper’s investigations which prompted local protests, the cameras were de-activated.

But professionalism is not enough. Professions are best seen as historically-located and class based social groupings which seek to regulate market conditions in their favour by restricting access. Significantly research suggests that only around two per cent of journalists in the UK are black, Asian or Arab compared to a national minority population of 5.26 per cent. Moreover, professionalism tends to stress the individual conscience, an apolitical stance and the importance of following codes of conduct to transform the mainstream media. All of these approaches need to be confronted.

Indeed, we need to redefine journalism as political practice. And by applying a political analysis of the media and journalistic activity we will be able to highlight the crucial roles of collective trade union action within the mainstream and of alternative media in the formation of a progressive, multi-racial, multi-cultural public sphere.

Let me give a few international examples of progressive collective action by journalists in the mainstream:

Between 1999 and 2001 the media worked alongside other civil society organisations in protests against President Estrada in the Philippines culminating in what became known as the Second People’s Power Revolution. In 2001 all-women teams at the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism produced a series of television reports exposing government corruption that gained massive publicity and were considered as crucial in helping inspire the mass non-violent protests, in part sparked by Estrada fuelling of civil discord in his brutal clampdown on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Closer to home in the UK, during 2003 and 2004 Daily Express journalists in London passed the following motion:

This chapel is concerned that Express journalists are coming under pressure to write anti-Gypsy articles. We call for a letter to be sent to the press Complaints Commission, the leading regulatory body in the UK set up by the Thatcher government in the early 1990s) reminding it of the need to protect journalists who are unwilling to write racist articles which are contrary to the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct.

Call for conscience clause rejected by PCC

They asked the PCC to insert conscience clause in its code whereby journalists who refused unethical assignments would be protected from disciplinary action or dismissal. This would be surely an important element of any campaign to promote higher standards in the mainstream media. But the PCC, being too much the voice of vested media interests, predictably refused.

During the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004 about 40 journalists from all TV channels announced that they were being compelled to lie on air and promised not to do so in future. – these activities culminated three months of campaigning.

In 2006 journalists on the German Berliner Zeitung newspaper refused to produce a normal edition of the paper in protest at the appointment of a new editor since they were concerned their proprietor planned to “sacrifice journalistic quality and high standards for the sake of short-term money-making ambitions” As Tony Harcup comments: “Without a collective voice and collective confidence, control of the ethics of journalism will remain largely in the hands of editors and proprietors with individual journalists being left with little choice but to do what they are told or resign. Journalistic ethics cannot be divorced from everyday economic reality such as understaffing, job insecurity, casualised labour, bullying and unconstrained management prerogative.”

Considering further collective action it’s important to acknowledge the work of media trade unions in promoting anti-racist struggles. In the UK, the National Union of Journalists has a range of guidelines on handling issues relating to multi-culturalism and the coverage of overtly racist groups – and highlights many of these activities in its publication: The Journalist. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists likewise constantly speaks out over the oppression of progressive journalists around the world and the dumbing down of standards as proprietors focus obsessively on profits and ratings. And the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, which brings together trade union progressives, leftist political activists and academics, similarly works in many imaginative ways to support anti-racist campaigns.

Intriguingly, the ideologies of professionalism and the linked notion of “objectivity” have served largely to exclude alternative, campaigning, social media even from the definition of “journalism”. Thus it’s important to extend the definition of journalism beyond the mainstream to incorporate the vital role of alternative media.

Firstly there’s the much under-valued anti-racist media: In Britain there’s the magazine of the organisation Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, there’s the excellent Race and Class, published by the Institute of Race Relations and there’s Muslim News. There’s the progressive US-based website, and the human rights campaigning magazine New Internationalist.

Then there are all the newspapers, magazines, newsletters, community radio and television stations which specifically target ethnic minority groups in the UK. A list produced by the Commission for Racial Equality carried the names of 113 such outlets. And yet these media are hardly ever considered by conferences such as this, by the mainstream media in their handling of contemporary journalism – nor rarely feature in academic research.

Important role of “citizen journalists”

Finally, I want to consider the controversial role of the new “citizen journalists” in the promotion of multiculturalism. Many professionals, predictably, see the new journalists as upstarts threatening their privileges and unconstrained by any adherence to any credible codes of conduct. I take the opposite view. The best citizen journalists are providing a necessary critique of professional standards. For instance, the media monitoring website medialens based in the UK is subjecting the mainstream media to a constant and extremely well informed critique from a radical, Chomskyite perspective.

Moreover, too much of the conventional debate over multi-culturalism and anti-racism focuses on the journalist as professional producer and the audience as a passive consumer of a professional product. Rather we need to view the audience as producers of their own (written or visual) media. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 proclaims, in effect, the right to journalism since it stresses that everyone has the right not only to seek and receive but to “impart” (in other words communicate) information and ideas.

So let’s celebrate blogs such as and the website (edited by the black campaigning journalist Marc Wadsworth) for highlighting important issues and carrying out investigations ignored by the mainstream.

There are many journalisms today and more may well sprout in future years –in the struggle against racism we need to tap the special potentials of all of them.