Karolina Omenzetter addresses the issue of institutional racism in the British media in reaction to their coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has successfully made the discourse surrounding systemic racism difficult to brush under the carpet. However, the UK’s media coverage remains to have a detectable racial bias, and the government’s condemnation of BLM protests only serves to criminalise marginalised groups.
As with any polarising subject, both political leanings have been criticising the BBC for its coverage of BLM protests. Some believe that they have been too sympathetic with people who “threaten” the nation with a second Covid-19 wave with the BLM protests. This is difficult to justify considering that several of the BBC’s articles suggest that these protests undermine lockdown rules. Apparently, statements suggesting that these protests are illegal is objective reporting. However, it was decided that Emily Maitlis went against BBC’s impartiality policy and required punishment when she said that Dominic Cummings "broke the rules" on his infamous car ride to "test his eyesight". This double standard is excruciatingly apparent on many prolific outlets. Mainstream media appears to be intent on the criminalisation of movements associated with marginalised groups while the elite are immune from conviction.
Comparing the vocabulary used in the coverage of different protests exposes the racial bias of the press. Last year headlines from the Brexit protests described "jubilant" protestors in “bright sunshine” meanwhile Extinction Rebellion protestors were said to be “hypocritical” and caused economic damage. Even the criticism of these protests offers a sharp contrast from the violent tone portrayed by some headlines of BLM protests that have advertised the number of police officers injured.
The association of danger with BLM protests was consolidated when their programmes exclusively screened images of violence amongst protestors within the US. These scare tactics only serve to promote public animosity and reassures people that they do not need to address their own prejudices. This stunts productive change.
The news has exposed some of the police brutality facing protestors in America. People are familiar with the footage of journalists being attacked and the use of tear gas. However, very few outlets mentioned the UK’s export of tear gas and riot gear to the US. British media concerns itself with coining terms such as “anti-racist critics” to describe racists. It portrays racism as an issue that is under little influence by our government rather than giving a comprehensive overview of the scenario.
Where traditional news outlets have failed, social media has been able to highlight an important aspect of the story; many of these protestors are peaceful. This can be seen in the numerous videos of nonviolent chanting and communion within gatherings. Social media users have also taken the opportunity to contextualise the motives of protestors and why black lives specifically matter. This environment encourages individuals to read around the subject in a system where the school curriculum has failed to teach the roots of racism.
Platforms such as Twitter have been essential in exposing the extremities of police brutality: an unarmed young girl was beaten, a homeless man shot by a rubber bullet, medical staff providing first aid attacked. It feels like something that cannot be part of the narrative of a just society. Why were we not shown the whole story?
The lack of reporting on relevant details leaves an arena that facilitates hostility. When the statue of Edward Colston was taken down during a protest in Bristol, many denounced this direct action as a threat to history. Meanwhile, those that sympathised with the protestors felt that it was the wrong approach.
Boris Johnson emphasised that democratic processes should have been followed instead. This rhetoric was echoed by news outlets failing to report that campaigners had been democratically requesting the removal of the statue for 20 years. A plaque to “give context” was never approved due to councillors disagreeing on the appropriate wording. Democracy failed them.
The media’s omission of relevant details and Priti Patel’s condemnation of the people involved as “thugs and criminals” portrays these protestors as dangerous fugitives. This is an immoral association to make with BLM in a country where innocent black individuals are already more likely to be treated unjustly by the police and court.
There have been instances of violence at these protests, but this is often due to aggravation from the state. Articles focused on instilling outrage when a police officer fell off her horse during a BLM protest in London after it bolted. The horse had been frightened when a projectile, which oscillates between being reported as a bottle and a bike, was thrown. More emphasis was put on the crowd being “violent” or “rowdy” rather than questioning the motives of the police when they used horses to charge through the peaceful crowd.
Police intimidation at these events highlights the government’s failure to engage with the demands of activists and proves that politicians prioritise public control over individual empowerment. It is essential for the media and the government to be more aware of its own racist inclinations when responding to BLM. Rather than informing the public, they continue to consolidate racial biases and unfortunately, we cannot rely on being told the relevant facts.