Media Racism

This piece was written by Imogen for a possible book on the film Injustice. We approached 19 publishers for the book, but while screenings do occur now, because the film was banned/threatened for so long by the court injunctions of the Police Federation, no publisher seemed able to risk a publication. As you can see from below, the failure of the publishers (some respected left wing houses) was not because of the quality of the writing – here as ever Imogen was on the case. [pic by Sheila - Goldsmiths Graduation - top Imogen with Brian and Cinzia in blue, bottom, some of the graduating class].

Media Racism:
Reporting black deaths in the British press: Injustice and the right to reply.

‘Black deaths do not have a good press, especially when they occur in the custody of our custodians…the media leads the public to believe that our guardians can do no wrong. Racism leads them to believe that blacks can do no right. The silence of the custodial system is compounded by the silences of racism’ (Sivanandan).

It is from within these silences that Injustice speaks. As Sivanadan’s resolute remark suggests, the film was, in part, a necessary response to the media’s selective and often dubiously scarce reportage. Why is it that the one thousand deaths in custody that have occurred since 1969 can largely have slipped through the pages of our national press whilst at the same time the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Victoria Climbe and Damilola Taylor have, for instance, frequently made the front covers of both broadsheets and tabloids? When the key suspects in the murder of Stephen Lawrence were charged with committing a racist attack on an off duty black police officer the Daily Mirror’s front page announced ‘GOTCHA! Two down, three to go, as justice finally catches up with racist Lawrence thugs’. And yet, in the post-Macpherson world it is all too easy perhaps to be seduced by such jubilance. After all, justice for the death of Stephen Lawrence never did catch up with his killers. The justice just delivered was for a racial attack on a police officer. And, if we are to be cynical, it mostly provided a perfect space for the press to celebrate an apparently reformed Metropolitan police.

The same week however, on page eight of the Guardian we are told that when Christopher Alder died face down in a police station in Hull in 1998, he was surrounded by police making monkey noises. In a letter to his sister, the CPS reported that ‘it is not possible to infer that there was a racist motivation here’. This, less impressive judicial decision is far from the front page – ‘black deaths do not have a good press’. Injustice was a way of exposing the long and continuing history of (black) deaths in custody where a politically correct rather than a politically [engaged?] press had not been adequate. Exploring the press’ handling of the cases featured in the Injustice provides a way of understanding the sticky politics of reporting deaths in custody and may open up a space in which to re-view the cases.

Whilst it is probably a truism for those involved in the campaigns for justice of people who have died in police custody, it is worth noting at the outset a point all too often forgotten when Britain celebrates the freedom of its press and the quality of its news, that is:

‘The media do not simply and transparently report events which are ‘naturally’ newsworthy in themselves. ‘News’ is the end product of a complex process which begins with a systematic sorting of events and topics according to a socially constructed set of categories’ (Hall et al 1978:53).

Deaths in custody are reported within a wider media context of black deaths, which more often than not, are associated with crime, gangs and drugs. The furore over guns from the ghettos at the concerts of the So Solid Crew was synchronous with the trial of the killers of schoolboy Damilola Taylor. And, whilst providing stark contrast to one another, together portrayed a kind of black underworld where, as the Guardian noted, ‘Gun crime in London is at an all-time high, and black violence against black people of particular concern, with 21 deaths last year’. A few months later, rising crime rates were the front cover of all the national press, and the shadow home secretary announced that ‘everyone on the estates in our inner cities knows…it is gangs and drug dealers rather than the forces of law and order that are in charge’ (Guardian 12/7/2002).

When gangs and drug dealers have been repeatedly inferred as being black, the violence of the police force towards to black people, or the disproportionate figures of black deaths in custody can be seen not as racism but rather as the inevitable result of black criminality. This might be one of the ‘socially constructed set of categories’ within which black deaths in police custody are reported, or not. And what it effectively creates is the idea that the force of the police is ‘reasonable’. However, when the controversial stop and search laws make it five times more likely to be stopped if you are black, then already there is a disproportionate chance that in being stopped, the police feel that a certain degree of force is reasonable. Indeed race and crime are so closely associated by the media that the Guardian chose to quote the Voice editor calling for more stop and search in the face of rising street crime and gun related offences,

‘Most people would prefer not to be stopped and searched, but increasing crime is warranting that and the majority of people who have nothing to hide won’t mind very much’ (Guardian 5/3/2002).
So, Mike Best, portrayed as a spokesperson for black people, has reiterated the most cunning of media tricks, creating the functional equivalent of the deserving and undeserving poor. The emphasis is shifted from the fact that stop and search, undertaken by a self confessed ‘institutionally racist’ police force is a dubious and dangerous tactic. And again, it obfuscates the fact that people stopped and searched, such as Brian Douglas, or arrested on suspicion of robbery such as Wayne Douglas, are dead. It is not even that the people who ‘have nothing to hide’ always get off lightly. Moreover, following the theme of the deserving and undeserving, a great deal of post-Macpherson media spin has played on the idea that the police are now too afraid of being accused of being racist that they won’t stop black people. The delight with which the nation mimicked Ali G’s ‘Is it cos I is black?’ was a serious indicator of how little the term ‘institutionally racist’ had been taken seriously and, like Mike Best, black M.P Paul Boateng was showcased demanding that:
‘The power [of stop and search] cannot be removed – it is a vital tool in the armoury of the police. We must never lose sight in our response to the Lawrence report what brought it about – a gang of thugs on the street obsessed by knives. The police must have the power to stop and search for knives’ (Observer 28/2/1999).

In fact this ‘gang of thugs’ were a white racist fraternity and yet stop and search renders black people five times more likely to be stopped. Indeed this kind of neutralisation of the police in the press is common. A crucial aspect of deaths in custody is that, by their very nature they might provoke terror and anger in the public eye as we are forced to ask who can protect us from those who are there to protect us? And yet, deaths in custody have repeatedly been portrayed as almost an inevitability, or the just deserves of a minority of people on the wrong side of the law. An example might be a report of the death of Shiji Lapite that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph which ran:

‘Mr Lapite was arrested outside a nightclub in Stoke Newington, north-east London. During a struggle he was pinned down and his larynx partially crushed. He died of asphyxia and cocaine intoxication.’

In the same way, the Times made sure to note that Brian Douglas was, at the time of his arrest, thought to be ‘under the influence of either drugs or drink’. Whilst the Sunday Telegraph described how, when Joy Gardner’s mouth was gagged with 13 feet of surgical tape, the police had arrived at her home,

‘with an arrest warrant, restraining equipment…and the information that she tried to evade deportation before and had a record of violence’.

This is perhaps the most telling account in that it shows how a criminalised history or an inference of involvement with drugs is a resource that can be used by the police in the same way as an arrest warrant might be. Similarly, both Joy Gardner and Shiji Lapite were described first and foremost as asylum seekers. Read within the context of a media who infamously echoed Enoch Powell’s speech of Britain being ‘flooded’ by immigrants, it is easy to see how these deaths might have been construed.

A demand for information, accountability, and justice that might arise through reporting a death in custody is augmented by an inference of criminality. In these instances, police action no longer, it seems, is under such scrutiny. Middle England, reading the paper over their breakfast can rest assured that it won’t be them on the floor of Stoke Newington police station. Whilst, bombarded with spectacular reports of rising crime, drugs and guns, the police must be justified in their actions.

Looking at the press reports of all of the cases featured in the film exposes a pattern in the press’ handling of both deaths in police custody, and the relationship between black people and (usually violent) crime. When these issues converge, deaths in custody, rather than being an outrageous – and in this sense – morbidly newsworthy issue, become part of publicising the police in favour of ‘mentally unstable’ (Press release from Stoke Newington police the night of Colin Roach’s death in the foyer of the police station) ‘immensely strong’ (Daily Telegraph quoting P.C Wright’s description of Ibrahim Sey 26/1/1996) ‘violent’ (Sunday Telegraph quoting P.C Brian Adam’s description of Joy Gardner 30/11/1997) victims. Such dramatic adjectives are an example of how

‘media forms produce the urban (ghetto) as lawless, anarchic and violent…[and] from pop videos, Hollywood cinema, American police series and surveillance videos, the black male body has been an object of scrutiny’(Sharma and Sharma 2000:109).

Victims who have died in custody are somehow posed as Goliaths to the Metropolitan’s Davids whose political and technological strength is creatively overlooked. The figure of the big, black dangerous criminal becomes mythical and the police can be posed as heroes, risking their own safety to keep the streets safe.

An example of this use, by the police, of the media might be found in a report such as that in the Daily Telgraph whose headline was ‘Met officers to be given body armour and C.S gas’. Here, the death of Brian Douglas, following his arrest is noted within the context of police deaths. The article reads:

‘all members of the metropolitan police are to be issued with body armour in the wake of gun attacks that have left seven officers dead in the past five years’.

The implosion of Brian’s death with the death of police officers seems to suggest three key themes. Firstly that death is inevitable within police work. Secondly, that the death of a police officer on duty might be equivalent to the death of a citizen who is, for any reason, stopped by the police. And, thirdly, that the death of an officer is enough to warrant the introduction of more repressive measures [technologies?]. It is the press who have juxtaposed the stories of Brian Douglas death and the police death and, in doing so, have occluded the seriousness of both the frequency and similarity in the death in custody cases. The 1000 deaths since 1969 are not of course, juxtaposed with the 7 police deaths in 5 years, a statistic that might put the police death rate into some kind of perspective.

Breaking up the continuity of black deaths in police custody through intermittent reporting distracts the public from the chilling similarities in the cases. Beyond that however, for those families, friends and allies involved in campaigning for justice, the press’ spectacularisation of particular cases is extremely damaging. It sets up a dis-jointed politics where alliance must be traded for sympathy. Whilst the Guardian headline of a report into the death of Roger Sylvester was ‘Another death in custody, another family mourns’ (24/1/1999), what the article actually stressed was to not see the death as another of the same. Yet again, another family mourns, and yet ‘they are wary…of Roger Sylvester’s death becoming another Stephen Lawrence or Michael Menson case’. The fact is that in many respects, the death is already another Stephen Lawrence or Michael Menson case. The depoliticising of yet ‘another death in custody’ happens through the emotiveness of a family, in obvious disbelief, who, it was reported, in response to questions over a demonstration held outside the High Court said, ‘it had nothing to do with us’.

Along similar divisive lines, a large part of a BBC Newsnight report after the death of Michael Menson in Stoke Newington police station in 1983 was given over to P.C Paul Pacey, who demanded that:

‘you go out and talk to those people on the streets, just in the normal course of your duty and they’ll…talk to you about the police and about what happens to you back at Stoke Newington station…and they’ll say, “things happen to you back there” and you’ll say “well what?”, “well, I’ve heard stories…”, “Well, who off?”, “Well, people”, “ Has it happened to you?” “Well, no…” And its very hard to find. In fact I can’t find these people its happening to’.

Death in custody becomes the urban myth of a paranoid black community rather than a serious and discrediting narrative in the history of Stoke Newington police station. Injustice found the families and friends of ‘these people its happening to’ and in calibrating the deaths that have occurred over the last thirty years fill in the gaps left by the media.

These gaps are, it seems, so easily maintained because the usual model of reporting is impossible. When death occurs in the ‘custody of our custodians’ what ‘actually happened’ is only known by the police involved. The ‘news’ of a death in custody is framed by information given by a whole brigade of officials from the police, to the police coroners, to the Crown Prosecution Service, to the Police Complaints Authority into the nature of the death. Stuart Hall (et al) has noted that,

‘what is most striking about crime news is that it very rarely involves a first-hand account of the crime itself…Crime stories are almost wholly produced from the definitions and perspectives of the institutional primary definers’ (1978:68).

Within this are assumptions about the relationship between race and crime, crime and violence and violence and state-protection. So, from a pre-established context, it is really only the police who have a voice on a particular case. This process may be highlighted by the extent to which the press uses direct quotes from the police officers involved in the deaths. Cloaked in the officialdom of their speaking position, deeply subjective descriptions are used:

‘P.C Wright : “He [Shiji Lapite] was immensely strong. I was in fear for my life and P.C Macullum’s life”…P.C Wright believed the suspect’s “tremendous strength” might have been the effect of crack cocaine’ (Daily Telegraph 26/1/1996).

‘“She [Joy Gardner] was the most violent woman I have ever encountered”, said P.C Brian Adam’ (Sunday Telegraph 30/11/1997).

There is no space for counter comment – for an opposing claim. Both the ‘facts’ of the death and opinion or comment are given by the state. Disentangling this tightly woven knot of (mis) information becomes the private struggle of each family rather than a public and publicised campaign. The silencing of Injustice is another thread in this cloth, where each time a screening was due to take place, the cinema was threatened by the Metropolitan police lawyers. In privileging the voice of the state over and above the voice of those harmed by the state, the media reaffirms the position of an institutionally racist police.

‘we are now at the very heart of the inter-relationships between the control culture and the ‘signification culture’…In this moment, the media – albeit unwittingly, and through their own ‘autonomous’ routes – have become effectively an apparatus of the control process itself – an ‘ideological state apparatus’(Hall et al 1978:76).

Indeed there is a curious levelling mechanism that needs to go on with cases of death in custody. The Metropolitan police, especially after the Stephen Lawrence case, has worked incredibly hard on its image. It is almost as if the sympathy of the press is needed in direct proportion with the violence of the police. As Cohen has noted,

‘The more resources allocated to increasing the efficiency of repressive policing, the more manpower has to be poured [in]…to restabilize the public image of the force’ (quoted in Jefferson 1991:171).

A thousand deaths in police custody since 1969 is not a statistic that might enhance the image of the police. The double movement of repression and promotion is mediated by the press who, for example, in reporting the death of Joy Gardner at the hands of police and immigration officers explain how ‘sticky tape was wrapped around her head to stop her biting more officers’ (Sunday Telegraph 30/11/1997). The police restraining technologies are laconically justified despite the fact that they were fatal for Joy Gardner. The press have maintained the police framing of the event to such an extent that the possibility of alternative opinions, transgressive questions and redressive actions are edited out. ‘In this lost world of politics without conflict, division or debate, the spin doctors are always right’ (Gilroy 1999:12) and the only sniff of disagreement reported surrounds the suitability of particular technologies in particular cases. The fundamental questions of race, class and institutionalised violence are obscured by the histrionics of endless police reviews.

Relying on a benevolent media however, also has its dangers and limitations, precluding the politics and economics of why there are deaths in custody and of why black people are five times more likely to die in custody. A sympathetic press may have its own agenda within the status quo. In a global and historical level, the story of Stephen Biko, the anti-apartheid activist killed in police custody in South Africa in 1977 is best known perhaps by the film Cry Freedom, which, instead of telling the story of Biko, actually tells the story of Donald Woods, a sympathetic white journalist who tried to expose the killing of Biko in police custody. We can see that the story becomes one of a sympathetic white media rather than of the political economy of black death within the apartheid regime. The connections between the media as an apparatus of the state are eroded in portraying a laudable exception to the rule. Similarly, the problem of the media’s treatment of death in custody can not possibly be solved by having more black journalists, just as the police won’t stop being racist if there are more black officers. As Hall has pointed out,

‘The media do not only possess a near monopoly over ‘social knowledge’, as the primary source of information about what is happening; they also command the passage between those who are ‘in the know’ and the structured ignorance of the general public’ (1978:64).

Alternative media such as Injustice, made in collaboration with the families of those killed and screened in cinemas, social centres, political meetings and festivals reconstitute the desiccated narratives of deaths in custody. Marxists are not imagining things when they note that the ideological state apparatus of the mainstream media will always voice the opinions of the ruling classes. Hoping for a sympathetic report is, it seems, both naïve and insubstantial. However, it is crucial that the press are interrogated, challenged and disturbed by other voices, voices normally excluded from the debates. For deaths in police custody, the problem will always be that the victim is criminalized, and, ‘the criminal by his actions, is assumed to have forfeited, along with other citizenship rights, his ‘right of reply’ (Hall 1978:69). Restoring this right of reply has been, in a sense the project of Injustice. As it traces the struggles of the families of those who died, it recreates the space of comment – it re-collects the testimonies, it redefines the parameters of the debate.

Imogen Bunting

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