But yesterday the BBC appeared to suddenly change its position. In a statement it admitted it had handled the matter badly and said: “We have offered David Lowe the opportunity to continue presenting his ‘Singers and Swingers’ show, and we would be happy to have him back on air. We accept that the conversation with David about the mistake could have been handled better, but if he chooses not to continue then we would like to thank him for his time presenting on the station and wish him well for the future.”
You may have been aware of the controversy raging over in the USA about President Obama and where he was born (Hawaii, since you ask). Of course, this so-called “birther” controversy wasn’t really about where Obama was born, it was about race. It’s just the latest in the insidious racism that has dogged Obama since he announced his candidacy. Not all racists are thick, some of them are clever enough to come up with bogus reasons to sow doubts about the president in the minds of other racists.
The big problem with this story, however, was the reporting of it. It struck me as being very similar in nature to the British media’s coverage of the MMR vaccine “controversy”, another non-story given legitimacy by the media by dint of endless repetition and by giving airtime to extremism and ignorance.
The media likes to pretend that they are merely holding up a mirror to society, making themselves as invisible as possible in order to transmit messages. They are, as Michel Serres likes to put it, acting as angels: invisible messengers.
Except that, in cases like this, they’re not. We don’t see news every day about people who think aliens are living among us (unless you count scientologists); we don’t see stories every day about people who think the world is flat, or deny the holocaust, or who believe in the superiority of those with lighter skins. That’s because people who hold these opinions are either tragically deluded, mentally unstable, or just plain nasty.
So why did the US media in particular go on and on and on about the racist “birther” movement? Why did it go on about the story until Obama was forced to release his birth certificate in a press conference, as if doing that was going to make a blind bit of difference to the racist opinions of his racist opponents?
The really interesting thing here is that there are very many reasons to expose Obama’s political weaknesses. Policies he’s made that aren’t working; wars that are dragging on; insane security policies; the continued existence of a prisoner of war camp on a little bit of Cuba. If Obama’s opponents wanted to go after him, there’s plenty of ammunition. So why go on about this non-story?
When nonstories fill the airwaves and dominate headlines, people stop paying attention and miss the real news. But more importantly when so much energy and so many resources are devoted to chasing a phantom issue, the real issues get ignored.
From skyrocketing unemployment in the black community and no end in sight for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the continued existence of Guantanamo and the unacceptably stalled immigration reform debate, President Obama has a long list of outstanding issues that the media should be focusing on. Yet if you turn on your television or visit any major news website, the political discussion in this country has been hijacked by the birther movement‘s Quixotian quest to find our nonexistent foreign-born president.
I think part of the answer at least relates to budget cuts. It’s surely easier to report something that somebody released to the press than it is to investigate a real news story. For the American media, the “birther” story was low hanging fruit — cheap airtime (or column inches) to fill with nonsensical opinions and speculation. Whereas researching and fact-checking real news stories is expensive.
That’s not the only reason, of course. For some of Obama’s opponents, the “birthers” were politically useful idiots, who could be used to undermine the authority of the President and allow racists to kid themselves that they weren’t being racist.
Finally, by dumbing down political discourse like this, by reducing politics and the economy to a game of yah-boo sucks, the media don’t have to ask questions about the political and economic system that has failed us so badly in the last few years. You can see the same thing happening in the UK with regard to the debate about the voting system and the forthcoming referendum. Instead of an in-depth discussion and real information, we get two opposing sides calling each other names and flatly contradicting each other. So that’s okay then.
- Birther movement is outright racism (capitolhillblue.com)
- Yes, Birtherism is Racist (As is Donald Trump): Three Videos Tell You Why – Source: AlterNet (curmilus.wordpress.com)
Watched Desperate Housewives recently? The new season started on Ch 4 this week, and we’re back to the situation that existed in Season 1: no black people live on Wisteria Lane. In fact, the only black person I noticed in the two episodes I’ve watched so far is the handyman called to remove the trellis from the wall. In other words, although all the white residents on Wisteria Lane stick around for years, black people drift in and out again, because they are a rootless, nomadic race (sarcasm).
This racial myopia is quite common in US television, and also in the glossy magazine market, which are frequently criticised for failing to include people of colour on their covers. The latest in the firing line is the annual Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, which features up-and-coming female actresses on the cover – none of whom are black.
Read more in the Guardian. Snip:
Vanity Fair has looked into its crystal ball and decided that, as far as up-and-coming, cover-worthy female actors for the next decade go, the future is entirely white. Even the clothes they wear are resolutely pale, in shades of honey, rose and blush – the kind of words fashion magazines use to describe caucasian complexions.
Bearing in mind it takes an army of people to put a Vanity Fair cover shoot together, this leaves us with two conclusions. Either no one noticed that their “stars of the next decade” cover effectively says there isn't a single up-and-coming black actor on the planet they considered worthy of ruining the aesthetic of their alabaster line-up, or they did notice but simply didn't care. I'm not sure which is worse.
Vanity Fair is published by Condé Nast, which is part of a privately-owned media conglomerate. Interestingly, the parent company, Advance, owns a variety of newspapers in the Deep South of the USA: in Alabama and Mississippi, for example, as well as in their home town of New York, up in the North East.
Looking at Condé Nast’s portfolio of magazines (which includes Vogue, W, GQ, Brides, Golf World, The New Yorker, and Wired), I bet it’s hard to find a cover with a black person on it. The latest edition of Golf World has Bob Hope (!) on the cover, though (to be fair) it does occasionally feature Tiger Woods.
None of this necessarily means that the people who run these magazines are racist, but it does mean that institutions like Vanity Fair and Condé Nast are affected by institutional racism: the structures of the organisation are set up in such a way that nobody thinks to speak up at the monthly cover meeting to point out that they’ve forgotten to include any black people. The people who work there are probably mostly white, they assume their readers are mostly white (a self-fulfilling prophecy), and it doesn’t occur to them to worry about the representation of people of colour. Unless (and this is always the caveat) they’re already famous, like Tiger Woods.
Most of us probably don’t know the names of the white actresses on the cover of Vanity Fair – that’s the point of the issue: to tell us about up-and-coming talent. But you can almost guarantee that if a magazine does feature a black person, it’ll be someone already famous, like Beyoncé, Leona, Halle – or, you know, the President.
Really? Not intended to be racist? What, because there’s no history of black people being compared to monkeys, chimps, etc.?
The BBC, as we all know, is a very middle class organisation, often said by conservative politicians and commentators to have liberal/left agenda. That kind of accusation is hard to deny, especially when you recall (former Five Live Presenter) Jane Garvey’s comments about the BBC on the morning after Tony Blair’s victory in the 1997 General Election:
Jane Garvey: So, I had to get a bit of sleep, and I do remember I walked back into, we were broadcasting then from Broadcasting House in the centre of London, all very upmarket in those days, and the corridors of, er, Broadcasting House were strewn with empty champagne bottles.
Peter Allen: (chuckles heartily)
Jane Garvey: I’ll always remember that, er, not that the BBC were celebrating…
Peter Allen: (still chuckling throughout) No, no. No. Not at all!
In other words, there has often been evidence of a slightly left/liberal bias at the BBC, but in many ways that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a publicly-funded public-service broadcaster with a remit to “inform, educate, and entertain”, so you’re hardly likely to get Murdoch-like opinion in the corridors of Broadcasting House.
On the other hand, the BBC has “fall out of love” with Labour in the intervening years, especially during the row about the sexed-up dossier.
More recently, the BBC has been (justly, in my opinion) accused of a London/South East bias, and has struggled to represent the English regions and other countries of the UK. They’re more careful now to point out when a news item only applies in England and Wales, for example, and will often refer to differences in Scottish law.
But there they are, mostly London-based, mostly university-educated (god forbid we should suggest they still recruit disproportionately from an Oxford/Cambridge and privately educated labour pool), and perhaps all a little horrified by the working and non-working classes outside of their South East middle class bubble.
But you can’t go attacking people for being working class, or for not going to Oxford, can you? What you do instead is you try to make them look racist: damned out of their own mouths. Just point a camera and a microphone at them, and they’re bound to say something nasty to reveal their ignorance and racism.
So now we’re into a new BBC row (is it 2009 already?), because the producers of the 10 o’clock news have been forced to apologise after snipping the audio of a striking oil refinery worker, taking his words out of context. On the news report, a reporter said on a voice-over, “Beneath the anger, ministers fear, lies straightforward xenophobia.”
Then one of the striking workers was shown saying, “These Portugese and Eyeties – we can’t work alongside of them.”
Snip. The end of that sentence (as revealed on Newsnight a bit later on) was, “…we’re segregated from them. They’re coming in in full companies.”
So he shouldn’t have called them Eyeties, maybe (though nobody seems to object when the French insist on calling us “Anglo Saxons”), but the BBC have clearly edited his comments to fit their reporters commentary about xenophobia.
Elsewhere on the Guardian’s site, Padraig Reidy wonders why the BBC wants to make working class people seem racist. Snip:
Why? Is it because of a skewed identity politics at play in BBC newsrooms and commissioning meetings? Or is it because the BBC, like much of the media, is increasingly dominated by middle-class scions who don’t actually know many working-class people, and thus breezily project any prejudice or other trait they wish on to them? Either way, it’s a sordid state of affairs, and – as shown by the devious editing of last night’s 10 o’clock news, a dangerous one, too.
There’s a very interesting controversy surrounding the dismissal of Carol Thatcher from The One Show (BBC). Thatcher’s agent thinks that there’s something personal going on:
“This was a private conversation held in private, amongst individuals in the green room after she [Carol Thatcher] had been on The One Show. At the time nobody objected to that conversation and I wasn’t made aware of the conversation until Saturday morning, ie 48 hours after the conversation had taken place.”
Quite often in these “off-the-cuff” or “off-air” racism rows, the guilty party tries to defend themselves by arguing that they “never intended” to make the remarks in public, and that little “jokes” like this, between friends, as it were, shouldn’t be reported. The fact that everybody was too polite to object at the time is somehow being used to justify making the remarks in the first place.
Nobody saw me shoplifting the iPod from John Lewis, so I should be able to keep it, right?
So the agent’s argument here is that “someone” has it in for Thatcher, and has been speaking out of turn, as if making objectionable remarks in private was perfectly acceptable. There’s a sense here that TV professionals belong to a private club, which has different standards of conduct and behaviour, which is not the business of the “little people” watching at home. This is a very similar controversy to the one sparked about one of the royal family recently (the “Paki” remark). Actually, what makes these cases worse is not just that the remarks are racist to start with, but that the person making the remark is so ignorant that they’re not even aware of the offence – or potential offence – being caused.
It’s like the kind of person who puts fireworks up a cat’s backside and then claims that “it’s all a bit of fun” or “he likes it – look he’s jumping around having a great time.”
This is all related to the media theory of hegemony: which is the exercise of power by a dominant group over other dominant groups – not using force, but cultural messages, encoded in the media. When your toffs and your Daily Mail editorials get het up about “political correctness gone mad”, what they’re doing is trying to make objectionable behaviour seem “normal” or “natural” (and therefore not offensive). “It’s not racist, it’s just a little joke” is a classic way of being able to use objectionable imagery and language to put someone down, at the same time as putting them down all over again for daring to voice objection. So you get a double whammy of the exercise of power/dominance.
I found the Rupert the Bear picture above on a web site which champions “political incorrectness” in all its forms, and sets out to be as offensive as possible by just printing imagery and opinions which are no longer considered socially acceptable. The thrust of the argument seems to be, well, we used to do this kind of thing all the time in the 70s, and there was nothing wrong with it then, so why is it suddenly wrong now?
The fault in the thinking, of course, is that it was wrong then, and it’s still wrong now, but that back then the kind of ignorance displayed by the royals and Carol Thatcher was more widespread. Most of us have moved on and realised the negative power of such representations. Some people have not. The same web site has book covers by Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton. Blyton, in particular, is often cited for racist and xenophobic representations in her children’s books. What you have to imagine are the generations of children who grow up reading those books, seeing those representations, and accepting them as normal, common-sense, and natural.
The political-incorrectness web site – which I won’t dignify with a link – also has a page dedicated to Carol Thatcher’s mother, who is described as “the last great Briton.”
In other words, such people have a nostalgia for the days when black people and other people of colour knew their place, when the British Empire stomped across the world, exploiting native populations for their labour and resources, and when you could get away with calling people demeaning, racist names, because that’s what everyone else was doing.
What hegemony does is drip-feed attitudes and opinions which come to seem reasonable and fair – especially when they’re not. Rupert the Bear first appeared in the Daily Express in 1920 – so there were decades of children (and their parents) being exposed on a daily basis to a version of the world in which black people were portrayed as “gollywogs”. Carol Thatcher was probably one of them.