Friday, 16 December 2011

Race and the British media - one week in the Sunderland Echo

Race and the British media – the Sunderland Echo.
Part of the Johnston Press group the Sunderland Echo is published Monday-Saturday. It has an average daily circulation of over 34,000 with around 87,000 readers across the northeast of England, mainly in the City of Sunderland and County Durham.
At the 2001 census the City of Sunderland’s population was 98.1% white, 1% Asian and 0.4% mixed-race. It is expected that the 2011 census will see a rise in the % of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds as over the last decade a number of migrant workers, overseas students and refugee and asylum seekers have migrated to the City.
In 2002 the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers under the Labour government’s forced dispersal policy was met with hostility, boosting support for the British National Party at the local and general elections in the City. Largely housed in some of the poorest areas of the city the new arrivals were the victims of some brutal attacks culminating in the murder of Iranian refugee Payman Bahmani in August that year, which was met by a dignified passionate series of demonstrations and pickets by refugees, and those who supported them.
Ironically I benefited from events in that I was asked by the Guardian newspaper, via Northern correspondent Martin Wainwright, to write an article [s] for the paper and which I then followed up by writing a lengthy piece for the Big Issue in the South magazine – which for some reason also includes in its patch the north-east of England. Doing this got me started on writing for a living. 

As I was also secretary of Sunderland Fans against Racism then I helped co-ordinate with a number of fans counter-leafleting to the BNP, in which no punches were pulled in attacking the Labour Party’s refusal to try and tackle racism in the City. At one point this led to considerable correspondence with the Local Labour MP, Chris Mullin, who I still feel wanted to duck the issue.
At the time many anti-racists were also extremely critical of the Sunderland Echo for its coverage of events. In particular the paper was accused of constantly giving the BNP uncritical coverage, and of allowing them to create a poisonous atmosphere in the City and the surrounding areas. I am guessing here but I believe it was the death of Payman Bahmani – and less so the resistance that followed - that changed the stance of the Echo as quite simply Sunderland’s’ reputation was being [economically] damaged and rubbished. 

As the City relies a lot on overseas investment – think Nissan, for example – this was not going to do a lot of good – and the stance changed. Coverage became more balanced – a response that led to the BNP even targeting some local journalists, and thus confirming what many people already know that their democratic values are shallow.
I left Sunderland in 2004 and although I go back to watch the World’s greatest team I no longer read the Sunderland Echo every evening. This was as such the first time I had read it for a whole week for some time, starting on Monday December 5th 2011.
There was little coverage of issues relating to race during the week. Five articles and one letter was the sum total, with a further three in which the actions of black people were economically and socially raised.
The five articles included two that covered the arrests and deportation at a Takeaway shop in nearby Horden Colliery of three workers in breach of their visa conditions.
Then there were articles on a Sunderland woman who claimed, at and Industrial Tribunal, to have been racially discriminated against by her NHS bosses and one on the actions being taken by Irish police after complaints that a Twitter user in Ireland had racially abused Sunderland Football Club’s black striker Frazier Campbell. This was a lengthy and prominent piece with reports of how Campbell is a keen supporter of the Show Racism the Red Card campaign.
The fifth piece – and only one not related to events locally – was an article about Mark Lambie’s appeal against being kept behind bars for having kidnapped two men in North London in 2002. In 1987 Lambie had been cleared of murdering PC Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm Riots two years earlier.
In terms of other coverage there was a piece on a shop’s plea to stay open longer being rejected and a Sunderland business-woman facing the possibility of losing her alcohol licence for serving under-age drinkers. In both cases the owners were of Asian background. Whilst finally there was a prominent piece on British long jump champion JJ Legede and his work with local young schoolchildren.
Finally there was a lengthy letter from a local resident that said ‘Most of the country has put an end to racism, yet Sunderland has a long way to go.’
The articles that did appear were balanced in their reporting but apart from the article on JJ Legede then none could be considered to be positive about black people. 

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