Monday, 26 December 2011

In crime reporting, Race has become a “damned” fact

Read this (truncated) story from the London section of the BBC News website, and tell me if anything strikes you as odd about it:

“An 18-year-old has been stabbed to death on one of London's busiest streets, as thousands of sales shoppers were in retailers nearby. The man died at the scene, close to the Foot Locker sports shop at the junction between Oxford Street and Stratford Place, at about 13:45 GMT. Nine people were arrested at the scene in connection with the stabbing…. Police said it was too early to tell what the motive for the attack had been.”

Got it yet? Yes, indeed – we are left without a clue as to the colour of the dead youth or his attackers.

You may assume that the reporter didn’t know. But I suspect they did – because the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph both reported that the victim was black. So why does the BBC – and The Sun and the Daily Mirror and Sky News – feel that we need shielding from this particular fact? There’s certainly no legal reason for not mentioning it.

One of my Christmas presents was a volume containing all of Charles Fort’s books, the only one of which I’ve read is the fascinating Book of the Damned. The “damned” in the title refers to events and phenomena which science can’t account for, and which therefore are consigned to oblivion: for instance, shoals of fish or frogs raining down on people’s heads out of a clear blue sky - a relatively common occurrence - tend to get stuffed into the drawer marked “Embarrassing” (or they certainly did when Fort – by no means a credulous New Age loony-tune – was writing in the first decades of the 20th Century).

Nowadays, the racial identity of victims and perpetrators of crime in British cities is confined to the drawer marked “Embarrassing” – until such time as photographs are published, when the stories often begin to make sense for the first time.

I’m reminded of an incident three or four years ago when I was telling a group of journalists working at the BBC how my son and his friends had got into a fracas in a local park with some white state school types. They’d been getting on fine until the white gang was joined by a black from the same school, at which stage, as if on cue, it all kicked off.

One of my listeners – a middle-aged urban left-winger who’d been involved in broadcasting for three decades – said quietly, “Is that strictly relevant?”, somewhat breaking my flow. “I’m sorry?” I asked, bemused. He repeated the question in a distinctly disappointed tone. 

“Is what strictly relevant?” I asked.

“The fact that one of them was black.” 

I gaped at him for a few moments. “As my son and his friends were viciously attacked, and as I’m telling the story, I think I have the right to decide what’s relevant.”

I walked away at that point, wandering why a journalist with thirty years’ experience wouldn’t want to know all the facts. Why would he expect me to censor my account of the incident? Who did he imagine I’d be protecting if I ignored skin colour? After all, the vast majority of attacks by black youths are on other black youths. And who wouldn’t be interested to learn that a group of white kids seemingly, in this instance, had a black leader? The implication of his question was clear – I was guilty of racism. I was equally clear that he was guilty of magical thinking: he was a disappointed liberal who believed that facts which didn't fit his cosy view of the world would cease to exist if only they weren't mentioned.

Because several brutal attacks  in Oxford Street during the past few years have involved black youths attacking blacks, the racial identity of the young man who died earlier today – and that of his attackers (between seven and ten arrests were made at the scene) – is extremely relevant. I have no idea whether the attackers were black or white - but I'm guessing the former: imagine the hoo-hah if they were white! Any news organisation choosing to bury this piece of information is guilty of bad journalism – and a form of cowardice. My 18-year old son went to Westfield Shopping Centre today to buy some clothes – but if he’d gone to Oxford Street (as many kids will have – it’s Boxing Day, after all) a mention of the victim's skin colour would have assured me that Junior was safe. 

The only time, as an adult, that I’ve had to go to someone’s aid was on an Oxford Street bus over thirty years ago when the conductor was attacked by a gang of disgustingly vicious young black men. I’ve never seen such callous savagery in the flesh. The conductor was himself a black man of African origin. I had to write a letter to London Transport so he could claim the money for his uniform, which had been torn as the evil shits pushed him to the floor and rained blows and kicks down on him in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to release his money-bag – brave man

Maybe I and the other witnesses shouldn’t have described the attackers as black, in case the fact offended liberal sensibilities. Craven colour-blindness certainly seems to be the policy of many of our news organisations. It represents a betrayal of the truth, the public, and all the principles of good, honest journalism. It stinks!


  1. It's the day after the murder. Another stabbing took place nearby a few hours later, which is probably connected. The BBC story quotes Mim Shaikh, a witness who claimed to know the victim and to live near him in South London. TV News footage showed a young black man wearing a hoody being taken away.

    But still the BBC has the telescope firmly clamped to its blind eye when it comes to mentioning the skin pigmentation of the victim or of those who have been arrested.

    This is bizarre!

  2. When my ex and her friend were brutally raped by gun-toting thugs,the subsequent counseling,as the police did'nt want to know,insisted that the rapists could just have easily have been white and made it clear that although "race was'nt an issue here",the victims must understand the rapists' point of view-they had escaped Africa (W.Africa)and on reaching UK and seen that it was just like it was on MTV,been full of such pent-up desire and frustration that,well it was an accident waiting to happen,and besides rape in Africa is no big deal.
    There followed more specious nonsense about culture and enrichment which the two victims had ample time to ponder over(six months)while they waited for an HIV test.
    Perhaps the counselor was ex-BBC.

  3. When my ex and her friend were brutally raped by gun-toting thugs,the councilor,ex BBC perhaps insisted that the rapist could just have easily have been white and not from West Africa?
    And race "was not an issue here."
    And try and consider this "from the rapists point of view" continued the councilor;girls dressed up as if they were on MTV don't appear in public in Africa and rape there is no big deal.
    The victims had ample time to digest more pearls of wisdom about enrichment and different cultures,six months in fact before their first HIV test.
    And where were the police in all this.Good question.