March 13, 2008

White lies

The BBC's White season allows racist myths to go unchallenged and does a disservice to multiculturalism

The BBC's White season claims to explore the under-representation of the white working class. In reality, the programmes are about Muslims and the impact of migration, questioning the merits of multiculturalism.

As someone born and bred in Bradford, I kept an open mind while watching two in the series, Last Orders and Rivers of Blood. My concerns about this season were first raised when Newsnight interviewed the BNP leader Nick Griffin, allowing him unfettered airtime to falsely blame Pakistani people for the drug problems in Britain.

The BBC should not allow the promotion of racist propaganda as fact; where the BNP does so, racist attacks increase and the BNP makes gains at the ballot box. Its vote has grown from 3,000 votes to just under 300,000 in the last decade.

Last Orders promoted many racist myths unchallenged. The BNP was the party favoured by most of those who mentioned voting in the programme, unchallenged by the narrator, who failed to point out it wants an all-white Britain and has a history of leading members with convictions for inciting racial hatred and violence. Instead, we see myths about Asians and Muslims presented as fact, the culmination of which is a young BNP supporter in front of a union flag with a swastika saying: "If I saw a young Paki getting kicked and knocked over, I would not blink an eyelid, I hate them so much."

This was not debate, but allowing a space where such attacks go unchallenged on mainstream television. The prophesising of a war coming to Bradford would have been chilling for any Asian person watching. In my experience, debunking the myths displayed here is the first step to challenging and eradicating the racism and violence that it breeds.

The Bradford riots were referred to in both Last Orders and Rivers of Blood. However, despite their portrayal in the White season programmes, it was not multiculturalism, but the violent provocations of the National Front that instigated the riots. The fallout was just as devastating for Muslims; white youths who threw petrol bombs where given community service while Asian youths who threw stones were given four years for riot offences in high category prisons. Such blatant discrimination and racism in the judiciary was not dealt with anywhere. The campaign by Muslim families for reduced sentences that matched those of the white community went unheeded when their appeals failed in court.

There is in reality a growing climate of hostility which blames Muslims for "changing the complexion" of Britain, in much the same way that the migrant Jewish community was attacked at the start of the last century. The isolation resulting from racism is what underlies the issues, which the White season fleetingly dabbles with. It singles out Bradford, where racism in housing and poverty and economic disadvantage has created barriers.

Yet the programme could just as easily have focused on London, where mayor Ken Livingstone promotes a positive approach to multiculturalism - a fact reflected in a recent annual London survey (pdf) showing that Londoners who enjoy its diversity has increased to 82%. Or the census statistics that show increased integration between the ethnicities in Bradford.

The last census shows that contrary to the assertion that Muslims are favoured, they are the most disadvantaged of all faith communities on a number of different critical factors. Other commentators have raised similar concerns about the racism present in the first two programmes.

Saturday night's Rivers of Blood only served to rehabilitate Enoch Powell's racism, casting him as a defender of Britain and blaming multiculturalism for the Bradford riots, the bombings on July 7 and the imposition of stoning under sharia law. (Incidentally, it was Powell who used the derogatory term "picanninnies", something that has been re-inserted into the public consciousness most recently by one Boris Johnson). There was no mention of the condemnation from the Muslim community of the bombings. The positive gains of multicultural Britain and immigration were ignored.

No one would argue that legitimate issues such as poverty, isolation, deprivation and so on, which affects all communities, including white people, should not be addressed and dealt with. The problem is to make such issues about race, or to imply that white people are being neglected at the expense of black or other minority communities. Such an approach turns reality on its head. One could argue that issues affecting poorer communities in general are not prominent enough. But this is not about race.

The truth is that the BBC does not ignore white people. Its programming all year round reflects many aspects of life for white people in Britain: In terms of programming, it is the under-representation of black and minority communities and the often stereotyped way they are depicted which remains the problem. Major soaps such as EastEnders are practically devoid of the Asian and black communities - a ludicrous situation given that it is set in east London.

BBC's mainstream programming has a staple diet of period costume dramas (which are, incidentally, as much enjoyed by black communities who don't feel rubbed out, oppressed or victimised by such programming). On the other hand, there is much that it could have celebrated about the white working class - the international brigades that fought fascism in Spain being an example. Or, if it wanted to have a debate, it could have done so responsibly and intelligently - Channel 4's 100% English a year ago took English people with bigoted views about immigration and showed that they were of Roma, eastern European, African, Chinese and Arab descent. The BBC must acknowledge that scapegoating our communities for social and economic factors that are not our fault has a disproportionately hostile impact on us.

While the subsequent programmes in the season may have a more positive orientation towards migration, and last night's White Girl was an excellent, thought-provoking drama (albeit focusing on an issue that will be irrelevant to most white working-class people's lived experience: only a tiny minority of white teenage girls convert to Islam), I'd imagine it is the first two programmes that will resonate beyond this week, in the same way that negative stories about Muslims and migrant communities permeate much further than the surveys which show the positive reality of our community ) and the net gain (pdf) of migration to Britain.

In light of this the BBC must do more to challenge racist myths, especially as they tend to gain currency, which is exploited by the far right in the runup to elections.

Ruqayyah Collector
Comment is free


Anonymous said...

To my mind, these sorts of programmes result from a very strange sort of self-censorship. Basically, immigration and multiculturalism are serious issues for this country yet they are taboo subjects for most mainstream discussion since they are perceived as racist issues. The former, mass immigration, cannot possibly be racist as it covers all forms of immigration. The latter can certainly have a racist slant. That should not disqualify the discussion. If multiculturalism fails, it does so because those cultures either cannot or will not coexist. The result is a fractured and more dangerous society, surely a fundamental issue worthy of proper debate.

Since the mainstream media avoids this debate, the path is left open for programmes such as this to fill the void. I saw part of one of the episodes and simply found it banal and pretty pointless. I do think, however, that there may be some truth behind the depiction. I can quite well believe that the poor white working class in this country are the ones most affected by social and economic change over the past twenty or so years. I can equally well imagine that this is fertile ground for exploitation by the likes of the BNP who promise a false tomorrow.

Part of the problem the BBC has in showing this type of material is that they then fall between several stools. When someone like Griffin is interviewed, it is usually in a closed studio (or link), one on one. That usually favours the interviewee as they are rarely effectively challenged. Poor old Kirsty Wark on Newsnight was not really prepared to answer Griffin’s ludicrous claims about the source of the drugs trade. Why should she be, as it's so bizarre? Of course, Griffin will take an element of truth (it would be strange indeed if no Muslims were in any way involved in the drugs trade) and generalize it to the exclusion of all else. However, who is Griffin appealing to? To his own kind, he’s preaching to the converted. To the normal population, he’s clearly nothing more than a rabble-rouser. Not very astute you would have thought. The views of the BNP need to be met head on and exposed for what they are. That should not mean, however, that there are no underlying issues that need to be addressed. If that were truly the case, then the BNP would have no currency at all.

Anonymous said...


Regarding the comment about Griffin on the heroin problem.

Griffin blamed 'Pakistani Muslims' and not just Pakistanis. I think Griffin is wrong to use the word Muslim, but the word Pakistani is more correct. It is well known that the majority of Heroin in the UK is coming from Afghanistan via Pakistan. Whats more, many of the opium growers in Afghanistan are actually warlords that are allied with British forces who, not so long ago, dropped leaflets letting the population know that opium cultivation would not be interfered with.

Ironically, and despite repeated mail shots from the UK MoD, the taliban actually cracked down on the cultivation of opium when in power.