Race and the media: is more regulation the answer?

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The highly publicised incidents of virulent British racial abuse against young black football players following the defeat of the English team in the Euro 2020 championship at the weekend, and reactions to these abuses, are not new. Indeed, in February this year, online racist abuse also aimed at Black football players provoked a similar wave of condemnation across the board.

As then, there have been renewed demands that tech platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, improve regulations of content or face more regulation that would make them legally responsible for the online safety of their users and accountable for abusive content. However, would regulating tech giants be the solution to systemic structural racism that has for long permeated key British institutions such as the police, the educational system, and the media?

Almost 50 years ago, in 1972, the BBC undertook what might be now called self-regulatory measures to ensure more equitable access, inclusivity and representation on its programmes and various platforms. It initiated an ‘Open Door’ series in a bid to make TV accessible for marginalised audiences in the UK while delegating editorial control to representatives of these communities.

The move came half a century after the founder of the BBC John Reith instructed Station Directors in major cities including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow that: ‘It should be an honour in every sense of the word for a man to speak from any broadcasting station and only those who have a claim to be heard above their fellows (..) should be put on the programmes.’ Reith’s dangerous assumption was that good communication could only be produced by traditionally skilled and educated staff, thus excluding the majority of the people on the margins of society.

In 1999, the Macpherson Inquiry into institutional racism led to unprecedented scrutiny of public and private institutions and their race equality policies following the murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence. The inquiry, like #BlackLivesMatter movement today, put race on the public agenda and brought about an increased visibility in non-White media personnel.

The role of media in the normalisation of societal attitudes to difference and race was most potently discussed in cultural critical Stuart Hall’s writing and in his short 1979 documentary “It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum.” He showed how popular comedy shows, documentaries and current affairs programmes have historically been complicit in the normalisation of racism because of the consistent representation of Black and Asian communities as unprofessional, uncollegial, subordinate and disloyal. It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum also revealed much about the industrial context of the BBC in the late 1970s and the use of humour to disseminate racist attitudes across the nation, fuelling unrest in Britain’s growing multi-ethnic society and ‘moral panics’ around race and difference.

Moral panics can sometimes provide the basis for the construction of popular authoritarian ideologies, which can be legitimised through new regulations. At the end of his final 1994 Harvard lecture, which concludes the book, The Fateful Triangle, Hall called upon theorists to refuse accepted truths about the conditions of our political existence: ‘The task of theory in relation to the new cultural politics of difference is not to think as we always did, keeping the faith by trying to hold the terrain together through an act of impulsive will, but to learn to think differently’ (Hall 2017: 174).

Hall pushed us to think and act differently about the problem of race, or at least place us on the path toward doing so, but his insights and lessons still face difficulties in taking root in political and cultural life. While movements such as Black Lives Matter have made their way into the public discourse, serious critiques of race remain marginalised from the public sphere, for the most part. As such, the question about whether more stringent regulation of tech giants would work becomes important. It is no doubt needed. But it also risks becoming an imperfect regulatory tool and an excuse for power elites that they have done everything possible to combat racism, thereby justifying a lack of more far-reaching policies and measures to tackle structural racism.

Ultimately, the specificity of British racism must be addressed as a pivotal element of the British social formation that is deeply embedded in institutional practices and ongoing discourses. The English football team and its manager showed what a different approach might look like, but even this approach could not overcome how those young and talented black football players were ‘seen’ and talked about, in the cruellest of ways, as flawed.

Yet, as long as we live in a society where race and class divides matter and are reinforced by a combination of neo-liberal dynamics of marginalisation and populist ‘culture wars’, the appalling racist abuse is set to repeat itself unless the structural factors underpinning it are called out and acted upon. If race is a systemic problem, a systemic solution is called for.

This article was originally published on the Centre for Global Media and Communication’s blog

Dr. Dina Matar is Chair of the Centre for Global Media and Communications at SOAS.

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