TV review: Black and white facts, in colour
Sunday 14 February 1999
In all the millions of words written and miles of tape shot about the Stephen Lawrence murder, who really tried to answer questions such as the following:
How widespread are the prejudice, incompetence and sheer indifference displayed by the police in their attempts to put Stephen Lawrence's murderers in jail - if that is what they were trying to do?
Are policemen unique or even unusual in our society in their attitudes to race? Making allowance for the special pressures of beat and canteen, can there be a racist police force in a non-racist society?
And how honestly and courageously have our vastly influential news media, including television news, reported the good, the bad and the plain terrifying in our race relations?
A BBC documentary, Why Stephen?, to be shown tonight, asks these questions. Presented by the near incomparable Charles Wheeler, the film takes an original approach, not just to be different, but because Wheeler has spent a lifetime learning that framing a question in a different way can evoke a revealing answer.
The usual question is: How could a nice boy like Stephen have been brutally murdered in our supposedly civilised capital? Wheeler's question was: Why did Stephen Lawrence's murder provoke outcry and soul-searching when so many racist attacks and murders never got within a mile of TV news bulletins? His death was the third in a brief time in the borough of Greenwich. And just before Stephen's death, another young black man, Rolan Adams, was murdered in almost precisely similar circumstances.
So, why Stephen? There are many answers, and the programme gave many of them and hinted at others. The family and friends of Rolan Adams tried to reach public opinion past the indifferent newsrooms by making their son's death a political issue. Trade unions marched with banners. Black militant leaders made strong speeches.
Stephen Lawrence's parents, in contrast, got the sympathy of the white public because they fitted a white stereotype of the "good", assimilated and unthreatening black family. Stephen's mother, Doreen, dismissed the cliche that she and her husband, Neville, were "dignified". Fair enough. But it is hardly surprising that the public responds more sympathetically to people who pay them the compliment of supposing that some, at least, of its members share basic human values than to those who denounce without distinction.
Accident played a part. The fact that the editor of the Daily Mail, of all our national newspapers the one most consistently unsympathetic to black people in the past, was an acquaintance of the Lawrence family might just have something to do with the Mail's shock splash naming Stephen's murderers - perhaps, it now emerges, wrongly.
Why Stephen? asked some good questions. Far more important, as Charles Wheeler would be the first to admit, is how television news reports the complicated, evolving relationships between Britain's white and non-white populations night in, night out.
At the best of times, the boredom threshold in newsrooms, and the level of civil courage, are low. National newspapers have hardly been more successful than the police in hiring non-white people. And television news is only just beginning to move beyond tokenism.
What we need is less comment, more information. The more TV journalists tear themselves away from their screens and report reality in Leeds and Lewisham, the better for the ratings, and for all of us.
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