Hooray for the Sun's shock tactics on racism

On The Press: But the knee-jerk reaction rules again when the subject isn't sexy

Tabloid journalism is a crude implement to sort out race relations in Britain. Its style and mass audience dictates that its stories must be direct and clear And, overwhelmingly, they must grab the attention. That is why tabloid journalism is so difficult, and so impressive when it works.

"Hooray for Shilpa. Hooray for Britain. And hooray for The Sun," wrote Trevor Phillips, chair of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, last week. In The Sun actually. He was interviewed the next day in The Guardian where he was less generous about Britain's best-selling daily. On asylum he said: "The Sun and the Daily Mail have a particular editorial slant that I'd disagree with, but they've probably become fairer and less vituperative."

Mr Phillips' "hooray" was for a Sun front page consisting of 11 young people of varying ethnicity holding up boards carrying labels such as Paki, Towel Head, Terrorist, Nigger, Chav Scum, Half-Breed and Rag Head. "What do we all have in common?" asked the headline. The answer was on page three, where they were all holding boards saying "British". And opposite were some quotes about the racial abuse they had suffered.

It was powerful tabloid stuff, with the shock factor of using words of abuse seldom seen in newspapers. There was the page header - "Special racism issue: let's beat the bigots"; the leader - "We must stamp out abuse by good parenting and sensible teaching"; the Phillips endorsement. There was another the next day from Richard Taylor, father of Damilola - and Shilpa.

Those who wish to rubbish The Sun's motives will say the Daily Mirror had paid the Celebrity Big Brother winner a large sum of money for her exclusive story. The Sun would have liked to get her but The Mirror did, and the Mirror put on significant sales over three days.

It is unlikely that The Sun increased sales with its racism special. Would it have run such an issue had it had acquired Shilpa's story?

In the absence of it, they had a sexy peg on which to hang the anti-racism campaign. Soaps, girls, reality TV, rows, celebrities - all are part of the bedrock of the tabloid agenda. So you can hang something rather worthy on a fortunate collision of all those ingredients and keep the readers interested.

It was a week of stories with clear racial elements. The big one, of course, was the alleged plot to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier, and the raids in Birmingham. There was David Cameron's Birmingham speech where he talked of integration, immigration and the similarities between Muslim and BNP extremism.

On the following day, "Uniting the country", the report of the Conservative policy group that condemned the hard-line views of named Islamic groups, was endorsed by Mr Cameron. And all the while the 21/7 terror trial was continuing.

The Tory report and Cameron speech received light coverage, with the tabloids leaving them alone. The Daily Telegraph ran a leader on "the perils of multiculturalism", saying: "The question of how a liberal nation deals with an illiberal minority in its midst has no easy answer." In The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash had no easy answers either.

Not surprising then that the tabloids find the issue hard to deal with and all too often take the populist knee-jerk line. With houses being raided, it was back to normal on The Sun's front page. "The execution plot - Terror gang planned to kidnap, torture and behead a soldier on our doorstep - Welcome to Britain". The other story on the front page? "Shilpa 'called a Paki' on BB".

Racism is relatively easy to identify, to report, to oppose. If the tabloids choose to, they can take it on and apply their talents to sending out a clear message, and hooray when they do. But the complex issues surrounding multiculturalism, integration or terrorism are much harder to handle. What has changed is that there is much less reticence in joining the debates.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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