The unreported side of Carnival

'Not only were the press uncharacteristically taciturn about the level of violence, several even made attempts at mitigation'

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I may have got this wrong. Doubtless you will write in righteous legions to tell me so. Or it may simply be, of course, that up here in Manchester the northern editions of yesterday's papers largely omitted mention of the Notting Hill Carnival on the grounds that the third biggest carnival in the world - after the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro - is just a local event confined to a single suburb. But, somehow, I suspect not.

I may have got this wrong. Doubtless you will write in righteous legions to tell me so. Or it may simply be, of course, that up here in Manchester the northern editions of yesterday's papers largely omitted mention of the Notting Hill Carnival on the grounds that the third biggest carnival in the world - after the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro - is just a local event confined to a single suburb. But, somehow, I suspect not.

At the carnival, over two days of the bank holiday weekend, there were two murders, five stabbings, 35 people taken to hospital, 60 assaults, 89 arrests, 234 people treated by paramedics and 276 reported crimes - including one in which two police officers were injured when boiling fat was thrown at them from a hot dog stall. And yet what did I read of this in the national press?

The coverage was muted, to say the least. There was the predictable Middle England outrage from Lynda Lee-Potter about the "disgusting mess of discarded cartons, beer cans, broken glass, upturned litter bins and the stench of urine... everywhere". And a couple of papers had small downpage accounts of how Greg Watson, a 21-year-old delivery driver, father of a three-week-old daughter and "innocent reveller", at the carnival was stabbed to death in what police called an unprovoked attack. But most papers made absolutely no mention of the events at all, or reduced them to a news-in-brief paragraph alongside important stories on how "Claire and Craig face the axe" from the Big Brother household.

Nowhere were the "Orgy of Violence" or "Time to Shut Down this Carnival" pieces such as characterised coverage of the Notting Hill street festival in years gone by. Rather, the abiding memory of the carnival the media offered this year was jolly photographs of policemen dancing in the street - "despite heavy showers".

Just what is going on here? Not only were the press uncharacteristically taciturn about the level of violence, several even made attempts at mitigation. The 276 arrests were down on the 308 apprehended last year. The murder of the unfortunate Mr Watson was, after all, the first at the carnival since 1997. Police now had, by and large, a good relationship with the black community, incidents with boiling hot-dog oil notwithstanding.

The Metropolitan Police, who had their own carnival float this year, "featuring 120 dancers and highlighting neighbourhood watch schemes", are soon to be issued with a booklet entitled Policing Diversity telling them how to avoid the kind of cultural insensitivities which upset their black fellow-citizens. It could be, of course, that the nation's news editors have already received their own similar volume telling them how to downplay news events for the same reason.

Of course, they have much to make up for. The Notting Hill Carnival was started in 1968 as a response to widespread racial unrest. The idea was to provide a positive and celebratory image of the black community, but the annual accounts in the media always appeared to focus on violence and crime at the event.

Governments did their best in the years that followed with initiatives to bring together the private sector, local government and Whitehall ministries to provide more employment opportunities, support for the local business economy and a better physical environment. Eventually even the police smartened up their act; the last Met Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, made his name, in part, during his time as a deputy assistant commissioner for his work developing police relations with the ethnic communities, and defusing the annual Notting Hill time-bomb. And then, finally, after decades of reports about "trouble" at the carnival, the media followed suit. Only a few oddballs maintained a contrary view.

All this may explain the confluence of shared unarticulated assumptions - I have never been much of a believer in the notion of conspiracy - that underlie this week's understated reporting of events that, in other circumstances, would have provoked banner headlines. But does it justify it? While welcoming a new social sensitivity to ethnic communities in the wake of the Macpherson report, we may have lost our sense of proportion and teetered into news values of political correctness or liberal pusillanimity for fear of accusations of implicit institutional prejudice.

Racism is a subtle beast. But no service is done to the black community by skewed news judgements. And a lack of proportion is, in its own way, a failure to tell the truth.

It is not good enough to temporise about how poor Greg Watson was "the first person to die at the west London carnival since 1997". (No deaths for three years. So that's all right then.) The unpleasant facts that such a statement glides over is that last year a teenager was shot in the stomach, two men were stabbed and 308 crimes were recorded in the two days, including 16 robberies and four sexual assaults. What would the headlines say if such a catalogue of crimes occurred habitually every year at the Henley Regatta, the Old Firm match, at Wimbledon, or at Wembley for the Cup Final?

OK, in one sense that's a cheap shot. Crowded though those annual events may be, they cannot compare with the size of the Notting Hill Carnival, which this year attracted more than 1.5 million people onto the streets of W11 in what is now Europe's biggest street event. That's a volume and density of people that the nation's busiest holiday destination, Blackpool, would take two months to attract. In such numbers, this level of crime may well be statistically unremarkable.

Yet I still sniff that something else is at work here. Rational evaluation of statistical probability is not the usual arbiter of news values. We know that up here in Manchester from the fact that whenever there is a violent incident on the city streets, a rash of spittle-flecked headlines break out in the London press about "Gang Wars in Gunchester". Over-enthusiastic reporters appear and paint pictures that most of the occupants of Moss Side, where I visit friends a couple of times each month, routinely fail to recognise.

The truth is that when it comes to writing about ethnic communities, the qualities of accuracy and consistency are a crucial part of sensitivity. Anything less than that is an insult to the minorities to whom good liberals purport to want to offer equality of treatment. Of course, I may have got this wrong. And doubtless you will write to tell me so.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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