Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: There is a gaping hole in the Leveson Inquiry

For non-white Britons press coverage has been so bad for so long that a fatalism has set in
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The Independent Online

I am a print journalist and proud to be one, most of the time. But, as the Leveson Inquiry systematically dissects our industry and exposes some of its malodorous workings, we are moving from guilt and shame to bombast and bluster. There have been calamitous warnings that democracy dies and communism takes over when journalists are scrutinised – I paraphrase Trevor Kavanagh, an associate editor of The Sun, who led the counter-offensive after police arrested 30 News International journalists. What self-regard, righteousness, pathetic moans and theatrical flounces. One was reminded of the MPs who fiddled expenses. They didn't get much sympathy and a good thing too. Now journalists want to be judged by different standards, even different laws, and they conceal their hypocrisy under the gowns of liberty.

Like my peers I am also a newspaper reader and there are times when I hate the monstering of individuals and groups , the chase, the hunt, the kill. Not the stalkers and nimrods who expose corruption, shady dealings, human rights violations and political mendacity. Journalistic opposition to the war on Iraq was relentless and not even Alastair Campbell could make us behave. After 9/11 and the London bomb attacks, unlike in the US, every British newspaper behaved with integrity and temperance. But every day I also see unforgiveable invasions of the privacy of the famous. And much worse, people being lied about, or misrepresented, deliberately and cumulatively so public opinion turns against them. If you are not white you are wary of the British press and afraid of it.

Exactly 10 years ago, Leon Wieseltier, an American literary editor, wrote a scathing indictment of The Spectator, and the British press in general, when it came to migrants: "Democracy is not threatened by strangers, it is threatened by the refusal to accept strangers and to treat them fairly. And by the horror of their difference". Things have only got worse since then.

To cover stories of brutality, criminality, dangerous social customs and values is a sacred duty of journalism and no group can be spared. My concern here is with unjust journalism which allows its victims no reply. In the months of evidence gathering at the Leveson Inquiry there's been no mention of race and ethnic bias or the demonisation of asylum seekers, migrants and blameless Muslims. They are marginalised and invisible. Others too, whose actual exclusion is deepened by the failure of powerful people to notice it.

Today our poor and unemployed are hated and denounced, humiliated and accused by the nasty media and other citizens. Last week Edwina Currie on Five Live savagely went for an unemployed woman and made her cry. Would she have dared to treat Fred Goodwin in the same way? There was an uproar. Right-wing print journalists are infamous for such hard talk and no one objects.

For non-white Britons, coverage has been bad for so long that a fatalism has set in. Back in 1997 in Untold, a style magazine now folded, Lenny Henry, Ozwald Boateng, Linford Christie and Jazzy B talked candidly about the press badmouthing black people and its effect. Studies at Glasgow and Leeds Universities show how scare stories about immigrants seep through and eventually create unshakeably negative views. In Pointing the Finger, a book on the reporting of Muslims by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson, examples are given of published prejudices and fabricated stories, including the Daily Express article on piggy banks banned by banks because they offended Muslims.

Most of the "threat to Christmas" stories are fictional; innocent "terrorists" are named and shown, and when released the news is not covered. Mr Kavanagh's high and mighty Sun told its readers that the horrific killings in Norway last year happened because the country stood up to Muslims, implying the killer was a Muslim. It was, in fact, a hard-right white fanatic.

When Ian Blair, the former Met Commissioner, said that good-looking, white murder victims got vastly more coverage than those who were not, he was hammered by the right-wing press. He was right. The old Press Council, though inept, did accept third-party complaints. Black and Asian Britons had an unlikely champion then– Bob Borzello, a tough Chicagoan who complained about every racist or unfair report. When the Press Complaints Commission was set up in 1991, third parties could no longer complain.

A Cardiff School of Journalism investigation recently found exaggeration, stereotyping and inaccuracy in coverage of asylum seekers. So how does an asylum seeker, wrongly exposed as a "scrounger", get redress? Or migrants accused of being disproportionately on benefits, a bogus story passed by this government to friendly journalists?

If the already powerless are once again unheard, their welts unseen, the whole process will fail to protect those most in need. There is still time for the Leveson Inquiry to attend to these maligned people. I hope it happens. Reforming the press will only be worth the effort if it protects both Hugh Grant and a pregnant mum from the Congo.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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