Ethnicked Again

Monday, 06 August 2012

I suspect I have been ‘ethnicked’ again – suffered a misfortune contingent upon being identified without consent. Perhaps I am to blame. Some years ago speaking in the House of Commons, I drew parallels between South Africa’s “extras” for Black people and the foreign news pages designed for consumption by the lower classes in England. I said – in the space provided by Clare Short, Secretary for International Development – that despite the pretensions of football players and their wives, ordinary Britons still needed the kind of psychological emancipation for which Steve Biko had fought.

It would at least buffer their exploitation by patronising white “extras”. As a journalist, I investigated, filmed, broadcast and exposed the “ethnickment’ voting strategy of the Labour Party and its union allies. I regard Islamic Extremism as ethnickment with rock and roll, a form of entrapment which should be illegal.

Hywel Williams in his book, “Britain’s Power Elites: The Rebirth of a New Ruling Class” describes the blaggers who have captured Britain. “They can and do disagree with each other, representing as they do the superficially wide variety of opinions available to those who want to dominate public discourse and occupy an elite position in Britain. But beneath all the apparent disagreement there is a fundamental agreement…Everybody in this world of the clash of opinion and the battle for position operates on the basis that everybody else is a chancer too.”

In this brave new world, I ethinicated the BBC Asian Network, a national radio station, the day before 9/11. I was down on my luck having just been ethnicked in the new South Africa. There were opportunities for a hack with humble propaganda skills.

I infiltrated people like Arundhati Roy and William Blum (famously the author of “Killing Hope”) along with some exciting Africa specialists – onto the Network. I mainlined the documentary into our output and got favourable reviews from senior BBC executives. All went swimmingly well until 2005 when it was decided to increase the Network’s editorial ambition and establish a regular documentary strand. It brought unwelcome attention and collateral damage. Some 60 of my interviews were excised from the BBC’s website.

An intense and expensive process of consultation – involving all stakeholders – was undertaken to ensure that a new editorial strategy was imposed by consensus. The ethnicated can be sulky in their other world. There is envy – and grudging admiration – for those who have escaped to mainstream dystopia.

The “tick-box” complaint has sturdy empirical support. White reporters win brownie points and swiftly advance after a tour of duty on ethnic programmes – while the original inhabitants remain housebound and resentful. It’s unfair that some are “fast tracked” for re-discovering “izzat” while others are condemned to report this old chestnut endlessly.

Political appointment – the enigmatic advance of limited talent – is even more directly destructive of imagination, confidence and craftwork. The conversation about the place and purpose of ethnic programming is a corporate diversion. Ethnicity is mercantilist racism born again under late capital. The globalising of Bollywood is thus far its finest achievement. And so a news day in the life of a British Asian may begin with a little gentle domestic violence, move on to an honour killing or two, break for a quickly contested halaal meal before joining a turban protest at the local school.

In shorthand, we are talking about “ghetto programming” intended to degrade the audience’s perception of itself and limit its view of the world. It’s Empire propaganda symptomatic of journalism’s wider crisis. Such “sexed-up” ethnicised reporting is not encouraged at the BBC whose mission is to inform, educate and entertain and whose public purposes include sustaining citizenship and civil society.

Director General Mark Thompson says: “The clue actually is in the title – public service broadcasting… it’s founded on the idea of public space – in other words, on the belief that there is room for a place which is neither part of government or the state nor purely governed by commercial transactions, which everyone is free to enter and within which they can encounter culture, education, debate, where they can share and swap experiences… Not programmes commissioned and produced either to appeal only to a cultural elite or to bring in the biggest commercial audiences. But programmes that provoke the mind, challenge and inspire. Programmes that are open to all.”

Audiences take this commitment seriously. For instance, Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth has complained about the quality of two documentaries aired last year on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The organisation said, “the BBC has breached its Royal Charter and its Agreement and Editorial Guidelines, which include Editorial Values that promise truth, accuracy, impartiality, editorial integrity and independence, fairness, transparency and accountability in all the BBC’s programmes’ English law shields people from discrimination on the grounds of both religious and ‘philosophical belief’.”

A “philosophical belief” must be cogent, relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and be worthy of respect in a democratic society. Would a belief in the higher purpose of public service broadcasting as articulated by the BBC qualify for protection as a “philosophical belief”? The issue was put to the test in Maistry v BBC (2010). The BBC argued that its rhetoric about public broadcasting was just a corporate mission statement. It said that if the claimant was right it would lead to the absurd situation in which employees would be able to claim they believed in the aims and values of their organisations. The example of the NHS was given.

Employment Judge Pauline Hughes rejected both arguments. “The BBC has a unique place in our society – it is partly funded by the public and it has public purposes, which set it apart from commercial providers of media services. Whilst I accepted that the public purposes set out in the Royal Charter and Agreement might fairly be characterised as idealistic in nature and/or as a ‘mission statement’, that does not negate the fact that the evidence before me was that those purposes arise because of a shared belief in the importance of public service broadcasting in a democratic society.”

The judgment drew interesting and balanced legal comment. Journalists of course have to tweet before they think. Mark Steyn, the influential musicologist and columnist, ridiculed the claimant for asking that rational belief be treated with the same respect as religion. The Daily Mail’s celebrated “Littlejohn” called the claimant a nutter. “I’m not sure how you practise BBC worship. Does Mr Pastry have a special altar with a statue of Alan Yentob on it? Perhaps he thrashes himself with a copy of the Radio Times to cleanse himself of impure lusting after Channel Five.”

It is sufficient to note that public school innuendo has not saved the Mail’s circulation from falling below 2 million this quarter. Several months later in the wake of the phone hacking scandal the National Union of Journalists proposed a “conscience clause’ to protect journalists from being sacked if they refused to do unethical journalism.

In September last year, the Trades Union Congress voted at its annual conference to support the NUJ’s “conscientious journalism” clause. Tony Harcup, a Fourth Estate academic at Sheffield University says, “Given the climate created by Hackgate it is possible that the NUJ may now be pushing at a door that, if not exactly open, might be unlocked. Or at least less heavily bolted to keep it out. That being so, it is worth asking whether adding such a clause to journalists’ codes of practice could help to protect ethical journalism. The short answer is that we will never know unless we try it; the slightly longer answer is that the evidence points towards a qualified yes.”

The NUJ has not provided support in this struggle. Perhaps it is because I have not signed-up to its Black Members Council. More urgently, an employment tribunal, asked to decide whether the claimant suffered discrimination because of his belief, has thrown the cat among the pigeons. It appears to have rejected – almost in passing – the judgment of the previous tribunal and found the BBC’s set of values is indeed a mission statement. Is that something that sounds good but does not have to be believed? The tribunal also found that under a system of “bids” BBC journalists have to record all their conversations with contacts in a publicly accessible folder and pre-agree the content of interviews.

This is disturbing for journalists determined to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Hopefully, all will be revealed and resolved at an appeal. According to “Celebrate” (the UK’s largest trade union) designers of mission statements, and corporate logos incorporating Che Guevara images, are following developments closely.

The claimant will be more formally ethnicked later this month when the BBC sues him for vexatiously failing to demonstrate entry-level skills after 14 years of employment. I believe this is a case of mistaken identity. Must check with the diversity desk.

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