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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Could better TV have stopped the London riots?


Two days before the London riots kicked off Professor Peter King of Imperial College London appeared on a Radio 4 programme called Voices From The Old Bailey. The series looks at old court transcripts and examines what they say about the history of the time. I know hardly sounds like the most riveting radio. However as coincidence would have it last Wednesday they were discussing old court transcripts involving riots. It was on this programme that Professor King defined riots “as an argument continued by other means” (an obvious re-working of the famous quote “War is the continuation of politics by other means”). This is echoed by the fact that the recent London riots only started after the police at Tottenham refused to meet the people protesting over the police killing of Mark Duggan – the peaceful argument became violent – the police have subsequently apologised for not meeting the Duggan “family's needs more effectively”.

But what lessons does this teach people working in the media? If Professor King’s definition is correct then I think the recent riots point to a massive failure by those of us working in television, radio, print and online.

Successful media should act as a platform for Professor King’s pre-riotous “arguments” to take place. Remove that platform, deny people the ability to have that argument and one result according to Professor King’s definition could be riots.

Twelve years ago (a life time ago) I used to provide on such media platform for the black British community; I produced the Schumann Shuffle. Broadcasting every Saturday morning it was a current affairs radio phone-in on Choice FM, tackling the big issue of the week affecting the listenership. For a station that was 99% music based, broadcasting to an audience we were told weren’t interested in politics, it surprised everyone except me and the presenter (Geoff Schumann) that we quickly became the highest rating programme on the station.

We discussed everything including deaths in police custody, legalisation of drugs, and failing schools. My personal favourite however was when Geoff tackled the crisis in Zimbabwe and the 1992 Land Acquisition Act (although we did give it the catchier title of “Can white people ever be African?”). What the experience of producing the show taught me however is that black people are crying out for a serious platform to discuss politics on their own terms. The callers spanned the whole spectrum of the black community; from the suburbs to the inner-cities, from pensioners to school children, and from right wing “hangers and floggers” to the most liberal minded. But most importantly we tried to get studio guests of standing; Trevor Phillips was a regular fixture, Members of Parliament made appearances and high ranking police frequently popped in. When our listeners called in they felt they were the ones being listened to and were being taken seriously. To paraphrase Prof. King; for large sections of the black community there was no need for the argument to be continued by other means.

While there is no doubt that I look back at my time on the Schumann Shuffle through rose tinted glasses, the fact of the matter is that back then there were far more media platforms for arguments reflecting the concerns of African and Caribbean people. Black Britain was a current affairs programme on the BBC and the newspapers The Voice and New Nation both had quality journalism with decent circulations. I doubt anyone could seriously argue that BBC 1Xtra plays the same function now (although it does have some great documentaries targeted at a youth audience).

When it comes to the riots it is often all too easy to blame the politicians put it all down to vague socio-economic factors or demonise the lawless looters themselves. As black people working in the media however I think it is incumbent on us to ask what responsibility we should bare, or at the very least how we can make things better. Giving rioters and “potential rioters” a forum to air their grievances peaceably would be a good first step.

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