My town is not a comfortable place to live right now. In recent years the demographic of it has changed dramatically as people from Eastern Europe come to try their hand at a better life in the UK.
The only reason I care about this is because it means on a daily basis I have to listen to people whinging on about other nationalities as if we have some form of need or entitlement to live on this island unsullied by other peoples. From the barrage of Farage to the insidious moaning about people taking our jobs while living on benefits, I’m left permanently flinching at the way people discuss race as if it is relevant to 21st century life, as if keeping up our barriers will somehow protect us when the reverse is so clearly true.
We aren’t bettering our world with division and hate. You don’t need me to tell you that.
I don’t expect anything better from the great “they” and I don’t expect any more from the national newspapers determined to grab a sale from a story intended to divide. As a mass of humans we don’t seem to spot when we are being manipulated into rants and click-throughs so bluntly. All the national news need to do is to make revenue and views and they do it with appalling brilliance.
But I do care when it is on my timeline or in daily real life. And I really do care when it is my local paper, a paper which I believe has a local responsibility to promote peace and community, not stir up divided hate. I grew up in Nottingham in the 1980’s, when racist terms now utterly outlawed were hurled at people on a daily basis because of skin colour and I don’t want to live in it again. I don’t understand why we are doing it now, when we live in a town which has had a vibrant and vocal European population for 50+ years.
Yesterday a story appeared in our local paper which disappointed me only slightly more than the defence the editor then gave of it on Twitter.
(Before I go any further, I’d like to make it crystal clear that this is not IN ANY WAY a defence of the criminal. Drunk driving deserves everything it gets in terms of punishment and all my sympathy is with the victims. I’ve sat over a critically ill baby cot and felt the terror of their predicament and my thoughts are all with them).
The report headline referred to the driver by race, specifically Eastern European. The driver is a man who lives here but is originally from elsewhere. As soon as the story hit the paper’s Facebook page, it stirred up the inevitable “send them home” and “not following our laws” remarks, as if drunk driving is something no British born person ever does.
I challenged the paper on Twitter, only to be told that headlines often refer to where the person is from, citing the example “Peterborough man”. I said they should have done that then, since he is from our UK town now. I said they would not have referred to him by religion, colour or sexuality and his ethnicity was not relevant to the story. His reply was that “consistency was key” and when left without anything particularly useful to say, fell back on referring to the health of the baby injured, rather than any decent defence, as if I had my priorities wrong.
Except for one sentence. I suggested that a local paper had a responsibility not to whip up racial intolerance and hate, as was being so actively displayed on their page and his response was that “the emotions of the reader concerning any story detail are out of our control“.
But isn’t that the point of a journalist? To create emotions and feeling and reaction to a story? Isn’t the ENTIRE point of having curated reporting of news, written by people of intelligence, that it will provoke thoughts? I was brought up by a journalist, I know the reality of the story being everything. I know it is all about sales and readership. But locally, don’t we have some form of responsibility to make sure that those emotions are to the betterment of our town and our citizens? Is it okay for a local paper to casually divide by race and set an ethnic group apart, tagged by the crime of one individual? Isn’t that what leads to people of a religion fearing to walk the streets after one remote act of terror, or young men getting shot because of a perception of criminality by skin colour?
Shouldn’t we be doing better than that? A local paper should lead by example, not fall to the lowest common denominator. Shouldn’t it?
This was a crime committed by a man, with a family as victims coping with the devastation it has caused to them and the grandmother and baby critically injured. Yes, it is an emotive story: it does not make anyone get better quicker if a group of people from a country get tarred in a headline by the crime. I don’t know how I would be feeling, but I like to think I wouldn’t want growing racial unrest to be the result of my personal trauma. I would hope I would want justice, not innocent people feeling fear.
It does not help Peterborough to daub it with casual racism any more than it helps the people fighting to recover. And the paper that should lead by example should know better.