Local media and newspapers are an important feature of a place’s identity – displaying the best and worst of an area, celebrating and challenging its people and institutions. At SARI we know the deep impact media coverage, good and bad, has on our communities. The local media share important information on politics and popular culture, as well as the responsibility to frame and explain in a way which helps readers interact with their city.
We also see how today’s media have to battle for people’s attention and clicks online. This can create the pressure for attention-grabbing headlines that are not thought through in terms of consequences for communities. A short, snappy headline can have disproportionately high levels of impact on a lot of people. The wrong kind of headline can stoke divisions in our communities. It is for this reason that there is a need for genuine understanding, sensitivity and representative and informative journalism. Because of all that we have navigated in our national conversation on race and inequality, Bristol’s role is particularly important.
I was, therefore, saddened when a number of local people contacted me about the front-page headline published by the Bristol Post on Tuesday August 2nd stating that they found it inflammatory and divisive with racial overtones. People were worried that it could impact on community relations and even lead to some backlash hate crime.
It reads: ‘Harbour Festival ‘Too White.’ The article is in response to a Bristol City Council Cabinet paper which is reviewing our Harbour Festival following community consultation. When you read this report, it is clear that the key messages are about the need to make sure that the event is more inclusive and as safe as possible for the diverse communities it should be serving. It raises concerns that have been shared by consultees that the festival is too focused on drinking culture and that they are put off by this and find it an uncomfortable environment – this was especially the case for Black and Minority ethnic respondents and families wanting to bring their children or those who do not drink alcohol. The report suggests the festival needs to examine its main purpose and what it aims to celebrate and suggests that it should also better reflect Bristol’s harbour history from a multi-cultural perspective – including its links to the Slave Trade. Other ideas include introducing an alcohol-free zone and ensuring the activities and entertainment are attractive and reflect our communities more and better meet the needs of disabled and neuro-diverse people. The report reflects consultations the Council have carried out and really such suggestions can only be seen as laudable for an equalities’ charity like SARI.
While the article on page three explained this context quite reasonably, it is let down by a front-page headline that serves only to sensationalise the race element of the cabinet paper – which actually is not written simplistically either but is discussed in a wider context. The headline gives the false impression that the entire report and consultation is just about colour and race which is simply not the case. It also results in scapegoating black and minority ethnic people for ‘ruining’ a traditional festival.
It is therefore no surprise that as a result of our local paper’s unhelpful headline other national papers have picked up on it in even more negative ways – the Daily Mail: https://bit.ly/3BFm7oZ; The Telegraph: https://bit.ly/3oVckDt and ITV https://bit.ly/3P01IxJ for example.
All have reflected the Post headline (but then not proceeded with such positive articles). They have focused almost entirely on the race issue preyed on the fears that a traditional festival is at risk of being ruined because of the needs of Black and Minority Ethnic communities.
The Post headline has had a domino effect in the national media where some reports have the added and deeply unpleasant connotation that this ‘attack’ on Bristol’s Harbour Festival is all caused by our Mayor (who just happens to be Black) – with the Daily Mail reporting that “A councillor slammed the report, telling the Telegraph: ‘This latest attack on the hugely successful Bristol Harbour Festival sadly comes as no surprise and is a further indication of how the current Labour mayoral regime loathes everything which is ”Shipshape-and-Bristol-fashion”. We know only too well where such implications lead – our Mayor has been supported by SARI many times due to racist attacks which all too often have arisen after scapegoating media coverage.
Increased polarisation in our community is an unseen consequence of negative, myth-inducing and ill-informed headlines. I would entreat our local media not to compromise our City’s safety and cohesion just because they are so desperately wanting clicks and attention from the National Media. This is the cheapest form of journalism in our view.
We are writing this blog to share a message for The Bristol Post and any other local media that it is crucial they work with us as a city to help build and maintain community relations, to tackle racism and division rather than the opposite. Our local newspapers must take responsibility for their actions – e.g. be mindful of how the written word has the potential to contribute to peace and togetherness or to goad and incite hatred. Otherwise agencies like SARI are left picking up the very broken pieces – which actually are local human beings facing awful backlash hostility.
I will conclude with just a few of the comments that illustrate the concern and unhappiness from a few of our local Black and Asian community leaders for whom the potential negative impact of such a headline will be only too real:
Museji Takolia CBE, Independent Chair Commission on Bristol’s Racial Equality (CoRE):
“There seems to be a disease infecting parts of our local media. They seem to operate under a different code of ethics and without any sense of shared social responsibility.
I am talking of course about the headline grabbing story reported in The Bristol Post “Harbour Festival Too White” (2nd August 2022). It saddens me that as I try and remember in sorrow, the life of a campaigning civil rights activist Roy Hackett MBE who died this week, I am having to dig deep and maintain the civility and decorum that his generation had to muster against far more direct and hostile racists. Yet here we are almost 60 years on and The Post has joined the gutter press by reducing a complex set of issues from a detailed 24 page official consultation document that were reported in good faith and with total transparency to yet another attention grabbing headline. Is it racist? No of course it isn’t. Is it part of a rotten culture that distorts reason and evidence for yet another negative headline that will have racist sympathisers jump on it in Bristol? Absolutely! Alex Raikes from SARI has the facts and evidence for those who care to see the full effects that gaslighting has on anything to do with diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Let me say this clearly and without equivocation. It is hard, very hard, being a Black man or Black woman in public life. Marvin Rees and Asher Craig hold a very high profile with all the responsibilities that follow being in the public eye. They have accepted their oaths of office and should be held to account. But on standards and principles shared with others, it is palpably absurd to insinuate that every decision led by them at City Hall is because they are Black or anti-racist. The inference is offensive as well as factually inaccurate. It may be hard but sometimes it is worth capturing the complexity and nuance behind a story. This is lazy journalism.”
Fuad Mohammed, CEO of Ashley Community Housing:
“The report invites the harbour festival to be more representative of Bristol… but this sensationalist front page article is causing more division with no solutions presented in the real challenges in the report.”
Sandra Meadows MBE:
“Actually, really angry and disgusted with The Bristol Post for this sensationalist, divisive, misleading headline. Given the article, it’s clear that this was intentional. Intended to offend, upset and divide. This serves to confirm that little if anything has changed at the deepest levels of The Post, despite their so-called ‘Year of Change’ following justified criticism for their ‘Faces of Evil’ front page. We should and do expect our main local paper to reflect the progressive city and to contribute through high quality journalism to cohesion across all our communities.
The fact that they published this on the week Roy Hackett MBE passed away speaks to the work still to be done with Bristol institutions such as The Post. Mr Hackett’s legacy is great and enduring. His unstinting dedication to racial justice and community cohesion should be rightly applauded. I shudder to think what The Bristol Posts legacy to Bristol will be! If they are to continue holding the monopoly on Bristol news we should all be worried…and ashamed.”
Marti Burgess, Chair of Black South West Network
“I was shocked to see this headline. It just seems that the editors chose to use divisive language by having the phrase “too white” in the headline. With a different headline the people of Bristol would have read, with an open mind, an article about a report on how to make the harbour festival better and more inclusive for all communities. Instead we got a headline which just feeds the narrative that ‘woke’ people and black and minoritised communities have a problem with traditional British culture when in fact no-one does but in a city as diverse as Bristol something like the harbour festival needs to change so that all communities see it is as something for them. I was saddened and disappointed by the headline and thought it did a disservice to our city and its people.”