When the world saw the vicious hatred directed at the Manchester City player Raheem Sterling by football fans at the weekend his response was clear: this is racism and it is stoked by journalists working for national newspapers.
I agree with him. Perhaps more significantly so does Henry Winter, chief football writer of the Times, and so, among others, do Darren Lewis, a sports writer at the Mirror, and Paul McCarthy, a former football writer who was at one time Sterling’s media adviser.
Winter writes of a ‘wake-up call’ and Lewis called for change, and we can only hope this case makes a difference. Unfortunately it has to be a very faint hope.
The people responsible for the racist material are not producing it by some oversight or because they lack the self-awareness to challenge their own racism. They do it because they want to and they will not change voluntarily. Though Winter, Lewis and others (whose sincerity I do not question) may publicly call for them to stop, the best result we can expect is a brief, embarrassed pause before normal service is resumed.
The attitude of denial is perfectly captured in tweets by Piers Morgan asserting blithely that similar things are written about white footballers, so obviously there can be no racism. I was reminded of the testimony of a number of police officers at the public inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – an inquiry that concluded the police had a serious problem of institutional racism.
What can be done, what actions can be taken, that will bring about real change? A look at the options shows why gloom is justified.
Peer pressure. Let’s say a majority of football writers apply behind-the-scenes pressure on the racist minority. Even if this was sustained over time (doubtful) it could make only a marginal difference because much of the worst reporting is not done by sports writers. In any case the stimulus comes from above: the editors who dictate a line and the newsdesk staff and sub-editors who rewrite copy to conform to that line.
Assertive reporting. Imagine that newspapers began to investigate and expose racism among their rivals in the national press. Imagine front-page exposés naming and shaming racist journalists and calling out the managements who encourage or tolerate them. It should happen, but it never will.
Some kind of inquiry. Again, no chance. This industry does not practise self-scrutiny and if anyone outside the industry attempts to probe these matters they will be assailed, abused and derided in the press just as Leveson was, just as journalism academics routinely are, just as the parliamentary select committees are.
Complaint to the regulator, IPSO. If this idea wasn’t so tragically misplaced it would be funny. The statistics say it all: 8,148 complaints of discrimination in a year and only one upheld. And IPSO cannot change because it was designed to be a facilitator of racism.
Action by the FA. In the name of kicking racism out of football, the FA or the clubs could ban reporters they believe are encouraging racism, just as they ban some racist fans. Nothing is more certain than that they would be instantly howled down as enemies of press freedom and, let’s face it, the FA is not brave when it comes to these matters.
Boycott of papers. This is almost certainly happening already. More than a thousand people give up buying a paper for good every single day – although the last thing any editor will admit is that this could be a judgement on their journalism. I suspect, however, that it is having a perverse effect, encouraging desperate editors to be more extreme so as to prompt outrage and generate lucrative online clicks.
Advertising boycott. Customers can put pressure on the big companies whose advertising millions fund press racism. This is the path proposed by Stop Funding Hate and endorsed recently by the United Nations, which has been highly critical of British press reporting. It clearly has some effect because it makes the industry squeal, but my view is that it has yet to change newspaper behaviour significantly.
Criminal prosecutions. I am not a lawyer and I don’t know what the chances are of a successful prosecution of a national newspaper journalist for incitement to racial hatred. I do know, however, that it doesn’t happen, and I don’t expect that to change.
In short, if you want racism stopped it’s a bleak picture. And remember we are talking here about football, a world in which, almost uniquely, black people wield serious power. Other, more vulnerable groups and minorities frequently experience press racism, most notably Muslims, who at times have been subjected to abuse reminiscent of what the Nazi press dished out to Jews.
A way forward
There is a way forward, however, and it is this: effective press regulation that is totally independent of both industry and government – a system that is fair and open and operates in the interests of the public rather than those of newspaper publishers. That is what Sir Brian Leveson recommended in 2012 and what all parties in Parliament endorsed at that time.
Such a regulator would take racism and discrimination seriously, rather than facilitating them. And contrary to the claims of the corporate papers, it would be perfectly consistent with freedom of expression, indeed it could protect public-interest journalism more effectively than IPSO does. Tougher systems operate successfully in countries that rank high above the UK both for press freedom and for trust in journalism.
So, for the sake of all of those who suffer as a result of press racism and abuse, let us have a press regulator that can make a difference in Britain as soon as possible.