Post by Dr. Jamie Bennett, Deputy Director of HM Prison and Probation Service and Research associate at University of Oxford. He is a former prison governor and has been editor of Prison Service Journal since 2004. His research has primarily focussed on two areas. The first is prison management, in particular the development of managerialism. His published work includes the monograph The Working Lives of Prison Managers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He has also published widely on the representation of prisons in the media, in particular films and documentaries. He is currently completing a book, Prisoners of Prison Films, which will be published by Palgrave MacMillan and is based upon research screening contemporary British prison films to people serving prison sentences in England.

Review of Media, Crime and Racism edited by Monish Bhatia, Scott Poynting and Waqas Tufall (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).

media
Since the summer of 2020, Media, Crime and Racism has taken on greater salience than when it was published two years ago. In March 2020, the official report into the Windrush scandal exposed the terrible harms of the ‘hostile environment’ directed towards migrants and its collateral effects upon Black British citizens. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May reignited the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and inspired protests across the world. In Bristol, the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue, a slave trader and philanthropist, has directed critical attention towards the British Empire’s legacy. People motivated by Islamic extremism carried out a series of violent attacks at the end of 2019 and into the new year. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the human cost of social, economic and health inequalities, with higher rates of Black and Asian people dying in the UK. Together, these events illuminate how race, crime and the media are central to contemporary life. 

The editors of this book have set out to explore the role of the media in the everyday dynamics of race, power and inequality. In 18 high quality chapters, the book spans different western states, including the UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia and Canada, and while some chapters address social media, they mainly concentrate on the news media.

Many of the chapters focus on signal cases and moral panics such as child sexual exploitation by young British-Pakistani men in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford. The empirical examination of these cases reveals a racialised discourse that foregrounds the cultural spectre of the ‘brown menace’ and white victims. As Waqas Tufall describes, the abuse of children and women is being appropriated to create the conditions for “a hostile climate of anti-Muslim racism” (p.68). These chapters add to the critical research of news media coverage that highlights the regular reproduction of hostile attitudes towards minority ethnic identities, immigrant, cultural and religious groups. On the whole, these groups are presented through the news media as a threat to order, implicating them in society’s deterioration.

There are times when the media acts to expose racism or support anti-racism. A prominent example in the UK followed the racist killing of teenager Stephen Lawrence. The Daily Mail ran a headline showing photographs of the five men accused of the crime under the headline “murderers”, challenging them to sue the newspaper. Kerry Moore and Katy Greenland examined a sample of British newspaper stories about racism in 2013, a period that included the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death. Although the mainstream news media condemned overt racism as morally abhorrent, it drew narrowly on overt expressions of prejudice, with little discussion of systemic racism. Moore and Greenland argue that this is an example of what Robin DiAngelo (2011) describes as ‘White fragility’, in that the media does not deny racism entirely but challenges it within limited bounds, maintaining racial power in the process. The events of 2020 may have offered an opportunity to challenge this discourse and there has, to some degree, been space opened in mainstream media discourse for examining systemic racism and the deep historical roots of racial ideology.

Particularly striking to the BLM movement is Ryan Erfani-Ghettani’s chapter on ‘Racism, the Press and Black Deaths in Police Custody in the United Kingdom’. Erfani-Ghettani locates his analysis in a long history of Black people dying at the hands of the police, but it is impossible to read his article without also having an eye to the future. The chapter describes how media coverage has been wrestled into the state’s institutional control. Those who die are sometimes the subject of briefings about their dangerousness and criminality, while campaigners are often “represented in the media as politically motivated…[pursuing] a wider anti-police agenda” (p.273). The media becomes a vehicle for this perspective and for “puff-pieces aimed at rehabilitating the reputations” of the police (p.273). At the time of this writing, the American officers charged in the killing of George Floyd have not been prosecuted. Erfani-Ghettani’s analysis of British cases sounds a warning for those who see George Floyd’s case as a moment for transformational change in policing.

As well as news media, chapters in this book examine the role of social media. Social media can be seen as a medium for campaigning and for alternative discourse. Wesley Crichlow and Sharon Lauricella discuss policing in Toronto, Canada, suggesting that citizen-led media and mobilisation via social media (such as BLM) can enable a greater conversation on race and racism. In contrast, in Australia, Chris Cunneen describes mainstream media as having to some degree become more responsible in its representation of Aboriginal people, whereas social media is a largely unmoderated and unregulated space in which racism has flourished, including support for vigilante violence. These chapters show the uncertain and ambivalent potential of social media.

For me, the standout chapter in this book is the contribution by Fatima Khan and Gabe Mythen. This chapter explores the experiences of young British Pakistani women who wear hijab, niqab or burka in order to examine “how Muslims themselves engage with and negotiate distorted representations of their faith, identities and aspirations” (p.93). These items of clothing are represented in dominant discourse as a refusal ‘of our way of life’, a sign of excessive social tolerance or as a harbinger of terrorism. In the study, the women themselves and their male relatives were profoundly conscious of how people may interpret these clothing choices and subsequently act towards them. The authors conclude that the wearing of the veil was, in many instances, motivated by a mixture of personal choice, modesty and respect. While subordination and resistance should not be ignored, for participants in this study, the veil was variously worn as a fashion statement, a symbol of religious devotion and a means of upholding familial honour. These findings draw attention to the gap between social construction and the experiences and motivations of young British Muslims. This brilliant chapter captures the ways in which media representation permeates society at the macro, meso and micro levels, shaping public attitudes, community cultures and individual behaviour.

Monish Bhatia, Scott Poynting and Waqas Tufall deserve applause for producing such a diverse, rich and timely collection. It will prove invaluable to those researching crime and the media, and the social dynamics and structures of racial power and racism. With extraordinary foresight, the book also offers a valuable resource for making sense of today’s turbulent world.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bennett, J. (2021). Book Review: Media, Crime and Racism. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/02/book-review-media [date]