After the disgusting murder of George Floyd, and countless videos of horrific police violence committed in the United States in recent weeks, millions around the world have started to protest against racism. This has brought issues of race and education to the forefront of mainstream discussion, and many brilliant pieces have been written which explore the role of education regarding slavery and colonialism, particularly in the UK. Schooling undoubtedly plays a huge role in the formation of racism from an early age, but another major area of indoctrination occurs within the mainstream media.
Stereotypical beliefs, of any sort, are not present from birth. Instead these stereotypes are learned through engaging in the social world. Of course, stereotypes exist about virtually every social group: English people all drink tea, the Germans have no sense of humour. Whilst these characterisations are largely tongue-in-cheek and not all that damaging, problems occur when those in dominant societal positions stereotype those who have little or no power to counteract such aspersions. As Bradley Gorham has explained: “those who are in a dominant social position have the power to define the dominant understandings”, therefore possessing the capability “to make their definitions appear natural and unarguable”.
The elite groups within society (politicians, CEO’s, newspaper editors) are responsible for controlling the discourse in various areas of debate and, as these positions are consistently held by rich white men, this often leads to the misrepresentation of those who do not fit this demographic.
As Edward Said wrote when discussing the representation of the East within Western culture: “it is hegemony that gives Orientalism it’s strength”. The lack of voice given to ‘outsiders’ in mainstream discourse reinforces the power relations societal groups, exacerbating the divide between them.
Studies have shown that the news generally pays far less attention to minority groups. The exceptions to this rule are where ethnic groups are “associated with violence, illegality, or…deviance of any kind”. Teun Van Dijk’s analysis shows how crimes committed against ethnic minorities are afforded far less coverage; part of an overall strategy he describes as “mitigating the negative representation of ‘Us’ and the positive representation of ‘Them’”. Other negative portrayals, regularly assigned to minorities include being ‘welfare cheats’, hostile to western values, and posing an existential threat to ‘our’ way of life.
Phillip Schlesinger’s research of BBC News’ production practices in the early 1970’s found that the general newsworthiness of a disaster could be determined by a horrifically racist formula regarding the societal group of the casualties: “one thousand w**s = fifty frogs = one Briton”. Whilst such overt forms of racism may no longer hold firm in establishment media circles, the principle of assigning more journalistic weight to stories affecting white Britons has far from diminished.
Producing a conception of British identity, is an important aspect of the UK Press’ racial stereotyping. Stuart Hall highlights that, in the British context, the conception of ‘Englishness’ is often reproduced through media texts. The media have frequently used the conception of Britain “as an idea rather than a geographical place”, meanwhile claiming that this “idea” is being attacked. There are numerous examples of this, including Minette Marrin’s direct claim that “English identity is under threat” and Richard Littlejohn’s argument that the ‘new establishment’ (liberal elites) are “ashamed of their own nationality”.
Throughout the 2016 referendum campaign, the pro-Leave media (Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Express, The Telegraph) often played on racial fears to make their arguments in favour of Brexit. Although I don’t want to argue that the entire Leave campaign was built on racism, in my opinion it is obvious that racist rhetoric played a part in winning over some voters.
Such race-baiting was even more apparent in tabloid coverage of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle, an African-American woman. As others have highlighted, stereotypes about black people “coming from broken homes…were weaponised by the British Press”, as Meghan did not fit the traditional, conservative conception of an English Princess. Incredibly, the Daily Mail ran with the headline “Harry’s Girl is (almost) straight outta Compton”, not-so-subtly suggesting a link to gangs and crime. This material is illustrative of the wider treatment which people of colour face within the right-wing press.
Football has by no means managed to escape the spectre of racist discourse which occurs throughout much of society. As noted by James Cleland, for the first 100 years of the FA (founded in 1863), “English football and its various stakeholders were associated with a pattern of whiteness”. In the UK, the mass immigration which occurred in the post-War period generated racial tensions which were aggravated through the work of racist politicians such as Enoch Powell and these tensions were regularly exploited by far-right groups at football matches. In the 70’s and 80’s, some of the first black footballers in England (Cyrille Regis, George Berry, John Barnes) were frequently subjected to monkey chants and had banana skins thrown in their direction.
Kilvington and Price’s study describes football culture as where the “’true’ locals, a synonym for whiteness, symbolically own the game, the ground and match day experience”. To this day, around 92% of Premier League supporters are white, and although English crowds may have become less overtly racist than the 70’s, recent events prove that racism has far from disappeared. In October, a FA Cup qualifier between Haringey and Yeovil had to be abandoned after a Haringer player was racially abused, and, at a higher level, a Man City fan was charged for ‘racially aggravated public disorder’ during the Manchester Derby earlier this season. Recently the head of Kick It Out, stated that racism in football is “worse than it was five years ago”.
Raheem Sterling is one black footballer who has had to deal with horrific racism first-hand, most notably in December, 2018 when 60-year old Colin Wing shouted “f**king black c**t” in Sterling’s face during a match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. This was not the first time Sterling has been subjected to personal, racist abuse as he was also attacked in the street by a 29-year old man, Karl Anderson, who kicked Sterling and told him “I hope your mother and child wake up dead in the morning you n****r”. Sterling chose to speak up after the incident at Stamford Bridge, calling out the British press for “fuelling racism”.
Sterling has been attacked by the right-wing press regularly, with papers using demeaning language which attacks his personal life. This is often performed through headlines, on the front or back page, such as the Sun’s front page article entitled “Prem Rat of the Caribbean” which featured a picture of Sterling walking with a female friend. The use of the word ‘rat’ here creates the suggestion that Raheem is sub-human, and this is repeated by the Sun multiple times, including a 2018 article: “Wed Devil: Love rat Raheem Sterling proposes to long-suffering girlfriend”.This awful stereotype of comparing black people to animals has been perpetuated from the days of slavery, and is an incredibly unsubtle attempt to portray Sterling as a figure of derision for Sun readers.
Papers have repeatedly tried to highlight Raheem as a ‘problem’; a player who constantly finds himself in trouble and leaves controversy in his wake. A Daily Mail article in 2015 criticised Sterling for ‘inhaling laughing gas’; implying this was a ‘second drugs controversy’ for the then-Liverpool player. The first ‘drugs controversy’ in this instance was Sterling being pictured smoking a shisha pipe just days earlier. Needless to say, both substances were fully legal at the time, and Sterling is far-from the first footballer to be ‘caught’ using them. The article refers to Nitrous Oxide as “hippy crack”, with the implication being that the drug is far more dangerous than it actually is. The stereotype of black people as drug users is extremely common and, here, Sterling’s so called mistakes are being highly exaggerated to fit such a label.
The most egregious attack on Sterling came in 2018 when the 23-year old sported a tattoo featuring an M16 assault rifle on his leg. The Sun headline was, somewhat predictably, “Raheem shoots himself in foot”, with the newspaper calling the tattoo “sick”, whilst the Daily Mail stated that “the moral majority are appalled by the inking”; implying all Mail readers are on the correct side of the argument. The Sun even tried to link Sterling’s tattoo to the stabbings of two teenagers over the same weekend; the article was placed next to an image of Sterling and featured the opening sentence: “”Two more teenagers were killed over the weekend as Sterling revealed his controversial gun tattoo”.
It was later revealed in an Instagram post that Sterling got the tattoo as both a tribute to his dead Father, and as a reminder to himself to “never touch a gun”. This quote was itself misrepresented in the media with Sky Sports adding the word “again” on the end, implying Raheem already had experience handling weapons. Such coverage certainly clearly has racist connotations, with Sterling playing the role of a stereotypically violent black male from the streets.
The interlinking nature of race and class is an important facet of the racial stereotyping which occurs within the media and this is especially evident with the right-wing papers’ treatment of Sterling, although this is somewhat contradictory. Several articles appear to criticise Sterling for saving money; shopping at Poundworld, Greggs or Primark, whilst others attack him as “greedy”, and note his “blinging house”, “fleet of supercars” and “astronomical salary”. The suggestion here is that Raheem does not deserve his new-found wealth, and the repeated use of words like “flash” and “bling” which are generally reserved for black men, is telling. Overall, Sterling has been subjected to an excessive level of attention on his personal life, far more negative coverage than any white players has received.
Within Sterling’s Instagram post after he faced a racist attack against Chelsea, he pointed out the hypocrisy of journalists in their opposite coverage of white and black footballers. A Daily Mail article concerning black player Tosin Adarabioyo used the headline ‘Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25,000 a week splashes out on mansion on market for £2.25m despite having never started a Premier League match’. Conversely, their article on white teenager Phil Foden carried the simpler headline: ‘Foden buys new £2m home for his mum’. Within the articles, the Mail implies that Adarabioyo does not deserve the house as he hasn’t earned it, whereas Foden is a good, white English lad doing his Mother a favour (Foden also hadn’t started a premier league match at the time of the article).
This contradiction is shown again in a Sun article praising England captain Harry Kane for ‘buying British’; celebrating the purchase of a Range Rover, Jaguar and Bentley. Kane, again fits the positive stereotype of someone who loves his country and, crucially to the Mail and the Sun, ‘looks English’. Sterling, despite owning a Range Rover and Bentley, as Kane does, is black and therefore no such article has been written giving Sterling credit for ‘buying British’.
The right-wing newspapers, consistently socially conservative, reject the idea of successful British black men becoming wealthy as it doesn’t fit with their narrow conception of national identity. As Vincent Hill has written, the Sun’s football coverage reflects “a historic yearning for a bygone authentic era when England was White, masculine, and working-class”. This can largely explain why the papers felt the need to attack Sterling’s financial decisions; Sterling is not ‘one of us’ like Harry Kane or Phil Foden and therefore cannot be a member of the ‘in-group’ to which their readers belong.
Although unprovable, presenting Sterling in the manner they did may have emboldened men such as Karl Anderson and Colin Wing, to conduct their awful, racist attacks on him. This is terrible but also may not even be the most damaging consequence of this antagonistic coverage of minorities.
Previous analysis of the UK Newspapers’ treatment of ethnic minorities has reached conclusions that the press are to blame for “creating and maintaining a moral panic” about immigration. The editorial line of the right-wing papers is always critical of immigration, with an overall discourse of hostility towards those not deemed to be part of their ‘in-group’. The creation of such a group helps to justify the exclusionary policies which these papers are in favour of.
By consistently highlighting instances when non-whites make even minor mistakes, the newspapers can stereotype the ‘out-group’ as hostile, violent and dangerous. The attempts to portray Sterling, and black people more generally (Sterling has played the role of stereotypical black youth) as greedy, drug-using animals is part of a wider editorial strategy of ethno-populism which plays on the fears of the working-classes in order to defend anti-immigration policies. The use of fear to prime an audience is a noted tactic employed by newspaper editors, with Richardson showing how when “an audience is suitably fearful, they will agree to all manner of questionable government policies that they wouldn’t usually”.
The events of the past week or so have made everyone think more deeply about race, and how we can all do our bit to educate ourselves and fight for a more equal and just society. Hopefully the editors of our right-wing tabloids have a long hard look at themselves as well, though I suspect that might just be wishful thinking.
By Glyn Sheldon
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