2021: We can't afford to take our foot off the pedal
When we were planning our first op-ed of the year, we both wanted to reiterate—alongside the collective hope for some sort of ‘normality’—that it was crucial for media to put 2020’s lessons into practice. And then came a huge reminder as to why.
The treatment of a largely-white crowd of pro-Trump supporters attacking the US Capitol building sounded the alarm for the damage that’s been done, and observers were quick to point out the hypocrisy in law enforcement’s response. In the summer of 2020, we witnessed military force being used on seated Black Lives Matter protesters, despite their right to protest being a constitutional right (in fact, it’s the First Amendment). Then, some six months later, those committing a federal offence were seen taking selfies with the police.
This isn’t a surprise. We all saw this coming. It was clear to everyone that we shouldn’t normalise Trump and his administration, but we did, year after year. Each controversy was covered, then forgotten about—whether it was him calling Mexicans ‘rapists’ or referring to COVID-19 as the ’China Virus’. We gave him a pass again and again, and likened him to a petulant toddler. Trump’s racism has been on full display from the beginning and yet, the most common descriptors we’ve read and heard are ‘racially-charged’, ‘racially-tinged’, ‘racially-insensitive’—even ‘alt-right’. So, tell us, who is still surprised that we’re here? And, who is finally going to call it for what it is?
America has consistently positioned itself as the gold standard for democracy and social mobility. It proclaims to be the ‘Land of the Free’, where anyone can achieve the ‘American Dream’–despite both history and a glance at modern society proving otherwise. This jingoistic rhetoric is, of course, tightly woven into the narrative by broadcasters and influential voices. In response to the attack on the Capitol, Good Morning America’s correspondent, Martha Raddatz, said “…I’m not in Baghdad. I’m not in Kabul. I’m not in a dangerous situation overseas. We are in America,” while former President George W. Bush released a statement saying, “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic.”
Do we need to point out the irony here? The superiority complex, absence of awareness, and stunning lack of context *has* to stop. The country they’re referring to is one founded on the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous people, that went to war with itself to stop enslaving people, had formal racial segregation until just over 50 short years ago, and whose own democracy suffers from issues such as voter suppression.
Truthfully, the time to denounce Trump was when he revealed himself to be a Birther, rather than now, when he’s inciting cross-burning, flag-waving, white supremacists (and yes, being impeached for the second time). Instead, while the UK prime minister expressed—without irony—that Trump deserved to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the UK press continued to normalise it. The Spectator even hired the founder of The Proud Boys—a neo-Nazi faction that is avidly pro-Trump—as a columnist. Turning a blind eye to hate speech, or reframing it as ‘free speech’, is what got us here.
While we are not condoning the eradication of free speech, we *are* expecting everyone to remember the harm principle that runs alongside it. As English philosopher John Stuart Mill said, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Hate speech won’t just disappear with the inauguration of a new president... it needs to be consistently uprooted and destroyed.
Media, our system of public information and communication, is, in some parts, broken—and it seems 2021 brings new challenges, as well as those we’re still carrying from the past. Half of the population now receive their news from social media, which has no legislation to prevent misinformation. This is especially frightening, given that Apple’s most downloaded app last week was Parler—the “alt-right Twitter”—where those suspended from Twitter itself, including Katie Hopkins and, now, Trump, can air their views without moderation (although right now, it's been removed from several app download stores).
While the UK does have legislation regulating political speech on traditional broadcast media, it seems it’s about to be further tested, with a new right-wing, Brexiteer-funded thinktank and news channel, GB News, due to launch on Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media. If that’s not enough, the former BBC Director General and a former BBC Chairman have both weighed in, stating that impartiality rules in the UK are not necessary and are overblown.
It may be unintentional, but we cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Bias—both conscious and unconscious—is more important to unpack than ever, lest we deepen the societal divides and run ourselves out of our jobs completely. So, here’s to a proactive 2021. We need change more than ever.
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Writing Tip of the Day
When white supremacy is on the rise, the media needs to be clear-eyed about the real threat their language can pose. We have to ask ourselves what we think might happen the next time a similar figure comes close to power, or is elected.
That means no more referring to fascists as ‘alt-right’, no more profile pieces on dangerous extremists (in the name of ‘free speech’), no more dismissing their call-to-arms as ‘rhetoric’, and no more jokes about their mental health on social media. Be brave enough to call it as you see it, rather than sanitising and normalising racism. We must connect the dots—from action to consequence—and speak truth to power.
The Sense Check
“After the black squares of 2020—amid much talk of allyship, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the importance of decolonising our language and curriculum, and more—what needs to happen in 2021 to ensure last year’s momentum doesn’t slide away?”
"The most significant thing will be for people, communities, organisations and institutions to see the interconnected nature of the challenges and the systemic approaches that are needed to redress deep-rooted racial inequities.
Within companies, for example, diversity and inclusion policies alone won’t create an anti-racist organisation, and neither will quotas... Not when your business model is exploitative, or your advertising and marketing is focused (whether consciously or unconsciously) on a certain racial demographic.
There’s been great headway in people calling out systemic failings, but seeing the interconnections, joining the dots and transferring that to action will be the real determiner in deciding whether something positive can come from the experience of many, like George Floyd, who face the micro and not-so-micro racial aggressions that shape our societies."
Digital product manager and father
"In many ways, 2020 was a defining 'year of protest', overshadowed, of course, by the COVID-19 virus.
But I believe that as powerful as the ability of social media to engage and inform is its power to transform emotion into action. Instagram's 'black squares' may have numbered over 28 million, but this movement arguably, achieved little by way of practical improvements in representation. But compare that to the radical calls in the US in June after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, where the city council unanimously voted to 'de-fund' or disband the police force entirely.
Although that plan has been delayed, the fact it generated serious discussion is testament to how far the debate has shifted. It points to a practical template in 2021, channelling discontent into change.
An important step for maintaining momentum is more involvement from the inside of our powerful institutions. I mean, student input into curriculums; opportunities for employees to shape workplace culture; and vigilance by us all, as fans, when it comes to industries like music, film, and fashion, to ensure we have a range of voices represented."
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Did You Know?
When it comes to controversial national celebrations, Australia Day, coming up on Tuesday 26th January, is not unlike Thanksgiving in the US. This year, several news articles focus on the muted festivities due to the pandemic, citing fewer fireworks and celebratory events—but for many Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, it’s no celebration. Instead, it's a day to remember loss: Loss of land rights, family, and the right to practise their culture. It’s often called 'Invasion Day', 'Day of Mourning', 'Survival Day' or, since 2006, 'Aboriginal Sovereignty Day'.
On 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip brought a fleet of 11 British ships carrying around 700 convicts and 300 crew (around 30 people died during the eight-month journey) into Sydney Cove in the British penal colony of New South Wales. Ordered to set up an agricultural work camp, the trip was badly funded, with not enough experts (that rings a bell) to ensure a 'successful' start. The first few years were anything but ‘successful’ as they struggled with the climate and, due to poor agricultural knowledge, were unable to farm. But by the turn of the century, the colony was doing well. 26th January soon became viewed as a patriotic day and by 1818, it was an official holiday.
But the question is always, who was there before and what happened? The arrival of the colonists marked the start of land dispossession, slaughter and ‘re-education’ for the region’s Indigenous people. And the effects reverberate, generations on. There have been initiatives to incorporate this history into Australia Day events, but for many Indigenous people, the national day should not be the day Europeans set foot on their land. There is growing support (including protest marches) for change, but it remains to be seen what, and when, that will be.
Founded as a UK charity in 1997, The Barakat Trust is dedicated to promoting the study and preservation of Islamic art, heritage and culture. They've also just opened their grants application programme for 2021 with applications due by 31st March 2021. It's also worth checking out their engaging podcast series, covering topics such as 'Who are the Parsis?' and 'How Syrians are adapting to home away from home'.
She Se Puede is a US-based coalition that provides resources and advocacy to help the Latinx community leverage their power. Set up by 10 influential Latin activists during the 2018 mid-term elections, including actresses Eva Longoria and America Ferrera, their aim is to ‘inspire, inform and affirm’ Latinas--whether it’s through discussion, providing help to vulnerable families at the US-Mexico border or organising community food drives.