Communicating Anti-Racism

''We live in censorious times,'' the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper declared in a February 2009 editorial.

''The Dutch MP Geert Wilders has been turned back at Heathrow, Prince Harry is attending a racial awareness course, Carol Thatcher is still puzzling over the offence implied by "golliwog" and, in what is surely a case of otiose activity, the General Synod of the Church of England has formally proscribed membership of the BNP for its clergy.

''It is also 20 years since Ayatollah Khomeini issued the notorious fatwa on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. The tension between free expression and respect for racial and religious sensitivities is always present.''

It is against this backdrop that campaigners fighting against prejudice and discrimination must do business with the media. The terms and conduct of this ‘business’ were the central questions addressed by participants at a seminar in Strasbourg on 26-27 February, organised by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

Kamal Ahmed, Director of the UK’s Equalities and Human Rightrs Commission, advised delegates to treat the media not as a collection of hostile opponents armed with megaphones and poisoned pens but as ''stakeholders'' in the project to advance a fairer society. As a former political editor of the Observer newspaper with 15 years experience as a journalist, he encouraged constructive partnership with all sections of the media.

''We have to see the media as a key stakeholder,'' said Ahmed. ''We sometimes feel the media is a different beast made up of gentically different human beings that are not like us. We should approach them as we approach any stakeholder. We have to build trust.

''There are issues around how the media reports some subjects but we need to think about how we engage with the media.

''Some parts of the media are seen as our enemy. Our approach is to engage, discuss and debate and try and give new narratives so that they understand that the issues of equality and human rifghts are their issues.

''If you engage with the media in a way that they understand, you will get a positive response.''

Mariëtte de Heide, Director of Art. 1 in Rotterdam, Holland, shared this view but was concerned about the attached risks.

''We must avoid being pushed into a place where you have to take sides instead of emphasising the point of view that we want a better society as a whole,'' she argued.

Jozef De Witte, Director of the Eqal Opportunities and Anti-Racism Centre in Brussels, Belgium, took up this theme whilst focussing attention on the dilemma faced by anti-discrimination campaigners when pressed for comments by the media.

He feared that by responding to media requests, publicity may be offered to extremists whose ambitions were furthered by a public quarrel on sensitive issues.

''It’s very easy to say that something is illegal,'' he said. ''You finish the message with 'It’s illegal.' You don’t have the right to say it and that’s it.

''But we cannot forget that we should also communicate based on facts and figures. Just saying its illegal is just not good enough in a democracy. It’s quick to say why the statement is illegal but it takes much more time to say why it is wrong and doesn’t help society.''

Lesley Abdela, a partner in the United Kingdom’s Shevolution agency, endorsed this viewpoint. She cautioned campaigners to always be vigilant and prepare in detail for likely media encounters. Ms Abdela offered an example from Britain to highlight a successful stratgy for working with the media. A company was attacked for employing Italian workers in an area of high unemployment among construction workers.

The company was able to stop the media savaging by explaining that it had taken on the contract at the last minute and as such, had been forced to bring in a”ready-made” team of skilled operatives who happened not to be British. Research also showed that the company had a strong track record of employing British workers in other parts of Europe.

According to Ms Abdela, prompt disclosure, quality research and the provision of compelling new information proved useful in shaping the media debate towards a favourable outcome.

Kamal Ahmed and Tim Williams, director of Projects Direct, were among several speakers who recognised the media as an ally in moving the debate on from the discussion of racism towards a more inclusive conversation centred on the threat discrimination poses to every citizen.

''A postive message and a conversation creates far greater change than an attack and a victim,'' said Ahmed. ''We mustn’t forget that there are victims and people who suffer discrimination but people are only vulnerable because eof how others see them. Vulnerability is not a genetic trait.

''It’s important that we make a positive argument abiout the advantages of diversity, of fairness, opportunity for all and build that into our messages and the way we communicate.

''We have had in Britain for a long time an equalities industry that’s been very easily positioned in one part of the political spectrum. We need to berak out of that. It’s given almost permission for a buge majority to ignore the debate. We’ve got to change that debate and move on to the next chapter.''


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