As the riots in England have spread from London throughout the country, the news coverage of them has increased as well. And while more coverage often means more perspectives, in the case of one BBC reporter it meant having her bias exposed on air.
BBC News presenter Fiona Armstrong’s interview with writer, activist and former broadcaster Darcus Howe got the attention of a nation on Tuesday when what was supposed to be a on the scene interview turned into an in your face debate. During the interview, Armstrong asked Howe what he thought of the rioting which was sparked by the police killing of Jamaican-British man Mark Duggan. Though police initially claimed Duggan was killed in an exchange of fire, the autopsy found he was killed by a single bullet to the chest. Howe replied that the unrest was not merely a flash in the pan but the start of something larger:
“Our political leaders have no idea, the police have no idea…I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it is happening in Liverpool, it is happening in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment.
Later Armstrong questioned Howe about the rioting in Brixton, a district in south London with a large black population. She asked: “Do you condone what happened in your community last night?” Visibly frustrated Howe replied: “Of course not! What am I going to condone it for?”
While it was clear the interview was already becoming contentious, Armstrong pressed on, accusing Howe of taking part in rioting in the past, asking:
“‘You are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand, are you? You have taken part in them yourself.”
“I have never taken part in a single riot. I’ve been part of demonstrations that ended up in a conflict. Stop accusing me of being a rioter and have some respect for an old West Indian Negro, because you wanted for me to get abusive.”
The interview, which was only aired on BBC once has struck a chord with many viewers who felt it encapsulated the media’s response to the events in London and their portrayal of the black citizens involved. On the television program, Democracy Now!, the next morning, Howe said he felt the media coverage has been off base and misrepresentative of the people in the streets.
“It comes like a thief in the night to them, because they deal only with what has happened, not what is likely to happen, which is a kind of speculative truth. So they’re always surprised. And whenever there’s surprise, they look for people to blame, to cover up their own inadequacies.”
In the wake of the uproar over the hostile interview, the BBC issued a retraction saying that Armstrong’s questioning was “poorly-phrased.” The network also apologized “for any offense that this interview has caused.” But while the apology has been made, many are wondering if Armstrong’s interview is indicative of something more.
Earlier this week, CNN’s Soledad O’Brian raised an interesting question when she asked her followers on Twitter why the riots in London were being covered as an economic issue rather than a race issue. Perhaps because of their timing the riots have been covered in the American press in light of the S&P downgrade and overall crisis lens. But the tension between police and black Britons has been building for years so why not address the tension instead of accusing activists for the violent response of others?
Though America is far from faultless, I will say that our culture places high emphasis on having debates about race. They may be endless and sometimes feel futile, but they serve an important place: establishing a dialogue and a narrative- albeit a complicated one- in popular culture. While mine is just one perspective, I will say that living in London for a year, it was rare to hear a discussion on racial tensions. In a city known for diversity, where one in four children have a black parent- the underlying assumption seemed that race was a factor but not a prominent one to the newscaster that cover the city day to day. And yet, this interview and the media’s inability to get a handle on this story suggest it’s a discussion that will never get old.