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.”

Howe’s response:

“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.

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  • Interesting, and we thought the US was the only one with serious racial issues.

  • Sarah

    As a black british person whose whole family live in London, I can say it has not been addressed as a race issue as it isn’t really one. Yes, it started after a peaceful protest about the shooting of Mark Duggan turned violent but it’s not solely about race. The rioters have been a mixed group of young people that feel disadvantaged. The people that are disgusted by the violence and looting that has caused extensive destruction to our beautiful city are also a mixed group. I think that’s why you can’t completely call it a race riot. There have certainly been many race riots in the past but I’m not sure this is one of them.

    • Jabjab

      I agree. I have seen people of all races in the street. The media is trying to leave out money in politics, police brutality, cutting education funding, cutting public programs while fattening the pockets of the super rich.
      Look at the UK’s media. It’s just like ours. With phone hacking scandals for taking advantage of dead little girls and a clear bias for politicians who have a clear bias for the super rich and corporatism. Its all the same.
      I wouldn’t be surprised if the riots came here.

    • Gigi Young

      Exactly. I’m not British, but I’ve been following the youth culture of the country off and on for a few years (I think since Jay-Z tried to make Lady Sov crossover to the US), and the fact that it’s easier (and more outrageous for headlines and TV news talking heads) to make this solely a racial issue rather than one of class and a disenfranchised youth is just another round of 21st century cheap, shoddy and divisive yellow journalism.

    • cupcakes and shiraz

      i agree. i’ve seen more white rioters than black in news coverage, which makes me think race has little to do with what is going on in england.

    • taylor


      It is very easy to say that it is not about race when you see a mixed group of people. That doesn’t make it NOT about race. That just makes it not completely about race. There are disenfranchised people of all people who seek to be liberated. Many people are treated as second class citizens. Minorities traditionally have been MORE shut out of society than others. But that does not mean that young Whites don’t also feel that way. It is “both/and” not “either/or.” What’s worse is when people call protesters in Eurocentric countries rioters because they are supposed to have it good but call people protestors in Islamic nations because they are oppressed by so-called dictators. Just because countries have entitlement and social programs doesn’t make them any less oppressive.

      Yes it’s not solely about race, but it is about race. And for the Parliment to think that they are going to start making human rights abuses and use deadly force on people is insane. The problem will not go away it will stay there and get worse and worse as the years go by. These are not all gang members. Many are mad upset and yet respectable members of society who fail to see this “english dream” for themselves. This is what happens when you shut people out. Is it right to burn things up? No. It never is. However, if you don’t like it then be apart of the long-term solution.

    • Jabjab

      @ Taylor

      We agree 100%. There will always be a race factor because we live in a racist world. But at this point in history the races are all rioting together for common frustrations.

  • i’m glad this interview was saved on youtube because i’m sure the bbc will never air it again. his passion is only further representative of the issues at hand in the uk. i hope they can resolve.

  • Brian Matthews

    Leslie Pitterson, I must question what you truly mean, by…”Though America is far from faultless, I will say that our culture places high emphasis on having debates about race”

    Tell me about the ‘high emphasis on having debates’ about race that we have here in the United States of America…when and where do we have these, “debates”?

  • Kit

    Some of the reporting has been disgusting. BBC News doesn’t seem to be interested in addressing any of the important issues, only distracting us with the sensatinal images of rioting, creating more anger and fear to bring about the desired conditions for the government to swoop in and ‘save the day’ with some solution that will take us one step closer to their agenda, but not really address any of the salient issues. That’s why I prefer to watch alternative news channels like RTV and Al Jazeera.

    I watched on TV last night as a reporter spoke to 2 young black boys and described them as dripping in designer labels while the camera surveyed their clothes in detail, quite clearly insinuating they were wearing the spoils of looting. The reporter also asked these 2 young boys blatant leading questions on their opinions of the rioting, trying and succeeding in coaxing out comments glorifying the rioting.
    Unfortunately these boys seemed naive to the slant that would be put on the report, as I am sure they would not have agreed to speak to the reporter if they had known they would be portrayed as looting thugs.