Media and the Brixton “riots” 1981

Deborah Hobson

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Famed for the richness of its cultural and political activism, Brixton in the heart of south west London, has been the backdrop for era defining events that have made headlines in tabloid and broadsheet newspapers in the UK and around the world. Undoubtedly, the settlement of Caribbean people in the area from 1948 onwards was a milestone. But, so was the 1981 “uprising” by Black youths, supported by white allies.

What follows is a digest of researched commentary and facts about racially biased, sensationalist and fear-inducing media reporting of what police, politicians and establishment-friendly newspapers referred to as the Brixton “riots”. A wider discourse on journalism and race is also examined. This is juxtaposed with images of archive front page newspaper coverage and photography from that time.

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Black veteran anti-racism campaigner, broadcaster and journalist Marc Wadsworth states:

I lived in Brixton at the time. The Brixton ‘riots’, as politicians and their media friends called them, were sparked by massive police stop and search and brutality against the youth as part of the Met’s notorious ‘Operation Swamp’. Brixton erupted when the youth decided that ‘Enough is enough’. There was an old ‘Sus’ law, dating from the 19th century, originally aimed at clearing ‘vagrants’ from the streets, that gave the police the power to pick on the youth. After a big anti-Sus campaign, it was got rid of. At the height of me being on the London television news as a reporter most nights a week in the 1980s, I was arrested outside my Brixton home, accused of tampering with a motor vehicle. It was my own car but the plainclothes officers who did the arrest didn’t believe me. They said they couldn’t verify my identity until after flinging me into a police cell. My Labour Party Black Sections friend Paul Boateng, who went on to become an MP, was the solicitor who got me released. The incident made national news, with fellow journalists saying, if this could happen to a Black person like me then perhaps other Black men weren’t making it up about police harassment after all. (Wadsworth 2020).

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Guardian columnist and Professor of Journalism at City University Roy Greenslade writes:

It is 70 years since the American journalist Alan Barth first coined the term about news, or journalism, being “only the first rough draft of history.” Now regarded as a cliché, it has been subject to much misunderstanding. It should not be taken to mean that reporters can take a relaxed approach when stories first break, in the expectation that the facts will eventually emerge. From the off, they should be trying to get as close as possible to discovering the truth. And that also means doing the reverse, by refusing to report rumour as fact and taking a sceptical view of official sources.

Greenslade adds:

Gradually, over a period stretching back at least as far as the 1960s, fewer and fewer of the men and women who report for the major newspapers and broadcasters have been drawn from the working class. There is also plenty of evidence to show that too few are black. Most obviously, there is an absence of black editorial executives taking the key decisions about what is published and broadcast. The situation is little better on regional and local newspapers. (Greenslade 2012).

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National Union of Journalists official Donnacha DeLong has expressed deep concern regarding reporter’s apparent reliance on official sources when covering UK wide disturbances after the police shooting of young Black man Mark Duggan in 2011. Parallels have been drawn with the press reporting of Brixton in 1981. Donnacha comments:

One of the worst parts of the post-riots coverage was where the content of newspapers came directly from the police. It was about wanted lists, it was pictures of people, newspapers were doing the police’s job for them. Instead of analysing and going deeper into the story and finding out why it happened, they were simply helping the police arrest people.

That is not what journalism is for, that is not the job of a journalist and this is increasingly undermining the ability of journalists to do their job safely. If journalists are seen simply as being the mouthpiece of the police and of the state, nobody is going to trust us and, in some cases, people are going to react violently when they see a journalist.

If you haven’t got the time and the capacity to go out and do some interviews, but the police are happy to provide you with a direct line and provide you with their view of the story, too often that’s what ends up in the media. (Donnacha 2011)

Sky News reporter Tom Parmenter defended the use of official sources, claiming that it would be foolish not to use them. However, he went on to say that they should be used to complement other reliable sources and pointed out that where it was not in the interest of the authorities, information would not be released, and so it was up to journalists to discover the full story. He also criticised the suggestion that the media followed the line of the authorities, explaining that much of the coverage was “humiliating” for the police and generally produced negative results for the government, claiming what was covered made “uncomfortable viewing for the authorities.” (Dobson-Smith 2012).

In his paper Racism and Argumentation: Race Riot Rhetoric in Tabloid Editorials, Teun A. van Dijk argues that his earlier studies of the press coverage of ethnic minority groups have demonstrated that such groups are represented in the media in stereotypical, and sometimes even in blatantly racist terms. van Dijk states:

Thus, minorities and the ethnic situation in general are primarily associated with problems, conflicts and threats to the autochthonous, white population. Topics tend to focus on immigration problems (e.g. the number game) deviance, crime and violence (drugs, riots), ethnic relations (discrimination), and on real or alleged, but negatively interpreted, cultural differences. Topics that are relevant for minority groups themselves, e.g. racism, unemployment, social welfare, education and the arts, get less attention. Few newspapers in Europe have minority journalists, and sources and quotations are accordingly overwhelmingly white, so that minority groups have virtually no access to the public definition and discussion of their own position. Finally, local semantics, style and rhetoric show how the white press engages in an overall strategy of positive self-presentation of the white ingroup (especially of the authorities and other elite groups), and negative other-presentation of the alien outgroups. Whereas news reports may thus provide a biased, white-centred, definition of the facts, it is the function of editorials to formulate the opinions of newspaper editors about prominent ethnic events. Such opinions are usually supported by a series of arguments, which overall are intended to contribute to the persuasive social function of the editorials. (van Dijk 1993).

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John Lea and Simon Hallsworth from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies reference the Brixton “uprisings” of 1981 in order to understand and put into a political and historical perspective the disturbances of 2011. They write:

A comparison with the 1981 riots in Brixton, Liverpool and elsewhere and with the 2001 riots in Bradford and nearby towns reveals two shifts. The concerns of the rioters have shifted from a clear response to manifest injustice – usually at the hands of the police – to a more diffuse expression of generalised rage. Meanwhile the response has shifted from attempts – symbolised by Lord Scarman’s report on the Brixton riots of 1981 – to reintegrate the rioters and their communities into what remained of welfare citizenship to a reinforced criminalisation of a dysfunctional population. The backdrop is of course the demise of the Keynesian Welfare State and the harsh realities of neoliberalism. Lea and Hallsworth comment:

For three days in April 1981 young black men battled the police on the streets of Brixton. These youngsters were faced with the toxic combination of unemployment, racism, a society which marginalised their political voice and which addressed the symptoms of urban decay with systematic over-policing. The breaking point was exasperation at oppressive use of stop and search, in particular the massive “Operation Swamp 81”.

Lord Scarman, commissioned by Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, started from the perspective that policies aimed at integration of the Black community had failed. He understood that the rioters had a particular grievance regarding police behaviour. He recommended the recording of police stops (subsequently part of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act) and mechanisms of police-community liaison to give the Black community some sort of local voice in policing policy. More generally, he saw the Brixton community as containing a “a wealth of voluntary effort and goodwill” (Scarman, 1981) and argued the state must recognise the “long term need to provide useful, gainful employment and suitable educational, recreational and leisure opportunities for young people, especially in the inner city”.

Scarman was in effect calling for Keynesian state-led investment in the riot-torn inner cities. But he was already out on a limb. The first Thatcher government had been elected in 1979 and was determined to reduce public spending despite high levels of unemployment. The model for the future was rather the visit to Liverpool by environment secretary Michael Heseltine aiming to attract private investment to urban regeneration. The result was a renewal of the city centre while poor riot-torn areas like Toxteth were largely ignored. Deindustrialisation and private-led urban regeneration were already laying the foundations for the next wave of riots.

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DeLong, D. (2011). Media and the Riots: A Call for Action report (online and in print 2012)

Greenslade, R (2012) Foreward, Media and the Riots: A Call for Action report (online and in print 2012).

Lea and Hallsworth. (2011). Understanding the riots. (online).

Dijk, V. (1993). Racism and Argumentation: Race Riot Rhetoric in Tabloid Editorials. (online).

Wadsworth, M. (2020). Rediscovering ‘Britain’s Harlem’ through oral history, Mafazine edition 2. (online).