The Sewell Report – A Missed Opportunity to Question Media Racism and Inequality

Sewell Report into racial and ethnic disparities in the UK.
Sewell Report into racial and ethnic disparities in the UK.

The publication of the Sewell Report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities for the UK government has highlighted considerable differences in thinking about race and ethnic identity in the United Kingdom. The Sewell Report has been criticised by many commentators for either, on the one hand, ‘gaslighting’ the public by attempting to put a positive PR spin on an otherwise deeply concerning social issue; or on the other hand, for failing to address the ‘causes of the causes’ that drive differences in social outcomes, and which affect some groups of people more than others. The Sewell Report has left many asking to what extent our public services and government policies are structurally racist, if not by intent, then in practice?

The internationally respected epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot argues that the “shockingly high Covid-19 mortality rates among British people who self-identify as Black, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian” can’t all be attributed to “living in deprived areas, crowded housing, and being more exposed to the virus at work and at home.” Instead, Sir Michael attests that the evidence he has gathered and reported over many decades, clearly indicates that “these conditions are themselves the result of long-standing inequalities and structural racism.”

The Sewell Report makes many recommendations that might not be controversial per se, such as the need to build trust, challenge racism, and promote fairness. As a set of general principles there is already widespread support and practical engagement within our public institutions and government processes in relation to these aspirations. However, the challenge comes in putting these aspirations into practice. In the Sewell Report there few recommendations that would account for the disparity of experience and disparity of outcomes, as they are experienced by many people in different situations. These differences have been glossed over and smoothed out. For example, the role that our media plays in sustaining the disparities of social outcome and structural racism are almost entirely ignored by the Sewell Report.

The report has drawn considerable criticism because it suggests that social inequality and racism can be thought of as a lack of a strong and cohesive will-to-achieve in some communities. Sewell seems to suggest that the government’s preferred indicators of levelling-up and social change can simply be monitories by tracking the behaviours exhibited by people from particular ethnic groups and communities. If only these people and their associated communities can be ‘nudged’ towards aspiring to higher levels of social inclusivity and participation, then they will overcome these problems by themselves. This reliance on behaviourism is deeply suspect and needs challenging.

Critics have rightly pointed out that racism and inequality are themselves an indication of a deeper-rooted problems, on which racism and inequality are founded. Once again, the people who are subject to, and least able to respond to inequality and racism, are having their problems thrown back at them, either as individuals or social groups. Structural inequality and racism are by definition the process of maintaining this structural relationship. Keeping those who are least likely and least able to individually or collectively pull themselves upwards to a more confident social position, and then blaming them for being in that position in the first place. Once again, those at the sharp end of racism and inequality are expected to ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’, and those at the top of the pile are absolved of any responsibility for the situation.

Absent from the Sewell report is any mention or account of the role that our media plays in maintaining these divisions. There is a cursory account of the use of social media, and the proliferation of unregulated media content that exacerbates racial discrimination. However, a search of the report fails to identify the viable alternative to this unregulated free-for-all. The phrase ‘community media’ or ‘community radio’ are absent from the report. Two of the most fundamental platforms and approaches for enabling access to mass media communications by people who identify with non-majority ethnic characteristics, or who are otherwise identified as identifying with a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010, do not get mentioned in the report at all.

Thus the Sewell Report lacks any significant data which could otherwise inform the development and implementation of an inclusive public service media policy. There is no acknowledgement of the process and practical issues involved in addressing the inherited and structural disparities of race and inequality in our media organisations. Community media and community radio are the principal vehicles by which people from minority and protected characteristic communities can engage with, and gain access to, mass media communications platforms. In failing to include these types of community engagement media, the Sewell Report has failed to provide an adequate evaluation of the problem of marginalisation in our media.

With the exclusion of community media the report fails to offer insight and analysis, based on verified data and experiential testimony, of the needs and challenges that people from minority groups and protected characteristic groups face when seeking access, and a voice in, regulated forms of public media. Because of this lack of data, the Sewell Report fails to identify how people from protected characteristic groups are disproportionately affected by biased and discriminatory planning and resource allocation decisions in relation to the advancement of media platforms and content.

Was Ofcom asked to contribute to the Sewell Report? If it did, then the lack of data in Ofcom’s own diversity and inclusion reports relating to community media, is an opaque indicator of the true challenges that are faced by people of colour and other ethnically diverse backgrounds who seek to engage in the public domain through and with different forms of community-focussed media.  It is the duty of all public services to report what their equalities impact data is telling them about how they are advancing the interests and “equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.” In omitting any form of meaningful analysis about community media, the Sewell Report is dodging a crucial test – who can speak for themselves, about their own experiences, and what can we do to support and embed accountable platforms to lift people up.

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