Saturday, September 05, 2009

How should we report hate crime?

Hate crime has been high up the political agenda ever since the authorities botched their reaction to the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993 and it can throw up interesting decisions for a newspaper when it comes to reporting.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a number of anti-gay posters were put up on various walls and windows in Leicester city centre and around the railway station. The Mercury received calls fairly early on from people getting off trains and it was clear that the posters had been seen by lots of people.

I'm guessing the posters were timed to coincide with today's Gay Pride parade through the city and, on another day, they could just as easily have been racist or sexist and we would have been faced with the same decisions.

We talked first thing about how we should cover the story and agreed the following:
  • It was important that we covered it - the posters were very public
  • We would slant our coverage to reflect the general disgust at the posters
  • We would not repeat any of the words on the posters
  • We would not print any pictures which showed the words
  • We would run the article towards the front of paper
In the end, this is what we ran on Page 2 of today's paper.

However, the reaction in some quarters of the police was different. As you'd expect, they were treating this as a serious crime - they were already studying cctv images and had sent one of the posters off to be tested forensically to see if there were any clues as to the perpetrators - and we got a call from a senior officer who clearly thought we should not be reporting it.

There seemed to be two arguments against publication, the first of which, rather oddly, seemed to be that it wouldn't show Leicester up in a very good light! The second was the more predictable suggestion that our coverage would give 'the oxygen of publicity' to the posters, helping those who produced them to achieve their goal.

I don't understand the first argument. I don't believe that it sheds any light on Leicester at all. It simply shows that some pretty horrible person or people, who may or may not be from Leicester, did something horrible. Perhaps we shouldn't cover any crime? Was this worse than rape or murder? Actually, as we reported, what it actually showed was that many of the posters were ripped down by right-thinking people in Leicester.

I have more sympathy with the second argument, but I don't think that ignoring bad things and hoping they will go away is generally helpful. I'm pretty sure that the decisions we had already taken on how to handle the story negated any concerns and I don't think we did anything which would boost the standing of those who put up the posters.

I caught an interesting take on this argument on BBC Radio 5's phone-in programme earlier in the week when they were discussing football chants in relation to a CD that is being sold by Amazon which includes football fans accusing a well-known manager of being a paedophile. The Radio 5 line was clearly that this was disgusting and that Amazon should take the CD off the shelves, so to speak. And how did they illustrate this? Well, of course, they played the clip from the CD, named the manager and let everyone listen to the fans chanting the offending words!

UPDATE: On the Radio 5 show, the presenter read out a statement from Amazon saying that it would not remove the CD as that would be censorship and that the company believed in free speech - a claim that went completely unchallenged by the BBC despite its obvious absurdity. Does Amazon sell openly homophobic or racist material? I notice this morning that Amazon has in fact removed the CD from sale following a complaint from the football club concerned which pointed out that the chant was defamatory. However, Amazon adds: "We would not remove a product from our site because some, or many, people find it to be distasteful or otherwise objectionable. We believe it is censorship to make a product unavailable for those reasons."