Anyone who has been following the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK will know of its importance. Of course, the UK has seen anti-racism protests before, but the outpouring of global support for the civil rights movement, and Black Lives Matter in particular, following George Floyd’s death feels historic.
Which makes it all the more bewildering to see a huge cross section of the media refuse to recognise this. Last night, I watched in shock as front page after front page ran Madeleine McCann’s face after German police announced they had a lead on the case. Indeed, most papers ran the story on their front pages without even a mention of the political and social earthquake rippling across the UK in the wake of Floyd’s death. Thousands took to the streets in London yesterday protesting racism and demanding racial equality – yet the British media saw the most important story of the day as Madeleine’s. It is moments like these that demonstrate the depth of the problem we are facing when it comes to not only addressing racism in British society but even accepting that it exists.
To be clear, Madeleine McCann’s case is tragic, and I have much sympathy for her family. It’s been more than 13 years since the then-three-year-old disappeared without a trace from a holiday resort in Portugal, and numerous leads over the years have faded to nothing. So, in many ways, it’s no surprise the papers ran the news prominently that German police had a lead, and feared she may be dead. It’s important to recognise the significance of this moment for Madeleine’s loved ones. And as a British citizen, I feel that too.
But it is also important to recognise the significance of what is happening to Black people right now. A failure to recognise the systemic racism our society is built on is costing our lives. It is important to recognise the failure to give proper acknowledgement to the Black Lives Matters protests in the national press today, and what that means for the UK’s Black citizens.
Police brutality, inequality, and discrimination faced by Black people in society should be making front page news, and if it isn’t, we need to be interrogating the reasons why.
When John Boyega stood up, sobbing, in Hyde Park yesterday, saying: “I might not have a career after this, but f*ck that,” it demonstrated how much pain he, and the Black community, are in. When you turn on the news, you see thousands gathering, from the US to New Zealand marching against racism against Black people – and it shows how much we need justice. It is not an understatement to say we are witnessing a pivotal moment when it comes to the liberation of Black people in society. So to see all this passion, all this pain, and all this injustice deemed not significant enough, not important enough, not pivotal enough to even get a look in on the front pages of the British newspapers felt deeply personal. It felt like racism, and just another example that we feel empathy for white faces, and not towards Black ones. That a white girl’s face could so easily and seamlessly bury the voices and pain of millions of Black people across the world – from London to New York – shows that Black lives really do not matter that much at all.
If Black lives are going to matter – to truly matter – we must call out this pattern of behaviour in coverage like this. While Madeleine’s story is an example of an emotionally charged, national issue, the UK’s Black Lives Matter movement should be too. The police brutality, inequality, and discrimination that Black people face in society should be making front page news, and if it isn’t, we need to be interrogating the reasons why. The fact that this did not happen today, is demonstrative of the issue at hand.
The media have a huge responsibility when it comes to tone setting. It has a huge responsibility because it decides which stories are newsworthy, and whose lives are important. Madeleine’s story burying a historic moment for Black liberation across the UK, and the world, shows that Black lives are not seen as valuable as white ones. And this happens because we live in a society with very little concern or awareness of the lives on Black people. It happens because our newsrooms and editors are overwhelmingly white – and lack the interest to change that. And thus the cycle of sympathy for white lives and lack of empathy for Black ones perpetuates.
The only way we change this is by having Black people represented in senior positions in journalism, which would be reflected in the type of stories we accord importance. It would help recognise that, at such a painful and historic moment, prioritising a white life over the lives of Black people everywhere, shows a deep systemic problem. Until this happens, Black lives will never truly matter in British society.
Nadine Batchelor-Hunt is a journalist and former president of the Cambridge University Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign.