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Broadcasting of the BBC Documentary ‘The Secret Policeman’ Essay

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On Tuesday 21st October 2003, the BBC’s documentary The Secret Policeman was broadcast to approximately 5 million viewers in Britain. Mark Daly, an undercover reporter had spent seven months posing as a fellow trainee at the Bruche National Training Centre in Cheshire to film an expos� on racism among police recruits. The film not only provided evidence of police racism but also highlighted the stereotypical representations of Black identity within Western ideology.

In this essay I propose to investigate how the British media’s representation of Blacks has, rather than reflecting reality, constructed it. My research predominantly focuses on evidence gathered from racial reports and theories of the 1980’s until the present day and examines the development, if any, within race representation in the media. Pre-1980’s case studies are generally omitted because of the rapid development of discussion of racial issues as a reaction to the brutal riots of that decade. Additionally, the institutional and individual stereotyping revealed within The Secret Policeman can be directly related to prevalent issues specifically within the media of the previous two decades. Controversially, I ultimately aim to depict The Secret Policeman as a symbol of advancement in Black representation within Britain.

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“The use of the term ‘Black bastard’ and ‘Nigger’… isn’t racist”

The Secret Policeman’s inclusion of a clip of racist remarks by the Police Federation’s Representative in 1983 is an accurate reflection of the racial turmoil that Britain’s Institutions and communities were in. Black lawlessness was an image that dominated the Press reporting on riots from 1980 – 85. A predominantly Black riot against at Bristol’s police force in 1980 was followed by further confrontational outbreaks in 1981. The first two years of riots gained Britain’s (particularly young) West Indian community the reputation for being “notorious for muggings, assaults and murders”2 but nonetheless presented a slight initial interest into the awareness of the underlying causes. The scale of Britain’s urban unrest between these years varied considerably but the sequence of violence after 1980 forced the political agenda to include an examination of the origins of the protests. The Press employed Brixton (1981) to highlight the need for enhanced Government economic policies; “As we condemn the senseless terror… we also condemn the deep seated social problems…which spawned them.”

From 1983 to 1985 Britain’s poor and predominantly West Indian and Asian neighbourhoods experienced social disturbances, as was the case in 1981. Once more, the media endorsed the riots as the criminal acts of black, inner-city youths but this time they were not linked to ethnic inequality, oppression or socio-economic frustration but only to the Blacks’ position in society and their undermining of the law and cultural traditions of the minority communities themselves. The British press’s reaction to the prominence of riots particularly during 1985 was to decline both generally to examine the reasons for them and specifically to consider ethnical inequality as a cause. Subjects of immigration, housing, employment, social facilities and race relations within the civic authorities that were central to the causes of the urban violence, were abandoned for crude simplifications that represented Blacks as the sole initiators of the violence. The criminal identity with which the media had labelled Blacks was not wholly fictitious. Anecdotal evidence of provocative quotes and repetition of unreliable stories would always ‘operate within a dominant regime of truth’4. Crimes involving Blacks were given disproportionate coverage that suggested a behavioural generalisation that would never be suggested of Whites. Stereotyping was not the only form of racism; more covertly the press would exclude or misconstrue statistics such as those that showed Blacks to be twice as likely to be out of work as their counterparts. The coverage of Tottenham’s 1985 riot gave less publicity to the death of a lack woman than the ensuing disturbances in which a police constable was murdered. The policeman’s role as a victim totally overshadowed the mourning of the aggressor that the Black fatality was consigned to.

‘The perspective within which coloured people are presented as ordinary members of society has become increasingly overshadowed by a news perspective in which they are presented as a problem.’

Teun. A. Van Dijk was highly influenced by Hartmann and Husband’s early study of racism in the press which concluded the above labelling of Blacks. According to Van Dijk the riots were topicalized in a style recognisable across the entire media front; the event, the causes and the consequences. Contrary to using these journalistic traits to investigate all areas of the riots, Britain’s media manipulated it as a means of reporting on selective data. The event was described as the attacks of ‘mobs’ of black youths; in order to maintain the stimulus once the disturbance was over the primary definition of the cause of the riots was in terms of Black criminality in preference to the inner city conditions. Finally, the exoneration of Institutional Britain was enabled through the report’s focus into future containment, policing and inquiries. The report pattern of Black mob, Black crime and Black prevention was typical of a whole generation’s instinctive approach to Black Britain. The media’s response to the 1980’s riots created and regurgitated images of Black male criminals. Blacks in non-race stories were not considered newsworthy. Encouragingly by the 1980’s Black was on the political agenda; however by 1985 it had been relegated from the social issue some commentators had perceived, via a social problem to a social evil. If the media’s hegemonic reports and editorials in the 1980’s were classed as a barely disguised belief in White supremacy, The Secret Policeman strangely that that attitude to Blacks is as strong today as ever it was then.

“I’m a firm believer that Paki’s create racism.”

“Most Asians carry knives.”

“The thing in London is, the majority of street robbery is Black”

In 1982 the Commission for Racial Equality published the first code of practice on eliminating discrimination and promoting equal opportunities, which was speedily identified by a Daily Telegraph editorial as ‘bossy nonsense’. Arguably the code of practice was counter-productive. Attacks on anti-racist and equal rights movements were at their height during the period of 1983 to 1986, when Black became Britain’s pretext for social disturbances. Resistance towards such movements was accused of stirring racial tension through excessive political correctness. For much of the press, racism was a manufactured problem of the anti-racist left, found in social science research programmes, anti-racist projects and multi-cultural education. The anti-racist social learning process created accusations of ‘anti-English’ indoctrination thus posing a threat to White elitism, dominance and control. Thatcher’s Institutionally right-wing Britain defined itself as a protagonist of the attacks from the left that they believed favoured special treatment of multicultural Britain. Significantly, the immediate Government response to The Secret Policeman undercover investigation was given by the home secretary David Blunkett, who criticised the BBC for their “intent to create, not report, a story…as a covert stunt to get attention”

According to the Guardian’s most recent statistics, ethnic minorities make up 9% of the UK’s population. In more urban areas such as Greater Manchester where The Secret Policeman was filmed, this percentage is believed to reach figures as high as 30%. However, the documentary showed Warrington police training base to consist of 118 white and one Asian recruit. Notably, Black people in are massively under-represented in Parliament. New Western societies still show many forms of institutional and everyday discrimination that David Blunkett arguably hoped to dismiss with a similar response to the 1980’s critical analysis of racist exposs. Over a month before The Secret Policeman was broadcast, John Gieve, the permanent Secretary at the Home Office wrote to the BBC a letter that they described as ‘unprecedented’ pressure to bully them into withdrawing the programme. The chief constable of Greater Manchester Police also intimidated the BBC with the threat of a ‘Hutton-style’ inquiry that “could destroy the BBC’s relationship with the police”. Mark Daly’s work within the police force was cut short when arrested on suspicion of deception and damaging police property; charges were dropped when embarrassingly for the police, the public were informed of the institutional racism.

The Observer newspaper considered the Whitehall and police resistance worthy of its front-page headline ‘Home Office ‘tried to axe’ BBC police race expos’. Headlines are carefully devised as a pithy synopsis of the story. They quickly impart knowledge in a way which facilitates both understanding and recall. The headlines of news reports about ethnic affairs summarize events that the media’s white academics, teachers, writers and political activists define as relevant to white and black readers’ interests. The media’s manipulation of headlines dramatized the 1980’s anti-racism only to emphasise the Western ideology of Black negativity. For example the Telegraph’s conspicuous headline ‘bossy nonsense’ clearly established the tedium felt by the author towards the issue of tackling racism. The Observer’s recent negative portrayal of institutional antagonists of anti-racism reveals a positive shift from the media’s earlier resentment towards the anti-racist movements. So what is the ideological implication of the shift from 1980’s resentment to the Observer’s stance? How is the exposure of racism in today’s society a sign of improved race-relations? Who is to blame for today’s existing racism?

“Is it the BBC’s fault this has happened?”

BBC Radio One questioned both the responsibility of the police and the media in the revelation of The Secret Policeman. Radio One criticised the constable of North Wales for his reference to the hysteria related to terrorism, extremist Muslims and asylum as the rationale for increased racist views. Blaming society, it commented, was no option for police professionals who should “concentrate on training… and challenge prejudice”15. Is the BBC’s accusation equitable or is pardoning society a means of pardoning the media to ultimately pardon itself?

‘How we are seen determines in part how we are treated; how we treat others is based on how we see them; such seeing comes from representation.’16

Traditionally founded on Reithian ideas of independence, access and expression, the BBC aimed to inform, educate and entertain the masses. The BBC devised itself an identity as the national cultural institution that would represent Britain’s public through Britain’s voice. In a statement following the arrest of Mark Daly, the BBC reflected the all-purpose mission they were founded upon: ‘We believe this to be a matter of significant public interest’17. The BBC, in essence, the media, is a powerful realm of social whiteness that manipulates the patterns of inter-elite communication. The ethnic minorities in Britain even today remain concentrated in relatively few areas. As a result huge numbers of the White majority rely almost exclusively on the media for knowledge of issues concerning their Black counterparts. The formations and continuance of White attitudes are therefore highly reliant upon the media’s portrayal of race-relations; most frequently found in the news. The news is an everyday routine structure, and in literal terms can be defined as a ‘classical realist text’. However, Nichols recognises that ‘the reality of news takes precedence over the news of reality’18, thus enabling it to empower, or dis-empower its subject. In these terms the subject is Black and the empowerment is integral to the serious issue of Black nationhood and identity. When reality is represented, its former unequivocal status becomes ambiguous; news is static but its context is not. For example, patterns of race reporting can attach themselves to the wider subjects of Black British existence, a procedure that Sarita Malik terms leitmotif. During the 1980’s riots, the Black identity was frequently referred to in terms of former race-related violence. Leitmotifs thus manipulated the reality to familiarise the White-eye with often-unrelated parables of Black anger that consequently created a distorted mis-information about the original conflict. In contrast, representing reality can be equally deceitful through a negation of context. The news according to Malik is best at representing ‘what’ and ‘why’ but regularly fails to recognise the socio-political reasoning behind it. In terms of race relations of the last two decades Britain’s media tends to focus excessively on the wider context of Black struggle yet too seldom on the social context that fuels this struggle. The BBC’s decision to resist Governmental and Federal pressures and broadcast The Secret Policeman implied a positive shift in its allegiance to the White ruling classes. Although this documentary was yet another portrayal of the problem-orientated Black, uniquely the ‘revolting’19 and ‘Appalling, racist revelations’20 were more optimistically acknowledged as White.

The television documentary is based on questions of identity that engage with the construction of relationships between subject, audience and the camera or narrator. The cinematography is used as a tool of authority in which the spectator is lured into believing they are a observing a record of untouched and immediate reality. But reality, as clarified previously, can be more ambiguous than anticipated. In fact, the illusion that a documentary allows the subject to speak for itself without moralising or judging is, like the news, a powerful status to possess. Documentaries are the most likely genre to directly address socio-political affairs and on the rare occasion of the media’s attention to multicultural development it is most probable they will be used. Unfortunately, documentaries of the 1950’s were emotive, sentimental and practically vague and similarly.

The 1960’s gave little hope for a genre increasingly lacking in sensitivity and awareness towards the Black subject. In contrast to the pathos of the 1950’s White pity toward Blacks, the 1960’s employed tones of hostility, fear and conflict. Thus, the erratic history of the socialist documentary was influential and manipulative towards the enhancement of Governmental attacks that ran adjacent to the anti-racist campaigns of the 1980’s. The development of light and cheap video recording equipment has made the ‘video diary’ an accessible and extremely popular style of documentary since the late 1990’s; a development that enabled the BBC to produce The Secret Policeman. Improved camera technology initiated independent film-making and in effect greater social analysis during the 1990’s, but this was not the only continuity in television’s ‘social eye’. Governmental, cultural and economic forces were evolving towards today’s individualistic, consumerist and multicultural society; television had to keep pace. The documentary shifted from social generalisations to pluralism and for the first time society was eclipsed by individualism and lifestyle. Although the 1990’s showed much resistance to an increasingly cross-cultural and mixed-race Britain, the definition of society and ‘Britishness’ undoubtedly required re-examination.

“Isn’t it good how memories don’t fade? He [Steven Lawrence] fucking deserved it and his mum and dad are a fucking pair of spongers.”

PC Rob Pulling’s acclamation of the murderers and derision of the family of black student Steven Lawrence shocked viewers of The Secret Policeman. Lawrence’s mother was particularly disheartened, stating, “that, after all this time, people still held those views.”22 The stereotyping of Black people as spongers or scroungers is one that was upheld and confirmed during the rioting period of the 1980’s. The Diasporas posed a threat to Britain as a consequence of its deficiency in resources and increasing immigration numbers. In 1968 Enoch Powell suggested a much favoured but conclusively rejected topic relatable to Thatcher’s new 1980’s, right wing government; that of repatriation. Repatriation essentially warned Blacks to behave or ‘go home’. Powell returned to his theme in the wake of the 1985 Handsworth riots to create a climate of racist opinion. Immigration had become among the most prominent Press subjects, during which, one tabloid claimed that immigrants cost the taxpayer billions of pounds. Black people were constituted as the welfare state’s problem that added to taxation through an exploitation of the ‘White supremacist’ welfare state. In 1984, the News of the World printed the headline ‘�476 a week for waiter Abdul’. The Daily Mail picked up on this story, printing a day later; ‘Jobless Abdul…life of luxury in hotels…at the taxpayers’ expense.’24 The actuality of this story is that the 476 payment that was referred to was an inclusive sum covering the cost of housing Abdul, his wife and his six children. More interestingly, Abdul Bari was a British citizen.

In 1999, six years after the Lawrence incident, Sir William Macpherson undertook a high profile investigation into the racism and discrimination in the Metropolitan Police Force.His Report coined the phrase ‘institutional racism’. This triggered discussions of discrimination within Britain’s leading institutions: the police, the media, the education system and the government. Following the Lawrence enquiry huge numbers of police were forced to undertake intensive training in racial equality and similar, revised programmes are ongoing today. One police force in Britain sent 40 000 employees on race training days within the last year, but Pulling’s overt racism raises questions of the efficacy of the Home Office’s current strategy of challenging prejudice.

In the concluding chapter of her book Representing Black in Britain, Sarita Malik makes a discouragingly negative, albeit honest assertion that the accepted sentiment that ‘racist Britain’ is in decline is somewhat false. By this, she suggests that racism in the media, as in other public sectors, has merely been concealed. Malik proposed that truthful representations could emerge only through more diverse, aesthetically innovative and accurate portrayals of Blacks. More relevantly to The Secret Policeman, Malik highlighted the need for a rethink of the constituent parts that compose Britain’s media: resources, employment and ultimately its national heritage. Whilst the number of Blacks and ethnic minorities on British television has increased dramatically – particularly in urban based soaps such as Holby City and Eastenders – the production teams and editors continue to favour Whites. My premise that The Secret Policemen established an interesting relationship with the development of British media was formed whilst listening to a Radio Four news programme. It suggested that The Secret Policeman provided hard evidence that racism had gone underground. The programme concluded that although the police understood the ‘should’s and shouldn’t’s’ of racial procedures, impartiality was never entrenched in their hearts and minds. Consistently with my research, the social learning process of the media has potentially played a huge role in PC Pulling’s racist prejudices and discrimination. Racism is not innate after all; it is learned. So how is it that I feel confident to propose The Secret Policeman as evidence of enhanced race-relations within the media?

The role of the media is not isolated, but connected in numerous ways to the elites in general; this time it stood alone. The BBC assumed the role of the anti-racist and confronted the majority. The Secret Policeman exposed to huge public numbers, the long-standing stereotypes of the ‘ruling-race’ and gave scope for investigating the origins of such beliefs. More positively the documentary received instant and drastic responses from both the public and the institutions. The Home Office immediately introduced plans for new police integrity tests and understood the need for societal change.

The media’s willingness to scrutinise and criticise the racism revealed in The Secret Policeman marked a complete reversal from the attacks on anti-racism evident in the 1980’s. The Secret Policeman has served a distinctive purpose. It has illustrated what has long been apparent but too rarely admitted; White power is dangerously flawed.


Ferguson, Robert. Representing ‘Race’, 1998. Arnold: London

Gordon, Paul & Rosenberg, David. The Press and black people in Britain, 1989. Runnymede Trust: Nottingham

Malik, Sarita. Representing Black in Britain, 2002. Sage: London

Solomos, John. Race and Racism in Contemporary Britain, 1989. Macmillan: London

Troyna, Barry. Public awareness and the media, 1981. Commission for Racial Equality: London

Van Dijk, Tuen A. Racism and the Press, 1991. Routledge: London and New York

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