Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Daily Mail and Lee Jasper

An attack by the Daily Mail almost makes me sympathise with Lee Jasper

The latest press attacks that have led to the resignation of Lee Jasper, Mayor Ken Livingstone’s senior race advisor, have been the most sordid yet.

I mean this not because of the salacious nature of the story in the Daily Mail, involving the publication of apparently ‘saucy’ e-mails from Jasper to long-time political ally Karen Chouhan from the 1990 Trust. These reveal little more than Jasper and Chouhan are great friends who, in what was supposed to have been private correspondence, have an intimacy that is hardly uncommon between people who have been close for so long. I suppose a psychologist would find interest in Jasper’s reference to himself as ‘the General’, my mother (a former school teacher) would probably say his spelling could do with some work and on the evidence of e-mails themselves, Jasper’s flexing techniques are, frankly, laughable.

However, the Daily Mail wants its readers to believe that its sordid ‘revelation’ is a further demonstration of the corrupt relationships between Jasper and groups funded by the Greater London Authority. But the story proves nothing of the kind and indeed, the newspaper has done Jasper an enormous favour. It has giving him the best ammunition yet to back his otherwise unconvincing argument that more serious allegations rumbling away in the pages of the Evening Standard over the last few months are part of an orchestrated racist campaign.

For the Daily Mail, more than any other British newspaper, has built its success on the most blatant stereotypes of black people and by identifying itself with the prejudices of its readership. The Guardian's Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News, which I have mentioned before regarding the coverage of Prince Harry’s return from Afghanistan, recounts a conversation with an experienced Mail journalist who said of the paper’s readers: “they don’t want a multicultural society, they want to go back to the 1950s.” The Mail therefore routinely gives them stories that they want to be told about the world. It routinely checks to see whether the victim of a crime or the subject of a human interest story is black or white before deciding whether to run a story. Davies retells an anecdote recounted by one Mail news reporter who was phoned early one morning and instructed to drive three hundred miles to cover the murder of a woman and her two children. Ninety minutes into his journey, the news desk called to order him back. Why? “They’re black”, he was told. Another young reporter told Davies that about the open use of racist language by senior staff in the Daily Mail's office and said, “there is definitely a racist environment.”

The Mail is, nevertheless, willing to embrace ethnic minorities if they fit into another of its stereotypes: those who are seen as respectable, hard-working and trying hard to be British. Examples of this include the black soldier Johnson Beharry, who was awarded the Victoria Cross, or most famously Stephen Lawrence’s parents. Neville Lawrence’s chance encounter with the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre, whose Islington home he had done some plastering work in, helped change the angle of the paper’s story from an attack on the ‘left-wing groups’ calling for a public inquiry into sympathetic reporting that culminated in the naming of the five murder suspects in February 1997.

But the Mail's most consistent black stereotype is that of the criminal. From the hounding of Winston Silcott for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock to reporting of refugees and asylum-seekers, coupled with the almost complete exclusion of black people from stories of everyday life, the Mail serves up what its readership wants to believe. It’s in this category that the newspaper has placed Lee Jasper, with a portrayal of him as corrupt that now has an added sprinkling of stereotypical innuendo about a sexually predatory black man.

The thing about a racist paper like the Daily Mail attacking Lee Jasper is that it’s almost enough to make me feel sympathy for him. I’ve written before that it’s hard to believe that Jasper would personally seek to involve himself in corruption, but that he has always surrounded himself with a coterie that he has protected assiduously. I nevertheless think there are still unanswered questions about some of the allegations against his friends over the misuse of public funds.

But in spite of the implication of guilt that might seem to attach itself to his resignation, when it comes to convincing those people who matter to Jasper - everyone who doesn’t share the narrow world-view of the typical Mail reader - the paper has gifted him a public relations coup, a ‘get-out-of-jail free’ card.

Let's face it, if forced to choose between Lee Jasper and the Daily Mail, who in their right mind would back the country’s most vicious racist newspaper?

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