• Thursday, June 30, 2022


Furore over cartoon shows nuanced debate can help root out prejudice

Priti Patel, Boris Johnson (Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/Getty Images).

By: Radhakrishna N S

By Barnie Choudhury
Former BBC Journalist

MAKE no mistake, Labour is in trouble. It has no credible leader. It has no credible deputy leader. It has no credible policies. Worst of all, it is fighting a fake war within itself. By taking so long to answer charges of anti-Semitism, making a fist of the outcome and suspending Alastair Campbell who, in my view, remains a communications genius, you have to ask, whither Labour? Its latest decision to suspend Trevor Phillips over complaints that he is anti-Muslim has the hallmarks of another calamity. Only it is more serious than that.

What this episode brings into focus is our right to offend in a democratic society, and our need to examine that line which crosses being offensive to being racist. I have offended people in the past. In 2001, a colleague told the press that I was “the most hated Asian in the BBC”. My crime was to report racial segregation and put part of the blame on south Asian shoulders. I also allowed a platform for the British National Party. My argument was that unless you challenged hatemongers in the open, you risked turning them into martyrs and heroes. Despite facing verbal death threats, I held onto the belief that my job was to put up a mirror to society and reflect it, warts and all. It was to follow the story, objectively, without fear or favour, and see where it led. It was to pick up rocks, see what crawled from underneath it, and speak unpalatable truths, holding power to account. Lofty ideals for a lofty profession. In almost 40 years, my views have changed very little, save for the need to be kinder. I have also learnt to choose my battles.

That is why I find the hue and cry over Steve Bell’s ‘racist cartoon’ in the Guardian, which depicts the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the prime minister, Boris Johnson, as bulls, laughable yet sinister. I am not inside Bell’s head but I, as a Hindu, did not equate it as a racist jibe against my religion. Cartoonists, like court jesters, poke fun. End of. Patel has been accused of being a ‘bully’, is it possible Bell was trying to depict that, and Boris was part of the herd? Or are they both ‘bulls in a china shop’, metaphorically breaking the spirit of those who work for them? I do not know. But I did not get it, which makes it a bad cartoon, not a racist one.

What are we going to say next? That John Torode and Greg Wallace from Masterchef UK were racist because they chose a white woman, whose tofu fish dish was described as ‘horrendous’ by food critic William Sitwell, over a south Asian man about whom he was more positive. Hardly. Surely, we have bigger fish to fry. The row over Lawrence Fox, Equity and its black, Asian minority ethnic members for a start.

The questions we need to answer are, what is racism, what is Islamophobia, and what is the line which we cannot cross? I am not sure we can put the definitions into bitesize-one-sentence-simple explanations. We need to be nuanced. I have not got countless jobs, not because of my race, but because the panel thought I was not the best candidate. I must believe that, otherwise I would not get out of bed in the morning.

So back to Phillips, who in 2003, on Radio 4’s Today, criticised a story I had done about MuslimSikh tensions in Derby. We should always go back to what he is reported to have said. According to one Times article in 2016, Phillips told a meeting, “Continuously pretending that a group is somehow eventually going to become like the rest of us is perhaps the deepest form of disrespect.

“Because what you are essentially saying is the fact that they behave in a different way, some of which we may not like, is because they haven’t yet seen the light. It may be that they see the world differently from the rest of us.

“Part of the integration process is for the rest of us to grasp that people aren’t going to change their views simply because we are constantly telling them that basically they should be like us.”

This, and other comments, made him Islamophobic, the term he defined. Where he made an error of judgement, in my view, is that his words could be interpreted as his saying that Muslims are not like us and so will never integrate into British society. What is sad is that an august person as Phillips knows that words are powerful and can get us into trouble. No need to be defensive, Trevor. Saying sorry, and meaning it, should be enough.

Eastern Eye

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