Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A case for open dialogue, transparency and critique: Rotherham, multiculturalism and media reporting

The recent independent inquiry by Prof. Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, into the child sex abuse in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 that shocked Britain’s conscience has led to a spate of articles and reports expressing outrage, anger and disbelief in the UK and Australia. New understandings of the purported link between 'cultural sensitivity' and state failure to tackle social problems have flooded British and Australian online portals. Examining media coverage and the commentary on online articles, one finds a palpable sense of betrayal, distrust of state and media institutions and frustration with what is perceived as a noxious regime of unofficial censorship. In Australia, the fact that one of the top bureaucrats responsible for Rotherham child services between 2005 and 2008 is now employed by the Victorian Education department has also prompted some debate.
Prof. Jay’s inquiry report offers a stunning indictment of South Yorkshire police and child support services. Despite numerous complaints from victims and their families, the latter failed to properly investigate the crimes and prevent the recurrence of pervasive abuse. Their unwillingness to contend with the issue of the perpetrators’ background (and thereby recognise their ostensible modus operandi) undoubtedly exacerbated the situation and allowed it to fester. But how do we now grapple with the ramifications of this failure and the backlash that has followed? How can one begin to understand the deleterious impact it has had, not only on British institutions and public discourse but on public opinion across western societies?
The report indicates that a fear of contending with the issue of ethnicity or cultural background (essentially, the fear of being ‘seen as racist’) interfered with and compromised the effectiveness of state interventions. Furthermore, apprehensions about reporting on the abuse, and identifying patterns in the background and modus operandi of the alleged gangs, prevented mass media from giving the issue the serious consideration it deserved. These conclusions have prompted condemnation from various quarters and have resulted in a potentially dangerous association in the public mind between multiculturalism, the fear of being seen as racist and censorship. The notion that multiculturalism (which is often used as a metonym for the tensions that are associated with it) is or ought to be above critique is a specious argument and one that is unfairly attributed to popular sentiment among minority communities. There could be no greater disservice than the proscription of open and rigorous critique of any social issue; than the bowdlerisation of public discourse. This is the absolute inverse of everything that’s desirable in a democratic, secular polity. Discussion of no subject, no issue of public importance should be anathematised. This is neither conducive to integration nor necessary for cohesion. If anything, it will slowly but surely desiccate the moral foundations and institutional underpinnings of society, gradually sowing the seeds of mass distrust and discontent. Nobody, not even the alleged proponents of communitarian ideologies, can possibly benefit from such an outcome. A weakened state with its secular institutional fabric torn asunder is a nightmare for everyone alike.
In media commentary following the report, the reticence, equivocation and “mealy-mouthedness” of media outlets have been criticised. The unwillingness of the media to explicitly identify and unambiguously state the nature of the abuse has handed critics a powerful (but unavoidable) charge – that there is a clear Rubicon when it comes to the reporting of crime and social issues. The way in which this has been wielded against outlets like the Guardian and BBC has been devastating. Allegations of pusillanimity, double standards, censorship and (ideologically-motivated) complicity can severely erode public confidence. No media outlet can claim to be representative or vigilant if it deliberately obfuscates major crises or issues.
It is incumbent on state services, the police and media to openly confront what are identifiable social problems, to be transparent, to engage with the public without any of the deliberate omissions, condescension and malfeasance we have been warned about in Prof. Jay’s report. No community, whether national, local or ethnic, can possibly benefit from hollowed-out, compromised and inept state and media institutions. Above all, what should be stated emphatically is that the circumventing of critical issues in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’ is a specious and counterproductive phenomenon that actively militates against the welfare of ethnic communities. No British Pakistani wants to be saddled with the imputation, running through this sordid saga, of complicity in abuse. Every right-minded, law-abiding member of society wants to see the perpetrators of the abuse in Rotherham tried and held accountable for their crimes.
One should be disabused of the notion that specific ethnic communities may condone such abuse. Crimes of such magnitude should be met with universal denunciation. No British Pakistani could countenance or desire to be complicit in the silence and inaction that have exacerbated the crisis in Rotherham. The equivalence between crime and community complicity has a devastating effect. It behoves journalists to speak out and to incisively criticise misogyny, hate and violence wherever they see it. This is why I have such admiration for people like Jasvinder Sanghera, who have shown the strength of their convictions by openly confronting social problems in the face of the reticence and trepidation of state services in Britain. 
The British media need to recognise that critique of misogyny and violence is an essential part of media discourse in ‘Asian’ societies. In Pakistan, writers like Asma Jehangir, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie, and even western-based Pakistani academics like Ayesha Jalal, constantly talk about and condemn what they see as widespread social ills. It is not ‘racist’ to condemn crime. But the pretence that accompanies the illusion that not condemning crime will somehow safeguard a community is patently wrong and damaging.

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