Refrendum Blog: May 28

Refrendum Blog: May 28

THE DOG THAT DIDN’T BARK? A poster published by the pressure group Operation Black Vote (OBV) showing a skinhead thug intimidating a sari-wearing immigrant – and aimed, say OBV, at encouraging ethnic turnout in the EU referendum – has been strongly attacked by the ‘leave side as divisive, negative stereotyping.

But the BBC has virtually ignored the controversy over the tactics and imagery being deployed.   Coverage was confined to an outline website story, a short interview on Radio 4’s World Tonight with the head of OBV and a Ukip spokesman, and brief, one sentence mentions on BBC1’s News at Six and on BBC2’s Newsnight.

By comparison, when Boris Johnson, of the ‘exit’ side, mentioned President Obama’s Kenyan ancestry, BBC coverage was extensive across all outlets and included very strong attacks on Johnson’s motivation, with clear, repeated insinuations that he was being racist.

OBV is funded by left-leaning and EU-supporting trusts Esme Fairbairn and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

OBV’s advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, who designed the poster, say that the aggressive imagery in their poster is necessary and appropriate because the political campaigning has so far failed to cut through to the 4 million target audience.

Director Simon Woolley, in his The World Tonight appearance on Wednesday evening, said the poster was in response to ‘toxic’ claims about immigration by the ‘leave’ side in the EU debate. These included the mentions of President Obama’s Kenyan ancestry and an unwarranted attack on ‘diversity’ by Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip,

Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn is among those who has strongly attacked the poster. He observed:

Using grotesque racial stereotypes to scare white people is as despicable as it is desperate. This type of rabid propaganda has no place in an advanced democracy.

So what’s the difference between this hypothetical Vote Leave advert and the genuine poster campaign wheeled out by Operation Black Vote, which is led by a member of the Remain camp?

It features two people sitting face-to-face on a see-saw. One is an elderly Asian woman in a sari; the other a tattooed white skinhead jabbing his finger aggressively and snarling in her direction. The poster is going up on 37 digital billboards in London and Manchester in the run-up to polling day.

The justification for this demagogic imagery is that it is designed to encourage members of ethnic minorities to vote in the referendum and counter the ‘demonisation’ of foreigners and people of colour’ by the Leave campaign.

But the clear, not even subliminal or subtle, implication is that those who want to get out of the EU are all knuckle-scraping BNP boot-boys brimming with hatred for non-whites.

So why did the BBC virtually ignore the poster?

In the website copy about it, the headline is simply:  EU referendum:  White ‘thug’ poster aimed at black voters’.  The story lays out that Nigel Farage had said the approach was ‘disgusting’, an example of ‘sectarian politics’ and was trying to ‘divide society’.

But the bulk of the copy is focused on the OBV perspective., and contains quotes from both OBV director Simon Woolley and Magnus Djaba, chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi, who was responsible for the poster design.  Most prominent is Djaba’s claim:

This is a message about democracy, not a message about race. Whichever community you’re from, it hits home.

The only other substantial mention of the poster on in The World Tonight, Simon Woolley was given clear space to make claims that echoed the website story and to amplify the message that elements of the debate had descended into race and ‘diversity’ based toxicity.  The presenter made no effort to challenge the use of the ‘thug’ imagery. Her main intent was to allow Woolley to explain why he thought it was necessary.

Steven Woolfe MEP, the Ukip spokesman on migration, was placed on the back foot by Wooley’s claims and the clear undertone that Ukip was being racist. His main focus was thus rebuttal.  As a result, he had only minimal opportunity to state that he believed the poster’s imagery was provocative, and the presenter did not explore further – her main focus was to give Woolley the opportunity to put his case.

Both The World Tonight and the BBC website, in the only mainstream coverage of this story, thus gave only minimal exposure to the alleged controversy over the poster’s imagery, and indeed, arguably glossed over it.  They publicised the poster gave OBV opportunity to put its case, but showed only minimal editorial curiosity about the extensive reaction to it, or to the debate about OBV’s motives.

Evidence of this was on Wednesday’s edition of Newsnight shortly after the World Tonight item was broadcast. As detailed by News-watch here, reporter Katie Razzall, explored at length the ethnic minority communities’ reactions in the Midlands to the referendum debate.  The only mention of the poster was at the end.  She said:

Operation Black Vote said today a third of Britain’s 4 million or so BAME voters are not actually registered. Today the organisation released this controversial poster in an attempt to encourage them to do so. Because minority voters’ apparent support of Remain could prove decisive, but only if they turn out to vote.

She thus acknowledged the controversy, showed the poster, but chose not to explore further, even though it was arguably of direct relevance.

Her approach was in line with the BBC as a whole.  They acknowledged a story and an organisation whose prime motives in devising this imagery were to purse the pro ‘diversity’, pro-immigration and pro-EU perspectives, but virtually ignored the controversy surrounding it.

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