[Marxism] On the racist BBC interview of Darcus Howe

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 15 11:46:11 MDT 2011


The “Accidental Rudeness” of the British

Posted By Stabroek staff On August 15, 2011 @ 5:02 am In In The 
Diaspora | No Comments

By Melanie Newton

“… yet, sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often…
Best to say nothing at all, my dear man.”

(Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince)

We may never know the name of the person who recorded and uploaded 
an August 9 BBC television news segment, in which anchorwoman 
Fiona Armstrong interviewed the Trinidadian born journalist and 
black British community spokesperson Darcus Howe. Thanks to this 
anonymous person’s quick thinking, the full shame of Armstrong and 
the BBC is now available on Youtube for all the world to see.

Armstrong interviewed Howe – who has worked as a BBC journalist – 
at the height of the recent disturbances that swept the UK. Things 
went downhill immediately, when Armstrong introduced him as 
‘Marcus Dowe.’ After that, more or less every word Armstrong 
uttered was offensive. When Howe said he was not “shocked” by the 
riots given what was happening to “young people in this country”, 
she asked if he “condoned” the riots. She interrupted him when he 
said that the police “blew [Mark Duggan’s] head off”, 
patronizingly stating that: “we don’t know what happened to Mr. 
Duggan.” Armstrong’s vehemence was remarkable, given that the 
police admit they shot Duggan – what is in question are the 
circumstances of the shooting.

When Howe said his grandson could not count how many times the 
police had stopped and searched him, Armstrong lectured him like 
he was a naughty child, saying this was “no excuse to go out 
rioting.” A more reflective journalist might have asked Howe to 
comment on connections between the peaceful vigil outside 
Tottenham police station, allegations that police assaulted one of 
the women present, and the violence that followed. I suppose I 
shouldn’t really be surprised, given the neutral way in which the 
BBC has reported on Duggan’s arrest during a police crackdown on 
“black gun crime”, as though such a concept were even legitimate.

Howe then called events in Britain “an insurrection of the people” 
and drew parallels with Syria. Rather than ask a follow up 
question, she accused Howe of “being no stranger to riots” and 
being involved in them himself in the past. Later that day, in an 
email to the editors of one amateur online media watchdog, 
Armstrong defended her statement, saying she had been briefed 
that: “Mr Howe has in the past organised several demonstrations, 
some of which got out of control, and had once assaulted a 
policeman.” By Armstrong’s capacious definition, anyone who 
organises a public protest that goes awry is, apparently, a ‘rioter’.

Armstrong’s “no stranger to riots” comment looks even worse when 
stacked up against the facts of Howe’s life. It does appear to be 
true that Howe was once convicted of assaulting an officer who was 
trying to search him. However, in the Wikipedia age, there is no 
excuse for a BBC journalist not knowing that Howe was in fact 
acquitted of the charge of riot in the famous “Mangrove Nine” case 
of 1971. The judge in that case noted that: “there was ‘evidence 
of racial hatred on both sides’ – the first acknowledgement from a 
British judge that there was racial hatred in the Metropolitan 
Police Service.” By the end of the interview, I was impressed with 
Howe’s restraint. Armstrong should consider herself lucky that all 
Howe told her was that she sounded “idiotic” and ought to “have 
some respect for an old West Indian Negro.”

Within 24 hours, more than 1 million people had watched the video. 
On August 10, the BBC issued a carefully worded apology, admitting 
that some of Armstrong’s questions might have been “poorly 
phrased” and apologizing if anyone found the interview offensive. 
Even in the apology, however, the BBC sought to defend itself, 
observing that there were “technical issues” during the interview 
and neither Howe nor Armstrong could hear clearly what the other 
was saying. This may well be true but “technical” problems cannot 
explain Armstrong’s unprofessional line of questioning.

The rapidity with which the video went viral reflects a popular 
sense that the Armstrong-Howe exchange is somehow a microcosm of 
the social and economic crises facing Britain. Every media outlet 
seems to have an analysis of what the disturbances mean for 
Britain’s future. I feel neither competent nor called upon to 
offer an explanation. I am a historian, and my thoughts turn to 
the past as I observe how quickly the government has used this 
opportunity to adopt as right wing and punitive an agenda at it 
can without actually going so far as to advocate the abolition of 
democracy in Britain.

David Cameron doesn’t want to let “phoney human rights concerns” 
about publishing people’s pictures on the internet get in the way 
of restoring order. At the same time, he is considering 
legislation that would limit press freedom in the interest of 
getting information necessary to secure criminal convictions. In 
an example of public opinion-driven role-reversal, Labour Party 
leader Ed Milliband is warning the Conservatives not to go ahead 
with proposed budget cuts to the police force.

If the British government really wants to take this opportunity to 
roll back civil liberties, then British domestic and imperial 
history provides many fine examples of effective draconian 
measures. In his proposal to limit freedom of access to social 
networking sites, Cameron seems to be channeling William Pitt the 
Younger, British Prime Minister at the time of the French and 
Haitian Revolutions. Pitt cracked down on “correspondence 
societies” in order to stop radical popular organizing in Britain. 
But why stop there, why not go further back? If the jails are 
full, then reintroduce indentured servitude abroad as a punishment 
for crime. That certainly worked a treat during the English Civil 
War, and would greatly reduce youth unemployment in Britain.

Fiona Armstrong herself might be able to offer the government an 
instructive lesson in how to focus on lawlessness and 
irresponsibility and thereby avoid addressing a genuine need for 
democratization and social reform. Buried in Armstrong’s exchange 
with Darcus Howe is a more secret story of the British state’s 
relationship with poverty, racism, consumerism and social 
alienation. Armstrong, also known as Lady MacGregor, is the wife 
of Sir Malcolm MacGregor, 7th baronet and 24th Chief of the Clan 
Gregor. The ancestor of Armstrong’s husband, Sir Evan MacGregor, 
was Clan Chief and Governor of Barbados, Trinidad and the rest of 
the British Windward Islands at the time of emancipation in August 
1838. One hundred and fifty years ago and on different soil, the 
ancestors of the MacGregors and the Howes would have viewed each 
other across an equally great social chasm.

By all accounts Sir Evan was a crafty closet racist. He dismissed 
black West Indians’ demands that emancipation should mean the end 
of racist inequity by saying that racial discrimination had been 
abolished with emancipation. He pointed out that British common 
law did not recognize distinctions based on race, so black West 
Indians were just stirring up trouble by making allegations of 
racism against the police force, the judiciary and the colonial 
government. MacGregor was fond of telling black civil rights 
agitators that discrimination against them had nothing to do with 
colour, but class, a form of exclusion that was perfectly legal in 
the 1830s. If black West Indians, by and large, lacked the 
property and education necessary to gain them access to political 
power, then that was the fault of an unfortunate past. Slavery was 
no longer the responsibility of either MacGregor or the British 
government, which had so generously made everyone equal.

MacGregor was not himself a slave owner, but he would not have 
been made governor if he had disagreed with the British 
government’s decision to pay £20m in compensation to slave owners 
for the loss of their human property (no compensation was paid to 
slaves). Planters owed so much money to British merchants and 
financial institutions that the money just had to be paid, or 
emancipation could have spelled financial disaster. Still, in our 
own current age of the great state-funded corporate rescue 
package, I’m sure we can understand the need for such a 
stabilizing measure. MacGregor placed unprecedented numbers of men 
of colour in colonial civil service positions. All of them, to the 
last man, were appointees who had made it clear they would stop 
harping on about equality once they got a high profile position 
and a civil service salary – but that was hardly MacGregor’s fault.

Sir Evan was a military man who came to the West Indies as a 
turbulent time. He met the efforts of ex-slaves to carve out 
independent lives with the full punitive capacities of the state– 
it was during his tenure that most of the modern police forces of 
the southeastern English Caribbean were organised. These new 
police forces initially existed for no other real purpose than to 
keep former slaves at work on the estates, or put them in jail if 
they had any ludicrous notions of personal independence. MacGregor 
and his generation of West Indian colonial governors were sent out 
to ensure that former slaves, as far as possible, became legally 
free subjects who were dependent on estate wages for their 
survival. Imperial officials spoke frequently of their concern 
about black ‘laziness’ – a metaphor for the fear that black West 
Indians would rather work for themselves than for low wages on a 
sugar estate.

To combat this, ex-slaves had to learn to want things that they 
did not need – they must be encouraged to equate civilization with 
owning what could only be bought from Britain, and paid for with 
wages earned from estate labour. Had cell phones and Burberry 
suits existed in 1838, any ex-slave who did not want them might 
have run the risk of being seen as “regressing into savagery” and 
resisting the “civilizing force” of consumption and the market. 
And yet, ex-slaves who showed a disposition to dress up in 
“finery” were punished for reaching “above their station”.

MacGregor died in Barbados in 1841, just three years after the 
arrival of legal freedom in Trinidad and elsewhere. By then, it 
was already clear that most of the radical democratic 
possibilities of slave emancipation would go unrealized. This was 
thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of men like MacGregor, 
British men dedicated to making sure slave emancipation, one of 
the most important civil rights measures in modern human history, 
should not overturn the social, economic or political order. So, 
if Fiona Armstrong insulted Darcus Howe, she really can’t be 
blamed, since history was really only re-enacting itself in some 
small way through her.

By this point, I imagine some readers are quite outraged: educated 
Britons tend to get upset when anyone negatively invokes Britain’s 
imperial past as a lens for thinking about its current social 
issues. These days, some British historians are fond of talking 
nostalgically about empire as a time when the world was a much 
saner and safer place. The BBC often interviews such people, 
lending legitimacy to their views. I fear that it would be a waste 
of time that BBC journalists should respond to this crisis by 
learning something about colonial history. At the very least, the 
moment calls for some reflection on the Harry Potter quote at the 
beginning of this piece, if the BBC cares to understand why their 
apology rings hollow.

Yet Armstrong’s rudeness is no more accidental than the rapidity 
with which voices have come to the fore attributing the recent 
criminality to the ‘blackening’ of British culture. These are 
echoes of those who, not long after emancipation, viewed abolition 
as a failure because of widespread social unrest across the West 
Indies. The Armstrong Howe exchange and the current crisis in 
Britain have at least something to do with Britain’s failure to 
acknowledge how profoundly racism and empire have poisoned the 
country’s public life. Racist language, couched as state 
militarism and punishment, remains a constant reservoir of 
possibility, always available when British elites do not want to 
have a real discussion about their social problems. Few British 
elites, in our own age or in any other, want to admit that, 
historically, states do tend to get the forms of criminality that 
they deserve.

To see the Howe-Armstrong interview, go to: 

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