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Europe: British Cable TV Gives Minorities Air Time

Prague, 14 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Most countries in Western Europe have experienced tremendous demographic changes in recent decades, often absorbing large immigrant populations either as a result of collapsing empires or, as in Germany's case, to fuel a post-war economic boom. As a result, the issue of multiculturalism and minorities' participation in civic life has become an important issue.

Since we live in a media age, dominated by the influence of television, the role of minorities on the air has also been subject to intense debate in these countries.

Professor Annabelle Sreberny lectures at the University of Leicester in northern England, where she focuses on the relationship between minorities and the media. Speaking this week to RFE/RL, she noted that the past few years have seen an explosion of media technology allowing minority ethnic groups in Britain to express themselves in a more public way.

Local cable TV programs run by and for ethnic Indians, Arabs, Iranians, Poles, Chinese, and Pakistanis have proliferated in Britain's major cities, as have Internet sites devoted to those communities. But Sreberny cautions that this could lead to fragmentation, rather than integration, with each group only listening to itself and not reaching a wider audience.

To guard against this, she says the BBC and major commercial channels have spent a lot of time to produce multicultural programming for general audiences, focusing on the cultures of minority communities and what they contribute to British society. Sreberny-Mohammadi:

"Within the BBC and within Channel 4, which is one of the major programming-commissioning structures of commercial television, they've set up multicultural units whose aim has been, again, to address the particular needs of minority groupings."

Actors and reporters from minority ethnic groups have also been added to mainstream shows and newscasts, so that television better reflects today's Britain. But there are pitfalls. On the one hand, presenting minorities on television just because they are minorities, invites charges of "window-dressing" and "tokenism." White Britons are seen as individuals and are not expected to speak for their ethnic affiliation, so why should an Iranian or Bangladeshi newsman? On the other hand, says Sreberny, there have been complaints from community leaders when characters from their ethnic minority have appeared on popular soap operas without any reference to their cultural heritage.

Sreberny says these reactions demonstrate the power of television and the media in general, when it comes to minorities and influencing perceptions.

"A lot of the work we've done is with minority ethnic audiences and they certainly -- almost from the word go -- can describe all the characterizations of people from their background that they see in the media. So minorities are very acutely tuned to monitoring their representation."

Ultimately, she says, a balance has to be found and what happens behind the scenes is just as important as the actors on the screen. Like the police force, which has faced recent charges of racism in Britain, discrimination will not be rooted out until minorities enter management positions, from where they will be able to influence the culture of the institution.

"It's about employment, because the argument about the police -- and it's the same argument about the media -- is that the police is not going to adequately address its institutional racism -- what looks like differential ways of dealing with white crime and crime in relation to the Black and Asian populations -- if there aren't more people from the Black and Asian populations employed in the police. And I think in the end, it's the same thing in the media. You need people from within the communities who have different experiences, who are going to press for the adequacy of representation."

These are sentiments that are equally relevant not only in other countries in Western Europe, but in Central and Eastern Europe as well.

The case of Czech television news anchorman Ondrej Gina is indicative. While he has made a breakthrough by being the first Romany (Gypsy) newscaster in his country, he is still an exception. There is also the reality that for now, he is only seen on weekends and in the daytime -- not during prime time weekday newscasts.

But Gina is a quick study and has no doubt he will get there soon. Above all, Gina does not underestimate the symbolism of his new position, nor the impact it can have on people who may then feel inspired to help change the system.

"Let me tell you something that happened to me. One time, I was driving through the [northern Czech] city of Most and decided to do some shopping. A Roma woman stopped me in the street and came up to hug me. She was crying out, 'You're our Roma anchorman! You're great! I always watch you on the news." And she added: 'At last, they're showing something about us that is nice -- not just the age-old message that Roma -- that Gypsies -- are thieves who don't want to work, that Gypsies are trash.' So that's how I perceive my role. I am here for my people and for the rest of society -- so that they start to see us as a natural part of society, not as it has been up to now."

See Czech Republic: Romany TV Broadcaster Breaks Ethnic Barrier for part one of this series.