Recently the BBC decided to publish an article about transitioning from the “street” to “business”. When I stumbled across it I was shocked by the choice of picture, then by a terrible meme. It would be easy to get lost in my outrage as I often do, but there is a bigger point. It is about how the media choose to frame stories.
While I had originally been offended by the poor choice of pictures, I now was angry at how the story had become warped. Not through the content of the article, but through playing to preconceptions.
They had opted to use pictures of actors and use the same picture to create a meme. Not because they did not have pictures available of the subjects, they did. Because their pictures clearly didn’t convey the correct message, that these men had been ‘cured’.
Is it relatable?
I was pushed over the edge by a thumbnail. I can’t think anybody uses the BBC website for news, but I’d been lured onto it. I was busy laughing at the “discovery” of a “lost castle” on “castle road”, behind “castle house” no less. I chuckled. In hindsight I may have been engaging in the very stereotyping I lament. Was this funnier because it was in Ireland? Because Irish people are stupid and didn’t think to look where a rational person would?
I didn’t have much time to chastise myself before I was drawn to the thumbnail. It was a picture divided down the middle. On the left a young, Black man in a baseball cap. On the right was an older, lighter skinned man. He was wearing glasses, a long coat, a hat and sipping what I assume is a trendy coffee.
The title? “The legal hustle: Taking street skills into the boardroom”. I’m not sure why I clicked it. I have no reason to think the BBC could educate me in either area. But inside I found what was a clear guide, in the form of a meme no less. It casually explained “street” terms in “business” language.
The intellectual snobbery was unbearable. Not only unbearable, but completely wrong. The day I treat a manager the same way I’d treat my “right hand man” is the day I collect my P45. The wonderful meme had all sorts of helpful tips. For instance, the “Street way” is to be a “supplier of drugs”. But did you realise that that transferred into the business world?
If we follow the “Business way” we realise that same individual is actually a “supplier of products and services”. Got a “crew”? Perfect! In business we call that a “team”. While you may be worrying about prison, it is always important to think how that relates to a ‘real world’ model. You could go bankrupt.
If you feel they skimmed over the financial side do not to worry. On the street you are “making/losing money”, but to help get your head around the boardroom they have a translation. In business you deal with “profit/loss”.
I already feel empowered. Where do I apply for a job at JP Morgan?
Does it have the ‘feel good’ factor?
The article was a refreshing story. From one angle. It told the story of Clayton Parker who started his own business, Street 2 Boardroom. His experience of trying to make it in the business world had inspired him to help others, but he doesn’t have a criminal background. He had suffered “ignorance, institutionalised racism and fear” – the BBC felt they should highlight this was “what he believes”.
It also detailed the story of two young men from Bristol. Neither of these two men are referred to as having drug offences. Neither refer to their “crew”, nor how they used to “supply drugs” and now “supply products and services”. Their story is inspirational, but lost behind stereotypes and bigotry.
“There’s a need for music managers in Bristol, most rappers are from the street and that’s what they rap about. Most don’t have the knowledge of networking and management. Street 2 Boardroom taught me about jargon language, digital marketing and gave me connections for what I need to do. Life is what you make it – the higher the risk the higher the reward.”
Liam Sherrell should be allowed to serve as an example, his words and picture speak far louder than a ‘before and after’ meme.
Considering your audience
When writing, a consideration of your audience is important. Who is this going to interest? Who will it benefit? Will it offend anyone? Anyone who reads my articles will remember not too long ago I discussed BAME issues; specifically I said I wouldn’t be writing about them anymore. Not because they don’t matter, but because the people I need to reach won’t read it.
The people that persevere, read unpleasant things. The reaction was as expected. Some completely disagreed or stopped reading halfway through. But I also had touching responses that gave me hope. I had people who hadn’t been affected by the issues, but felt the emotion in my writing.
They saw that it was something I was passionate about, but could see I didn’t feel I had an audience. They didn’t dismiss me, they listened. And that was all it took. I knew them to be my comrades.
Not because I’d watered down my tone or content, but because I didn’t. I hadn’t tried to make it palatable for as many people as possible, and it didn’t matter. Solidarity is not universal agreement, it is standing together on an issue. Not because it directly affects you, but because you recognise it affects others.
Clayton Parker’s real message
There is a twisted irony to how the BBC story was eventually framed. The thumbnail, the meme, the captions – their origin is irrelevant. It is that they were allowed to frame the story. Before I knew of Parker, I’d been given clue about how to make the transition from the street way to the business way.
The thumbnail made it clear. There is a difference between “hustling” on the street and in business. But nothing about gaining skills, or connections as Sherrell stated. It was about how I looked and dressed. It was about whether I spent my free time at coffee shops or standing outside, perhaps near a wall. I was given a very clear visual demonstration of how I should look to be considered business-ready.
I was saddened when reading the article. I was saddened because they had obliterated what Parker really had to say. Contrary to the subtext, his message was explicit.
“stop employing yourselves, people who look like you, people in your own image”
That isn’t a style guide, it isn’t a street-to-business dictionary, it isn’t even a message to people who his program is designed to help. It’s a message to employers, it’s a message to those with power, it’s a call to stop discriminating based on appearance.
Who was the target of this article? Was it meant to reach out to people who currently hustle on the streets, but would prefer the boardroom? Or was it aimed at people in the boardroom to try and promote social change? Whoever it aims for, it misses. Catastrophically.
Seeing is believing
The unbelievable aspect is why they chose to drain all meaning from the story. They had all the pieces. They have an interview with Sherrell. They have his picture, along with Collins Suleadu who also completed the program. They have quotes, video and pictures of Parker. So at what stage did somebody feel that in order to ‘sell’ this story they would need actors and memes?
It should be obvious to anyone that sees Sherrell and Suleadu pictured in the article. They look far more ready for the “street way” than the “business way”. But these concepts are not something that exist outside of this article and it’s imagery.
The power of Parker’s message, Sherrell’s comments and the success of the program is in the fact they haven’t changed. It is in the fact they don’t look like the East London, cereal cafe attending, hipsters. They look much as they did before. Like two young men.
But since the skills they gained aren’t visually obvious, why not throw in some images that entrench stereotypes? Why not heavily imply these two young men were or possibly still are drug dealers, despite offering no claims that is the case?
The word “drugs” is mentioned three times. Once in the meme, and twice as an ‘example’. An example of any of the individuals? Not explicitly. But you know their sort.
Am I supposed to find this inspirational?
The real issue here is the narrative. Two young, working class men of colour, in an article discussing drugs and criminality. The placing of the two “ways” one may present themselves. The fact that they don’t present themselves in the ‘proper’ way. These all fuel the ugliest of stereotypes, but they fit a narrative.
Gang affiliated, common, urban, undeserving poor, street or the lumpenproletariat, take your pick. This is they. They have found help, and now they will be ok. Just make sure not to focus on the men or their appearance too much.
This is not new ground for the BBC. They have a habit of denigrating those who don’t fit into their predefined boxes. I remember watching Barbara Ntumy on Newsnight. She was debating Rod Liddle, who had been given an entire segment outside of the studio to ‘demonstrate’ his claims. Ntumy was extended no such courtesy. Instead upon answering her opening question, Kirsty Wark attempted to rebuke her with the words of Owen Jones. It is no secret that I am not a fan of Jones’ work, but that is not the issue. The issue is why Ntumy should be asked to effectively debate two established, white, male journalists. The issue is why she was not given a vignette to make her case. The issue is the lack of respect she was shown. The issue is the framing.
Britain struggles with articulate and bright individuals like Ntumy. She doesn’t fit into one of the boxes they might like her to. She is able to express herself and counter redundant arguments. But there is a narrative and stereotype we all know, the “angry black woman”. Usually portrayed as aggressive, but with no substance, Ntumy responded to every point in detail. Well, as much as she was allowed. Both Wark and Liddle (especially the latter) did their best to portray her as unreasonable. As a person who could not engage in serious debate, that needed to shout down her opponent. Anybody who listened to what she had to say would not have heard that, but those unable to see past entrenched stereotypes are likely to have missed something.
The thing that they missed was the Ntumy speaks for me far more than Jones ever has. Not because she fits some definition of street which the BBC have. Not because she isn’t white and not because she’s a member of Momentum. It’s because she doesn’t fit into their boxes. It’s because she went on Newsnight and didn’t bow to the pressure to become subservient to ‘authorities’. It’s because she spoke with a passion and purpose that paid no undue respect to her interlocutors.
She is not alone. I could write a long list of people the BBC has disrespected. When Bonnie Greer appeared on Question Time, she was continuously cut short by David Dimbleby. While other candidates were allowed space to construct their argument, Greer was shot down. Her expertise was not sufficient to allow her to speak for an extended period. She was going off topic, she couldn’t possibly be given as much time as Jack Straw. Or even Nick Griffin, sat to her right.
We have our own voices and inspirations
It is not that on the street people do not have a voice, it is that it isn’t listened to. It is not that inspirational figures such as Akala cannot argue their case, it is that they are not given time. It is not that Lowkey’s views on Palestine are any less robust, but that Jones’ do not lead to his house being raided. They don’t lead to him shunning the spotlight from which he can inspire, to focus on his studies. But once again, these are rappers. They aren’t serious.
My journey from street to newsroom began on 2 August, when I published my first piece on Medium. Since then I’ve been encouraged, helped and inspired by many people. None of my experiences have changed my penchant for Nike Air Force Ones or Grime music. They haven’t made me embrace a life of chinos and boat shoes. Nobody expected those aspects of me to change.
But from the BBC article, I know something. I know I won’t be ‘finished’ until I’m sipping an overpriced coffee and reading the Financial Times. I know that because they help to perpetuate these stereotypes, rather than praising genuine achievement. I know that because I’m ‘street’ and have no intention of changing. But I also know that means I will always have to fight to prove my value because I’m not wearing the right shoes.
But then again, maybe the BBC should take this as a guide. From the street to the newsroom. On how to produce relevant content.