Review: Panorama, “White Fright”

A still of a young white couple walking along the road somewhere in Blackburn. Both are wearing blue clothes, the woman in fairly tight blue jeans with a pink scarf round her neck. The man has two tubs of take-away food in his left hand.Last night a 30-minute Panorama programme was shown on BBC1 that looked at Blackburn, a town of about 140,000 in Lancashire (north-western England) where the white British majority live largely separate lives from the mostly Muslim Asian minority and the Asian population is growing and the white population decreasing. Ten years ago they broadcast another programme about so-called “white flight”, then as now appearing to view the Asian population as a “problem” and blaming them for “not integrating”. This time they focussed on pub closures, the expansion of state-funded faith schools and the increase in the numbers of women covering their faces, and show people speculating that in a few years’ time Blackburn will be a mostly Asian town, as if that is a bad thing in a country with dozens of mostly white towns to choose from. (You can watch the programme here for the next 11 months, if you’re in the UK; the original is on YouTube in three parts: [1], [2], [3].)

The programme interviews two local cab drivers, one white and one Asian, who featured in their 2007 documentary and both say that the situation of ‘segregation’ in Blackburn has got worse since then, not better. They also interview an Asian man called Gulistan Khan who in the original programme had moved his family from a mostly Asian area to a mostly white one and sent his children to a mostly-white school, but was shown complaining that his neighbours are not hostile but not very friendly to him either. Since he has moved in, many of them have moved out and Asians have moved in. A middle-aged white woman is interviewed who says she is about to move out, that the buyers are a “lovely couple” but they are also Asian and she says she has stuck it out as long as she can but does not feel comfortable living as a minority among them, and she expects Blackburn to become a “completely Muslim-Asian town”. Various whites are shown complaining about the closure of pubs in areas where Asians have moved in, simply because ‘Asians’ do not drink, and one of them has become an “Islamic centre of some sort”.

A view down a narrow street which is lined with old, small, red-brick terraced houses. Cars are parked next to them and a red Mercedes van can be seen on the other side. At the end of the street is a yellow-brick mosque with a green 'pepperpot' dome and a small minaret.After the segment on pub closures, they cut to a spicy tea shop somewhere in the Muslim district and interview the owner, who built it up over several years, but then cut to an interview with a beardless older Asian man — a former police officer — who complains about all the madrassas and Islamic schools and says they are a breeding ground for extremism. We see an interview with a man they claim was the leader of a London Underground emergency response team in London during the 2005 bombings and later joined the EDL, and he is asked if the EDL are racist, which struck me as a rather stupid question and one that is easily side-stepped because it’s not explicitly racist as such, because Islam isn’t a race and Muslims are from every ethnic group, but it is bigoted, and its leaders plead that they are against Islamic extremism but their slogans (too obscene to reproduce here, but no doubt you can hear them in any YouTube video of their demos) target Islam in general. Sculpher claimed he was against Islam’s ‘ideology’ and alleged that Muslims did not like ‘them’ because they “don’t worship Islam”, which nobody was shown pointing out to him was true of Muslims as well. He should have been asked about their record of violence as many of its members, including its former leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson, have a record of involvement in football hooliganism and other public violence.

(It would also be worth investigating Sculpher’s claims about his work in 2005, as it is claimed he was “publicly honoured” yet there are no newspaper reports that I can find from that time that mention this, only reports about him from his time with the EDL that give this as his background story.)

Images of a procession of mostly Asian men along a main road. Towards the rear they are holding a banner aloft which proclaims the "Holy march" and names their leader as "Hz Sahibzada Sufi Riaz Ahmad sb". Cars and vans are being held up behind them.They also showed footage of a march in Blackburn to mark the birthday of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and it looked a lot like a political demonstration and there was a lot of shouting of slogans. To be honest, this doesn’t give a very good image of Muslims; the event is a celebration and they should be singing, not shouting slogans through a megaphone and this has attracted criticism in the Muslim press (such as it is) in the past. One old white lady was shown saying the event is “rubbish”. They do not point out that a large section of the Muslim population would not be involved in that event and that the sloganeering is aimed at other Muslims and not non-Muslims. Their bark is worse than their bite, but this is lost on many non-Muslim observers and the programme makers play on this by claiming that the marches have got bigger since 2007, to give an impression of a threat. They need to stop barking and start singing.

In the last third of the programme they feature an Asian lady who has been running some sort of “integration class” for new arrivals, and two people are shown asking questions with an obvious foreign accent, one of them a bearded man and the other a woman with a niqaab. At the start of his segment, there is a reference to ‘immigrants’ upon which they cut to footage of the woman in niqaab walking into the room, giving an obviously misleading impression as a lot of the women wearing it in Blackburn (and elsewhere) will be British, in some cases third- or fourth-generation. The numbers of Asians migrating to this country on spousal visas has decreased dramatically because of financial criteria that make it impossible for people on the average income for that part of the country, particularly the self-employed, to bring spouses over, and the drive to stem that had been going on at least since the 2005 bombings. Various references are made to the rate of immigration but it is not acknowledged that most of that would not be working-class spousal immigration from South Asia.

A woman wearing black robes with a matching niqaab (face-covering) crossing the road, pushing a buggy with two young girls, both of South Asian appearance, walking beside her.Through all this, women were shown in niqaab to “set the mood”, i.e. give an impression of foreboding and threat, to show an unwelcome change. Not one was actually interviewed. A Muslim school was shown (and obviously a ‘proper’ school, not a storefront or house school) and discussed only in terms of contributing to ‘segregation’, a term used to mean communities living largely in separate areas rather than for its original meaning, i.e. their being forced to live apart by the state, as in the old American South or South Africa under Apartheid. Louise Casey is shown claiming that niqaab “is just difficult for us as a culture; there’s no way round it” and comparing it to a man in a balaclava, which covers much more of the face and is used as a disguise in robberies while niqaab is worn by Muslim women going about their everyday business and picking up their children from school. Whatever ‘discomfort’ people feel, it has been around in this country for 30 years, at least, and it’s still no excuse for harassment or abuse of people who are minding their own business.

Finally, the “rise of Asian Blackburn” is presented purely in terms of a threat to an old way of life which cannot possibly be a good thing; the reason why Muslims (who are assumed all to be Asian) are moving to Blackburn, if indeed they are, is not discussed; perhaps they are being priced out of other cities by wealthy house buyers? We hear of people who cannot buy in London moving to Birmingham, which may well mean that some locals cannot buy in their old neighbourhoods instead. It’s market forces and it’s illegal to refuse to sell to someone on racial grounds but as in Wales, where similar things happened when English families moved out to Welsh-speaking areas (or bought houses for use as holiday homes), locals would not take less money to sell to one of their “own kind”. But if Blackburn is going to be mostly Asian, then so what? Why shouldn’t Asians, or any other minority for that matter, have somewhere in the UK where they aren’t a minority, can feel at home, can freely dress as they like and do not have to worry about hostile stares, remarks or worse? It’s the same as white people have in almost every other town in the UK, and if there were no racists or organised violent bigots by any other name backed by a relentlessly hostile and often mendacious popular press, nobody would consider it necessary.

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