- Ronnie Sade
How are Gangs Portrayed in the UK Media?
The UK media as a concept has two important branches - mass media and the entertainment industry. Both elements play an important role in shaping the discourse and narratives that the British public consumes, absorbs and perpetuates.
In the news, a pattern exists whereby black people and people of colour are overrepresented as instigators of violent crime, more so than any other social group. In recent decades, the term “gang” and any euphemisms that accompany it such as “urban” and “young black men” have gained popularity in the media to spark both interest and fear amongst the British public towards BAME communities, thus creating what is often identified as a ‘suitable public enemy’.
In the British entertainment industry, stories and depictions of communities burdened by gang life, culture, and crime are gaining increasing popularity in films and TV shows. However, what sparks an important conversation is the industry’s tendency to perpetuate the conflation of the complexities of gang life and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities with notions of young, black criminality and violence.
These two branches of mainstream media share an important role in disproportionately portraying black criminality and gang life in the United Kingdom and highlight an important conversation that should be held regarding the impact the media has on the trajectory of race relations and societal change in the United Kingdom.
It’s important to state that we recognise the gravity of this topic and that this article covers a vitally important, yet hugely challenging systemic issue. This article thus aims to relay what we have noticed, learned and researched. However, because we would like to represent all communities, should we miss some things, please let us know by getting in contact with us via email or in the comments as we only want to keep learning and growing.
Fear-mongering and racial bias in the news
In his research on the relationship between black criminality and the media, Clive Nwonka, a Visiting Fellow in Race, Culture and Inequality at the International Inequalities Institute states that “the media construction of the UK’s black youths as a social problem was strategic and powerful, creating a normalised “common sense” relationship between black youths and criminality”.
Knife crime in the United Kingdom has seen a dramatic surge since the early 2000s and has revived narratives that disproportionately portray black communities as the epicentre of the crisis causing a rise in black alienation amongst the public. Terms such as “black on black” and “postcode shootings” have been constructed and circulated in mass media discourse to describe and discuss the territorial conflict between London youth from particular areas. This has greatly contributed to the misrepresentative narrative of black criminality by the media and to this self-fulfilling prophecy of black violence and crime.
"narratives disproportionately portray black communities as the epicentre of the knife crime crisis in the UK"
A 2003 article written by Tony Thompson offers an important example of this tendency amongst the media to associate black youth with crime and violence. His article, titled Without a Gun, You’re Dead, sensationalises the origins of gangs in the United Kingdom and discusses the influence of the ‘original Yardies’ - a term used in the UK to refer to Jamaican gangs or organised crime - on current crime rates in the UK, concluding that they are being “challenged by gangs of British-born black people who have proved themselves to be capable of just as much violence”.
Jamaican-born Stuart Hall comments on representations of black people in the media and states: “The mass media play a crucial role in defining the problems and issues of public concern. They are the main channels of public discourse in our segregated society”.
Headlines such as They'll shoot anyone - even the police, Homegrown gangs shoot to power on our violent streets or even Gun crime spreads ‘like a cancer’ across Britain serve to overemphasise and facilitate this general culture of fear towards black, young, working-class youth in the UK, particularly men. A further tendency persists, whereby mass media and official police discourse have a pattern of automatically identifying urban crime as gang-related.
The entertainment industry
Representations of black criminality in film and television play an important part in facilitating this discursive culture of black crime and what has been identified as a ‘particular modality of racialised moral hysteria’. The rising popularity of the urban crime story inspired an array of British filmmakers to incorporate notions of black crime into TV and introduced a novel contemporary genre into the British entertainment industry - black urban crime drama.
Case study: Top Boy
The recent rise of multicultural television series has played a fundamental role in further depicting black communities in a certain way. This is best seen in the tendency to focus on notions of black disadvantage, characterised by criminality, socioeconomic stagnation and drug trading. An important contributor to this controversy is the 2011 show Top Boy.
Since airing, the show has been praised for its representation of stories that for the most part, are only communicated to the masses through sensationalist and agenda-based headlines in the news and statistical research. Demonstrating how and why gang crime in the UK shapes the lives of those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged provided an avenue for the public to sympathise with and listen to the struggles of those who face the realities of Top Boy’s storylines.
Despite this, some have argued that the Channel 4 series feeds into the narratives that mainstream media proposes as being inherent to black working-class lives. Consequences author Emeka Egbuonu who grew up in Hackney, comments on the show and shares - “there’s a lot of playing into stereotypes. It’s a drama, not a documentary, so it’s going to happen but I don’t like the glorification of gangs, that worries me.”. Another public figure, London Hughes, states that Top Boy’s return to TV only serves to perpetuate negative black stereotypes.
However, since reviving in 2019, the conversation about the impact of the show and race relations in the UK has taken an important turn. Actor Ashley Walters, who plays Dushane comments on the educational value of the show, highlighting its authentic nature and states, “We're not doing things for glorification value or whatever. It's what people go through”. Writer and producer Tobi Kyseremateng takes this conversation further and criticises the overwhelming focus on criticising black creators and artists as opposed to the systemic structures that facilitate such realities depicted in the first place. She states, “ideas around ‘challenging stereotypes’ pander to the same white viewership that criminalises black communities” and continues, “the desire to represent the multifaceted, non-monolithic faces of blackness cannot come from a place of attempting to appease whiteness”.
Thus, in an era where youth violence amongst people of colour is highly publicised in mass media, Top Boy has become one of the more important platforms for those who experience the realities of the show’s storylines to be heard and contribute towards a wider understanding that gang violence, drug abuse and socioeconomic marginalisation in the UK is fundamentally systemic.
This dichotomy between accuracy versus sensationalism, therefore, raises important questions about how we as a society are able to balance showing the truth and representing communities who deserve a voice whilst avoiding building upon destructive stereotypes.
Drill - cause or effect?
Another important and relevant element to this conversation is drill music, and the role it arguably plays in glorifying and promoting gang membership and a life of crime and violence in the United Kingdom.
Finding its origins in the early 2000s and 2010s, drill music can be understood as a “darker sub-genre of ‘trap’ music - which itself was a sub-genre of US hip hop”. In the United Kingdom, drill music initially gained traction in the south London borough of Lambeth through independent uploads on YouTube from artists who either belong to or claim to belong to gangs such as Uptop, 150 and 67. Recognised as an American cultural import, drill music quickly became very popular amongst London’s BAME youth communities in the mid-late 2010s.
In recent years, however, there have been increasing controversies and concerns over the impact drill has on perpetuating violence through their lyrical imagery of gang crime and violence. It is often claimed that drill music is related to and refers to specific individuals and groups which can later spark violent social disruptions and conflict between gangs, violent groups, or even unaffiliated civilians.
In 2018, London’s policy commissioner claimed that drill music is a leading cause of the rising instances of knife crime in the UK’s capital and requested that social media platforms refrain from publicising it. In response to this, the video-sharing platform YouTube removed upwards of 30 videos associated with drill music.
So, what really comes first?
This discussion raises important and controversial questions regarding the relationship between violence and culture. Whilst there have been instances whereby drill music produced and released by London gangs corresponds with violence, the question really pertains to cause and effect, and whether or not drawing a direct and exclusive correlation between violence and music distracts from the deeper, more structural causes of violence. Does drill music directly instigate violent crime? What are the racial implications of the crackdown on drill music?
A report carried out by Policy Exchange has made numerous controversial claims about a series of ‘gang-related’ murders committed between 2018 and 2019, strongly implying that drill music is the primary cause, if not an important contributor to this violence. However, it has been difficult to identify direct empirical evidence to support these conclusions, and the report fails to clarify the exact connections that lead to the apparent relationship between drill music and homicides. It also neglects to clarify the mechanisms used to come to such conclusions. This narrative has also gained traction in mainstream media, particularly with more sensationalist outlets publishing articles such as A Quarter of London Gang Murders are Linked to Violent “Drill” Rap Music that Glamourises Violence, Study Shows (Daily Mail). Similarly, and one Sunday Times article which states that Murders and stabbings plaguing London and other cities are directly linked to an ultra-violent new form of music sweeping Britain and proceeds to disclose a number of violent incidents allegedly having been directly caused by drill music.
Once again, this draws attention to the important role mainstream media plays in perpetuating narratives and assumptions about gang life in the United Kingdom and thus, portrayals of black criminality too. Joe Caluori and Patrick Olajide suggest that the overarching hostility towards drill music in mainstream media stems from a certain level of ‘moral panic’ associated with media created and consumed by black people in the United Kingdom, often resulting in a heightened sense of scrutiny towards black artists. Caluori and Olajide draw attention to how this is even the case when gang life or violence is not mentioned by black artists. For example, artist Dave’s performance of Black (a song discussing themes of social and racial inequality) at the 2020 Brits received an incredible amount of backlash, as the rapper was accused of heightening racial divisions and was on the receiving end of over 300 official complaints to Ofcom.
That being said, it is still important to acknowledge that some drill music may in fact have an important correlation to violence when it is used as a mechanism to intimidate, humiliate or threaten. However, because of this, it is imperative that the conversation surrounding the impact of drill music does not fall victim to racialised reductionism - drill’s propensity for violence is an issue pertinent to the genre and not the UK’s BAME communities and should not be used as a social mechanism to further marginalise, vilify and misrepresent communities in the UK.
"Targeting musicians is a distraction"
Additional important elements to consider when discussing the impact of drill on portrayals of black criminality and gang life in the media are youth culture in the UK and the role of mass media consumption. In response to questions surrounding the impact of Drill on violence, rapper Abra Cadabra states: “Targeting musicians is a distraction.” He continues, “the cuts that affect schools, youth clubs, social housing, and benefits, are making life harder for the average person living on or below the poverty line in this city. There are people doing mad things, not because they want to, but because the situation has forced them to.”
The realities and impacts: over-policed and under-protected
When evaluating the causes and effects of crime and gang activity in the United Kingdom and how this relates to representations of black criminality, it is important to take broader social issues into consideration as well, such as socioeconomic inequality, poor housing, and a lack of education - all facets of social inequality in British society that are fundamentally tied to the realities and impacts of structural racism within the UK.
Racial discrimination and the use of excessive force against black citizens in the UK is a particularly important issue that seems to have become normalised and justified by the narrative that being black and being violent are interdependent. In an interview conducted between Owen Jones and British rapper Alaka, Akala explains how mass media is a lot more forgiving of white violence and crime with justifications for their actions always provided, indicating that white people are first and foremost redeemable. However, public perceptions of violence amongst black people are not given nearly as much slack, as their blackness becomes a reason for their violence.
Falling directly in line with this, Lucas Murrain points out that despite the fact that white people are responsible for most violent crimes in the United Kingdom, this narrative of black-on-black violence is increasingly being used by the news media as a mechanism to vilify black communities. It also forces black communities to become increasingly accepting of invasive and punitive policing strategies such as the UK government’s “beating crime plan” which encourages the unjust deployment of stop and search and as a result, an increase in racial profiling and the perpetuation of black criminality both amongst government institutions and British society. The outcome of this stigmatisation is that mainstream media culture facilitates the narrative that gun crime and violence particularly stems from within the UK’s black communities, understood by the public as a problem created between black people, within black society and thus must be ‘contained’ as such.
Interestingly, police and government publications and reports do not reflect these realities, as statistics and figures released by such entities discuss the relevance of hate crime and institutional racism exclusively within the context of its decline.
This only goes to show that the British government has no interest in addressing its institutionalised racism and the media is merely another one of its tools used to further subjugate and marginalise black/BAME communities.
What can be done about this?
Black press, representations and publications offer a different point of view, pose counterarguments, and can agitate and hold people accountable. By hearing and uplifting the voices of marginalised communities, we are able to reflect on the elements and characteristics of these communities which are overlooked and misrepresented in mainstream media. Lester Holloway, founder of The Voice, the only British national black newspaper emphasises this and states, “There’s absolutely a need for the black press because it’s an unfiltered voice”.
“We all know what systemic racism looks like because we experience it on a regular basis. So the approach has to be more than a conveyor belt of bad news. It has to be moving things forward. In terms of the role of the Voice, it’s about agitation, it’s about accountability, and holding politicians’ feet to the fire. But it’s also about sending messages about the key demands and trying to get some wins for the community as a whole. And I think that is really the tradition of the black media”. - Lester Holloway
The United Kingdom has a lot of work to do. These cultural narratives of black criminality and violence are a symptom of the racism that is embedded into the fabric of British society, politics and history. If you want to know more about systemic racism, where it comes from and what we can do about it, check out our guide here.
Edited by Abbie Harby