When the media make a difference: Comparing two European race crimes

07 December 1999

Beata Klimkiewicz1

Our sense of who we are, how we are perceived by ourselves and by others, and how we perceive others in relation to ourselves, within the framework of the public sphere in general, stems at least in part from meaning provided by the media. Media can bring about changes in public consciousness, especially in sensitive areas such as the role of race and ethnicity in society. Below, I compare the case of Stephen Lawrence and its representation by the British media, with the case of the pogrom against the Romani community in Mława, Poland and the portrayal of that violent event by the Polish media. Both events possessed elements of high drama and were symbolically laden. Both achieved high visibility in the media and engaged large audiences. But only one of them brought about a change in policy.

The killing of Stephen Lawrence: media in the role of the jury

On April 22, 1993, Mr Stephen Lawrence, a Black student, was stabbed to death at a bus stop in Etham, south-east London, after being ambushed by a gang of five white males. Three months later, the Crown Prosecution Service stopped prosecution due to insufficient evidence. In April 1994, private prosecution was launched by Mr Lawrence's parents. The case collapsed in April 1996 after a judge ruled that the evidence of Duwayne Brooks, a friend of Stephen's and the only witness to the murder, was inadmissible. In February 1997, an inquest reopened at Southwark Coroner's Court. A jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing on February 13, 1997, but no persons were convicted or sentenced. Thus, the verdict of unlawful killing "in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths" brought weak compensation to Mr Lawrence's parents, instead of the justice they sought.

A day later, the killing and the legal proceedings associated with it became a media event. The tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail accused five white youths of the murder on its front page, and challenged them to take libel action if this were not true. Five pictures of white men ran with the caption: "The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us." Indeed, it is rare practice in reporting (and also violates journalistic ethics), to accuse persons of killing after a court has failed to do so. Many newspapers criticised the Mail on various grounds: The Observer harped on a "previous traditional distaste for Black causes2", The Times identified a "low-risk strategy", arguing that the likelihood of the accused men being able to mount an action for libel was remote3, while The Independent jibed that the not-usually-socially-engaged Mail was "metamorphosing - abracadabra4".

Nevertheless, after the dramatic front page assertion of the five men's guilt by The Mail, media intensified their struggle for justice in the Stephen Lawrence case and high levels of political mobilisation and involvement ensued: the media event became a political event. Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw promised publicly that he would consider whether to back an inquiry into the case once the Labour Party was elected. Later, as Home Secretary, he met the parents of Stephen Lawrence and called inquiry into the Lawrence killing. The Daily Mail itself ran twice the number of stories about Stephen Lawrence than about the Archbishop of Canterbury, pop-star Robbie Williams or most members of the government. The Stephen Lawrence Case became a turning point in the relationship between Black people, the media, politicians and white middle class England. The struggle of Stephen's parents for justice became a symbolic struggle of Black people and other ethnic communities in Britain to set an identity politics agenda.

The inquiry, accompanied by extensive media coverage, finally resulted in the so-called Macpherson Report, published by the government in February 1999, six years after Stephen Lawrence's murder. The report concluded that the investigation had been fundamentally flawed and marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers. It recommended to the government several measures to combat racism and provided a specific definition for institutional racism, which it described as: "The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people." This definition touched a crucial point: not only the guilty killers were responsible for racial crime, but also authorities acting out of racial animus. The report and media focused especially on the police in finding racism embedded in institutions.

Home Secretary Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair again met with Stephen's parents, in private at Downing Street, and Home Secretary Straw then made a widely publicised speech in Parliament, in which he stated, "The very process of the inquiry has opened all our eyes to what it is like to be Black or Asian in Britain today. And the inquiry process has revealed some fundamental truths about the nature of our society. Some truths are uncomfortable. But we have to confront them." Home Secretary Straw stated that the government accepted the definition of institutional racism set out in the Macpherson Report, and promised to reform every public institution, since he acknowledged the existence of such racism not only in police, but in many organisations of British public life. Potentially the most far-reaching of the measures announced by the Home Secretary was the extension of the Race Relations Act to the police force and other public services, including the civil service, immigration service and the National Health Service. The practical implications of such an extension will allow the Commission for Racial Equality5 to begin its own inquiries into deaths in custody, discriminatory use of "stop and search" by the police, or stations suspected of harbouring racist officers. Also, the Home Secretary set higher targets for the recruitment, retention and promotion of ethnic minority officers for all police services. He also referred to the Law Commission the Macpherson's proposal that the Court of Appeal should be given power to permit prosecution after acquittal where fresh and viable evidence is presented.

Changes proposed by the government were accompanied by a flurry of media activity. The Guardian published a special edition with an additional thirteen pages quoting from and analysing the Macpherson Report. In addition, journalists called for establishing race and ethnicity sensitive policies related to employment and consideration of minority group interests as they relate to accuracy of group representation. Peter Preston, editorial director of the Guardian Group6 wrote in the article entitled "In our own backyard": "Time to be brutally honest. Whenever charges of institutional racism start flying around, editors of national newspapers tend to study their boots or glance over their shoulders7." Garry Younge, a Black editor, wrote on the need to provide opportunities to integrate more ethnic minority journalists into the national media and he compared figures of ethnic minority journalists employed in London-based national papers, showing minority underrepresentation8. Thus, media organisations ultimately noted that media policy, not only the images they offer, may be as important as government policies in challenging racial prejudice and negative stereotypes.

The pogrom in Mława, Poland: no media influence on justice

On June 23, 1991, in the Polish town of Mawa a teenage Romani youth named Roman Packowski ran over two young pedestrians. Mr Jaroslaw Pinczewski, one of the victims, died two weeks after the accident, and Ms Katarzyna Zakrzewska suffered permanent physical incapacitation as a result. The local radio immediately reported that the driver fled the scene of the accident. Two days later, a group of approximately sixty youths attacked the Roma of Mława. The retributive attacks began with the destruction of the house of local Romani leader Mr Wojciech Packowski. The group of attackers quickly grew to one hundred. Even though many Romani families succeeded in escaping and seeking protection at the local police station, some of the Roma were seriously injured, and some of their houses were burnt. Thousands of inhabitants of Mława watched the attacks without intervening. The pogrom, which started on July 26, 1991, lasted five days, despite police reinforcements from other towns.

The local press reported that the reason for the pogrom was the fact that the driver had fled the scene and was still at large thanks to bribes paid by his parents to the police and public prosecutor. In fact, it later came to light that the driver's father had taken his son to the police, nobody bribed the prosecutor, and the driver fled the scene of the accident only after people who witnessed the scene indicated that they wanted to "administer justice" there and then. The local media not only rationalised the racist attack by Mława locals by using false or incomplete information, but they also took part in heightening the intensity of the conflict itself.

The national media dedicated attention to the case, but only one national daily - Gazeta Wyborcza - devoted space comparable to the British media's coverage of the Stephen Lawrence Case. Gazeta Wyborcza also gave the event the name "Pogrom on Gypsies in Mława9" and used socio-psychological description to explain the racism of local community. Gazeta Wyborcza also noted a local envy based on economic grounds -wealth in the Mława Romani community. The tragic accident caused by a young Rom, in the description of Gazeta Wyborcza, had been a signal, an ideal moment for "revenge" by the poorer inhabitants of the town. The journalists of Gazeta Wyborcza also pointed out social phenomena such as the fact that locals in Mława came with their families to gape at the pogrom and the effects afterwards, noting that the police failed to keep guard and adequately protect the property of the Mława Roma.

Gazeta Wyborcza was the only paper to advocate public action against racism and ethnic hatred and was also the only paper which dared openly to criticise the police. In an editorial on July 1, 199110, Adam Michnik, a famous Polish dissident, human rights activist and editor-in-chief of the daily, wrote that he considered that everybody who ignored the fact of pogrom - everyone who was silent - shared the shame of it. He also apologised to the Polish Romani community in the name of all Poles and he appealed to the churches, the government and the president to follow his condemnation. As a result, some political parties and academic institutions condemned the pogrom in Mława, but no actions were taken from the side of the government or president to change legislation or to ensure implementation of existing legislation to fight racism.

Thus, lack of political action reflected lack of justice to be served: only four persons were detained by the police after the first day of the pogrom, and another fourteen were taken into custody four days later. All of them were accused of disturbing public order, not of conducting racial attack against the Romani community. One year later, some of the persons were sentenced to six months of imprisonment. In fact, the media themselves focused more on condemning the event than on advocating practices that could have protected the Mława Roma, bring justice to the victims, or prevent future pogroms. Only Gazeta Wyborcza criticised the police for acting too late and deploying too few officers to protect effectively the Mława Romani community11.

Other national newspapers and television stations tended to situate the pogrom within a framework of intolerance in general. In the weeklies Polityka12 and Wprost, journalists asked sociologists to explain to their readers the richness and values of Romani culture. The daily Rzeczpospolita published the results of opinion polls showing that the biggest ethnic aversion of the Poles is directed against Roma13. Sadly, media coverage of the pogrom in Mława did not result in minority policy change in the way it did in Britain following the Daily Mail efforts at publicizing the injustice in the Stephen Lawrence Case. Media coverage and surrounding public discussion did not end in the reform of public institutions or government practice, nor did the government propose such changes in Poland. The only achievement was attained by the Romani community itself; a heightened self-awareness within the Polish Romani community after the pogrom in Mława resulted in the establishment of several non-governmental organisations. The Association of Roma People in Poland was founded in 1992 by Dr Andrzej Mirga and Mr Roman Kwiatkowski in Oświęcim. Later the same year, the Romani community of Kielce founded the Association of Roma National Minority 'Solidarność'. Both organisations emerged as a result of collective fears of racist attacks and recognition of the need to struggle for justice, ignored by politicians.

Six years after the Mława pogrom, the weekly Wprost14 published the results of a survey comparing attitudes of the Poles towards Roma people. These had not changed much since the violent events of 1991. The Romani community still "leads" as the group most disliked by Poles.

Conclusion: towards a minority-aware media

Why were the effects of the two cases on the public, the media and government so different? Why did the Stephen Lawrence case bring about a range of reforms as well as public introspection in the United Kingdom, while the pogrom against the Roma of Mława had no similar effect in Poland?

The media were certainly not the only factor at work to create the different results in Britain and Poland. First of all, the ground in Britain had been prepared over a longer period of time: anti-racism NGOs have been at work longer, public debate on the role of race was not stifled in the same way as it was in Poland under communism. The British Black community has also achieved a certain level of political participation; there are a number of Black MPs in the British Parliament, while there are no Roma in the Polish Parliament. Also, the pogrom in Mława happened shortly after the big changes of 1989, and public opinion in Poland and the media were preoccupied by the large number of political reforms ahead. Sadly, in these circumstances, the problem of racism did not receive the same attention in the public sphere as it did in Britain.

In both cases, however, the role of media activity - or the lack thereof - was significant. First, the British media made an effort to address discrimination in public institutions such as the police, the judicial system, etc. Journalists and editors saw responsibility for racism not only in the acts of racist murderers themselves, but in an institutional racism which deprived the victims of justice. The Polish media failed to raise such aspects of the case. They focused on the acts of young hooligans only, not on the police and the justice system. They saw responsibility for the pogrom in the attitudes of the whole Polish society - i.e., in an unidentifiable and anonymous group of people.

Second, the British media demanded that the government and those public institutions responsible for institutional racism take legal action against discrimination. Journalists and editors urged authorities to search for practical solutions: establishing a commission looking for racist behaviour inside the institutions, condemning those acts by the government and political parties, calling on politicians to meet with victims. In Poland, editors only appealed to politicians and leaders to condemn the pogrom before the public.

Third, media coverage of the murder of Stephen Lawrence became a long-lasting media event, one that functioned as a form of social pedagogy. Once engaged in administering justice, the media also introduced new codes for the social order: public institutions may be condemned and accused of racism just as individuals can. But while in Britain media were preoccupied with the Stephen Lawrence case with varying intensity for six years until change of the race relations policy was proposed by the government, in Poland the Mława pogrom captured the attention of the media for only two or three months.

In light of the analysis above, we may make some general suggestions that may help the media to make a difference when reporting discrimination or racist attacks against the Romani community. First of all, media should not only criticise racism in society, but demand full prosecution of persons involved in racist crimes, as well as call for legal reforms as necessary. Also, an increase in minority participation in the media at all levels - including ownership of media organisations and employment of minority journalists - should be promoted; the quality of media coverage of race and ethnic relations, and thus also representation of minorities in the public sphere, is significantly influenced by the participation of members of minority groups in important creative and decision-making capacities. Misrepresentation of Roma, as well as the absence of Romani minorities from the media of Eastern and Central Europe, has contributed definitively to the exclusion of Roma from the larger society, and has sharply defined how Roma perceive themselves and how others perceive Roma. To end with Oscar Gandy's observation: a communicator is more likely to be able to faithfully reproduce or represent experiences and perspectives with which she has had direct and substantial experience15.


  1. Beata Klimkiewicz teaches at the International School of Journalism at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, and co-operates with the Polish National Television. In 1999, she has been an international policy fellow at the Open Society Institute, Budapest.
  2. Durham, Michael, "Hostile Mail Changed Tack on Lawrence Justice Campaign", The Observer, February 16, 1997, p 1.
  3. Gibb, Frances, "Daily Mail Murder Challenge is Low-Risk Strategy", The Times, February 15, 1997, p.5.
  4. Popham, Peter: "Murdered Because He Was Black", The Independent, February 15, 1997, p.20.
  5. The Commission for Racial Equality was set up by the 1976 Race Relations Act. It receives a grant from the Home Office, but works independently of government.
  6. Owner of The Guardian and The Observer.
  7. Preston, Peter and Garry Younge, "In Our Own Backyard", The Guardian, March 1, 1999, p 2-3.
  8. Ibid, p.5.
  9. "Pogrom Cyganów w Mławie", Gazeta Wyborcza, June 28, 1991, p 1.
  10. Michnik, Adam, "Hańba pogromu", Gazeta Wyborcza, July 1st, 1991, p 1.
  11. "Troszeczkę za późno", Gazeta Wyborcza, July 8, 1991, p 3.
  12. The articles appeared in the following issues: Polityka, June 26-27, 1991; Polityka, July 6, 1991; Polityka, August 3, 1991.
  13. The research was conducted by DEMOSKOP for Rzeczpospolita, published July 13-14, 1991.
  14. The survey was conducted in October 1997 by CBOS.
  15. Gandy, Oscar: Communication and Race: A Structural Perspective, London: Arnold, 1998, p 97.


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