FEATURE: Today programme ‘Riot Debate’ (Birmingham Town Hall 5.9.11)

Birmingham Town Hall – photo by Mike Gutteridge

Hundreds of people attended R4’s Today Programme Riot Debate at the Birmingham Town Hall on 5th Sept, an event the show’s editor hoped would explore the ‘complex situation’ of the national disturbances with ‘as few speeches as possible’.

Immediately under fire during an off broadcast Q&A, the debate was questioned for excluding under 16year olds who were not allowed to attend due to ‘BBC policy’. Much media coverage had focused on the alleged involvement in, and organisation of, the disturbances by young people.

The further broadcast divided into three ‘panels of expertise not opinions’, addressing; policing & justice, intervention and morality, although three main contentions quickly led the discussions; racial and fiscal motivations, youth involvement and state culpability. Audience participation was confined to a hand in the air policy, making pertinent quid pro quo a logistical challenge.

Stating from the outset the ‘riots were caused by state racism’, Maxie Hayles, Chairman of Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit, achieved loud acclaim commenting ‘people were responding to the police’s fatal shooting of Mark Duggan’, one of only a few times the Tottenham man’s name was mentioned. General consensus agreed that whilst ‘institutionalised racism was a systemic factor’, the looting was overwhelmingly spurned by greed. In what Dr Giles Fraser coined ‘because I’m worth it riots’.

However racial inequality did lead West Mercia Police Chief Constable Chris Sims to declare in defence ‘out of the 400 people arrested, only 50% were black’. A statistic still significantly disproportionate to Birmingham’s demographic.

Tackling the role of vulnerable families, Council Leader Mike Whitby claimed the ‘perceived involvement’ of the city’s young people had been over hyped. Several people, including the police, offered supporting statistics, with Dan Diamond, Manchester Probation’s Multi Agency Coordinator for Gun and Gang
Offending, stating the ‘average age of main rioters was 29’.

However Whitby’s comments were heeded with a passionate warning from ex-gang member turned community youth worker, Sheldon Thomas, who maintained ‘not enough is being done to directly tackle the issues of gang culture’. A sentiment reflected by Victim Support Chief Executive, Javed Khan, who surmised ‘if we don’t understand the causes we will sleepwalk into the next riot.’

And despite an ‘old fashioned style’ where ‘rules can be respected’ championed by Perry Beeches Headteacher Ian Knowles, and a deservedly lauded programme of interaction by West Midlands Fire Service following the 1985 Handsworth riots, little constructive action on ‘engaging with young people’ was vocalised.

When the role of wider society came under scrutiny, bankers and politicians became the most prominent targets. And whilst fierce debate ensued after Director of Global Vision, Ruth Lea, claimed ‘a successful city comes with a social price’ and big business tax avoidance was ‘reckless but it wasn’t a crime’, the question of personal morality, or responsibility, eventually became moot. All fingers pointing exclusively outwards.

James Naughtie

Although it was Sheldon Thomas who again proffered the most sensible soundbyte, explaining ‘you can’t spend £4bn on a war and come back to tell people they have nothing. There’s a massive gap between the haves and have nots.’ And whilst the show’s presenter, James Naughtie, successfully kept ‘away from the territory of political speech’,perhaps at this point MPs should have been granted a right to reply.