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Consider what the news omits

2013 January 4

“Chronically under-reported” was the phrase used by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah when he guest-edited BBC Radio 4’s Today programme at the start of the week. He was talking about the phenomenon of the number of people who die in police custody. It was hard to disagree with his verdict when one of the programme’s reporters disclosed that 953 people have died in this way in England and Wales since 1990.

It was such a shocking figure I went online to check. It turns out it may be a conservative figure. The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody has suggested that 5,998 deaths were recorded for the 11 years from 2000 to 2010. There is some controversy about their figure – and to what extent they died because of the  physical restraint methods used by the police. But this is clearly an issue of such proportions that it is surprising we hear so little in the media about it.

One explanation may be that a large proportion of those who die have mental health problems. Today suggested that almost half of those who died last year were in this category; the independent panel suggests the proportion is as high as 92 per cent. Either way mental health is one of the areas which the modern media fastidiously ignore – which is why it took an outsider like a poet to place it so high on the news agenda.

Many media outlets now go in for occasional guest editors. It is a welcome development. They bring with them a different perspective on reality. The picture of the world portrayed by the media is much more peculiar than is generally appreciated. Most of us accept that worldview uncritically, except on those few occasions when journalists write about something which touches us personally. Then we realise how far their truth is from ours.

But news is a shifting landscape anyway. One of the Today presenters, Evan Davies, twittered over Christmas that he was grateful for another of the programme’s guest editors because, without his input, there was only enough real news around to fill about 15 per cent of the new show’s three hour slot. When there are not big events smaller ones must be pressed in to fill the space.  You may have wondered why there seem to be more people killed on the roads at Christmas, according to the bulletins. But the personal tragedy of people dying on the roads sadly occurs all the year round without making it onto the news. It is just that when there is no other news around these accidents are elevated in status.

In an odd way, though, the news dearth is a positive thing. My own newspaper has been running a Christmas Appeal to raise money for Unicef’s work rescuing child soldiers from armed militias in the Central African Republic. Stories about continuing situations rather than events do not usually get much space in papers yet they often  tell of a deeper and more disturbing reality than do the drama of mere events.

Thought for the Day is a little oasis which often performs this very necessary function in the daily news round. On Benjamin Zephaniah’s day as Today editor the Quaker Helen Drewery reflected on two incidents of horrific violence which shocked us all in recent days: the church organist killed in Sheffield on his way to Midnight Mass, and the medical student in Delhi who died after being beaten and raped on a bus. But she used that as a jumping off point for telling two contrasting stories of ordinary people whose actions for peace brought extraordinary results.

Wars that have been prevented have no names and no dates, she concluded. Sometimes it is what the news omits which is what should concern us most, for both good and ill.


To donate to the Independent’s Christmas appeal to help Unicef rescue child soldiers go to or call 0800 037 9797

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