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#PasstheMic - Where was Diwali in Scottish news?

by Professor Karen Boyle and Melody House at the University of Strathclyde, and Talat Yaqoob founder of Pass the Mic.

Pass the Mic is a project focusing on women of colour in Scottish news media. Initially an online database of women of colour experts, thanks to funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, from 2020-21 the project has expanded to undertake direct work with women of colour experts and media partners STV, The Herald, Sunday National, Daily Record, Scotsman, Courier and Holyrood magazine to challenge exclusionary cultures within news media and create a platform for the expertise of women of colour. This funding has also enabled them to undertake research to establish baseline information about where women of colour currently appear in Scottish news media in partnership with Gender Equal Media Scotland.

Read the previous blogs in the series here:

‘Don’t make me feel like a second-class citizen’

This weekend, many people will be celebrating Easter, along with some much-needed time off after passing the grim milestone of one-year in lockdown in the UK. We have become accustomed to pared-back holidays and, with that, the near constant stream of news about how restrictions might impact our celebrations. However, there has been a distinct difference in reporting on Christian holidays, compared to those celebrated by other religious groups. The UK government rightly faced criticism for their late-night lockdown imposed on northern England a mere three hours before the start of Eid al-Adha. Yet, the media has managed to dodge the same type of scrutiny, although – as the evidence from our Pass the Mic monitoring project shows – they haven’t necessarily performed any better.

The first Pass the Mic monitoring study took place from 9-15 November 2020 and included 3121 stories across seven Scottish papers, twitter accounts and websites, and three television news programmes. The first of our Pass the Mic blogs focused on the big stories from our coding week, and where women of colour appeared in our sample. As discussed in these earlier blogs, we had anticipated that the fact that Diwali, The Festival of Lights, fell within our coding week (on 14 November) might have an impact on our findings, given the majority of people celebrating this festival are people of colour. We had anticipated – wrongly as it turns out – that this might provide an opportunity for news outlets to take a new angle on the ongoing COVID-crisis. In this blog, we want to use the coverage of Diwali as a lens through which to consider the marginalisation of communities of colour in Scottish news.

At that time, the potential impact of COVID restrictions on Christmas was already being widely discussed. The logistics of getting students home for Christmas and speculation over the likelihood of a ‘safe Christmas break’ made front page news three times that week (twice in the Scotsman, once in Scottish Sun). In contrast, Diwali was only mentioned twice in the 860 newspaper articles we coded, and never on the front page. What’s more, neither of these stories were actually about Diwali in Scotland. Indeed, one of the stories wasn’t even about Diwali: The Herald ran a story discussing COVID tax rises in which they mentioned the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. The image they chose pictured Sunak lighting ‘candles for Diwali’: the picture caption was the only mention of Diwali in the story (13 November, p.6). The other story appeared in the Sunday Mail (15 November, p.8): this short article did at least describe the impact of the pandemic on celebrations. However, it focused solely on celebrations in India, with no mention of the impact of local restrictions on Scottish Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist communities. Although the story was accompanied by a photo of an unnamed woman in traditional dress lighting a candle, the only person quoted was a male academic.




Front pages of the newspapers on the 14th of November 2020




Yet, newspapers were not the worst offenders. Six of the seven twitter accounts we monitored did not mention Diwali once across all seven days. Of the news sources we monitored, Twitter was the most ‘informal’. Companies tend to use this framing to their advantage, curating a playful and inclusive platform to attract a more diverse audience. As such, it is commonplace to see platforms tweet well wishes during holidays, yet only @BBCScotlandNews did this for Diwali.

BBC Scotland was also the only news website to highlight stories about Diwali on their homepage. Refreshingly, all three of the stories spoke about the impact of the pandemic on Scottish celebrations and two of the three stories included interviews with Scottish Indian families struggling with the restrictions and the impact this was having on their – and their communities’ – mental health. This was a welcome change from the relative invisibility of the holiday on twitter and in newspapers. However four of the seven websites we monitored (Daily Record, Scotsman, Scottish Sun, and STV News) didn’t include any stories about Diwali, and The Herald and The National only mentioned the festival in passing in larger articles wrapping up Nicola Sturgeon’s COVID briefings.

In keeping with our previous findings, television news was by far the best performing medium, accounting for one-third of all the stories about Diwali. Each of the three shows we monitored ran two stories about Diwali and all were focused on celebrations happening in Scotland. STV News focused on the city of Edinburgh’s efforts to celebrate Diwali online and through a light show put together by the charity Edinburgh Diwali. The longer of these two stories included an interview with Rajnish Singh, the President of Edinburgh Diwali. Both segments were shown at the very end of the programme they featured in, a slot usually reserved for the upbeat ‘fun’ story that leaves the audience on a positive note, and was aimed at encouraging everyone to get involved with the celebrations. The two BBC shows (The Nine and Reporting Scotland) took a very different approach, highlighting the government’s double standard in privileging Christmas over equally important holidays. The mental health crisis among men in the Indian and other minority ethnic communities was discussed as part of this. An interview with Dr Sandesh Gulhane was particularly powerful. He called on the government to recognise the importance of these festivals to communities of colour, ending his interview by stating: ‘Don’t make me feel like a second-class citizen’.

However, these news segments are not above criticism. Although they offered the space for Scottish people of colour to discuss these issues, the framing of the reporting was accepting of the government’s standpoint that celebrations would just have to be different – a standpoint they did not (at this point) take for Christmas. For example, right after airing an interview with Dr Anil Sethi in which he ran through a testing strategy that could be used to allow students home to celebrate Diwali with their families, Reporting Scotland ended their segment with the Scottish government’s statement on the necessity of restrictions during Diwali. Yet the very next story was about the governments of the four UK nations working together to get students home safely for Christmas. At best, this framing was tone deaf, especially since it would have been safer for students to travel for Diwali in small numbers than the mass-movement being discussed for Christmas. Ultimately, this proved their guests’ points: festivals of importance to minority communities were being overlooked.

Whilst the number of people included in these stories overall is too small to enable us to arrive at robust conclusions, it is nonetheless notable that across all of the Diwali stories we looked at, men of colour spoke more often than women of colour, and the women were presented solely in relation to their families(wife, mother). In contrast, and as the discussion above demonstrates, men were positioned in relation to their professions (e.g. politician, GP, academic, student, community leader).

In the end, stories about Diwali barely made up 0.5% of our sample. The Scotsman and the Scottish Sun didn’t mention Diwali across any platforms and The National and the Daily Record only mentioned it once. Of course, we understand that Scotland is not the most diverse country. According to the 2011 census (the most up-to-date figures we have), 0.7% of Scotland’s population (nearly 40,000 people) are Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. Yet, it is not unreasonable to assume that in the week of a major religious festival we might see greater representation than at other times, particularly in the context of a pandemic where the media has a responsibility to communicate clearly what is – and is not – permitted within government restrictions. That more than a billion people were celebrating globally, the majority with some form of COVID-related restriction, should also have made this a significant international story.

Clearly there is work for the Scottish media to do in better representing minority communities. With the Holy month of Ramadan beginning on 12 April there is another opportunity to reflect on how current restrictions have had differential impacts on communities across Scotland. And to ensure that women of colour are integral to the telling of these stories.

We will be watching – and we encourage you to do so too.

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