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2 June 2023

Making News: Notes on a Scandal by Gary Younge

In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 114: Windrush: Writing the Scandal, Gary Younge traces initial reporting of the Windrush scandal and its evolving media coverage, taking a critical look at how and why such journalism 'enter[s] the media bloodstream and from there flow[s] into the body politic'.

You can read the full piece online or in Wasafiri 114.

In his seminal work What Is History? (1961), historian E H Carr argues that when a historical event ‘has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical facts’, it must await ‘a seconder and sponsors’. Its fate, wrote Carr,

will depend on whether the thesis or interpretation [of the incident] is accepted by other historians as valid and significant. Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history. (12)

A similar relationship exists between historical events and the narrative economy of journalism. To report on something is, essentially, to record it. But for it to enter the media bloodstream and from there flow into the body politic, it cannot simply lay where you left it. Its status turns on the question of its amplification. There must be seconders and proposers; it must be followed up and referred to at large. It must acquire a currency beyond itself where it can be traded for journalistic kudos, status, political effect, public indignation, or professional relevance, among other things. Media coverage of the Windrush scandal is the tale of a scandalous event, presented clearly, unambiguously, and irrefutably, that could not find an effective seconder or proposer for over half a year. When the story was finally taken up by the media class as a whole, the political effect was swift and significant, forcing the resignation of a Government minister. In this essay, I want to concentrate on how the media studiously ignored this story. I plan to examine the various reasons there might have been for the media failing to follow up on the Guardian’s original reporting, how the Guardian’s reporting evolved, what the treatment of the story tells us about the relationship between the political and media classes, and what might have prompted the media finally to pursue the story. For the story did not change. What changed, and changed dramatically, was the media’s understanding of the story’s currency among their readers and within the political class.
* * *
The reporting of the Windrush scandal, as it came to be known, started with a feature article about Paulette Wilson by Amelia Gentleman in the Guardian of 28 November 2017. Wilson, sixty-one, was detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre and was about to be deported, even though she had lived in Britain since 1968. Born in Jamaica, her mother put her on a plane to Britain when she was ten years old to live with her grandparents. She never went back, but made a life in England, working and raising her daughter Natalie. Wilson was a grandmother who had worked all her life, including in the canteen at the House of Commons. She had no convictions as an adult and volunteered at a local church. Then, in 2015, she received a letter from the Home Office declaring her an illegal immigrant. Her housing and sickness benefits were stopped immediately, leaving her homeless and destitute. Natalie supported her mother financially while a friend let her stay in his flat. Wilson was then threatened with being sent back to a country she had not set foot in for fifty years and where she knew no one.
Wilson described her plight not in terms of systemic racism or historical injustice, but in terms of personal tragedy, familial rupture, and general confusion:

I felt like I didn’t exist. I wondered what was going to happen to me. All I did was cry, thinking of my daughter and granddaughter; thinking that I wasn’t going to see them again. I couldn’t eat or sleep … still now I can’t eat and sleep properly. (Gentleman, ‘“I Can’t Eat”’ np)

Asked if she felt British, Wilson replied:

I don’t feel British. I am British. I’ve been raised here, all I know is Britain. What the hell can I call myself except British? I’m still angry that I have to prove it. I feel angry that I have to go through this. (np)

She won a reprieve and was released from Yarl’s Wood after her Member of Parliament intervened and it became clear that both the Guardian and local television were going to run stories about her situation (Gentleman, ‘Woman Nearly Deported’).Given that Wilson’s story was featured prominently in the Guardian newspaper and on its website, one would have expected for a number of reasons that another national newspaper would follow it up. First and foremost, Wilson was a ‘worthy victim’. The media likes to divide victims of misfortune into two categories: deserving and undeserving. What determines one’s category resides in a range of moral panics and value-judgments that can vary with the politics of the moment. Someone might find themselves among the undeserving because they have a criminal record, claim benefits, live in a particular area, have a particular immigration or marital status. Context is everything. Those who are considered undeserving rarely get their stories told and, if they do, rarely get them told sympathetically. The logic of the distinction decrees that whatever made them undeserving must have rendered whatever misfortune they experience likely, if not inevitable.
This state of affairs, of course, is problematic. In deciding which victims are worthy, the media, by definition, concedes that there are others who are unworthy. The argument’s locus then shifts from ‘this shouldn’t happen’ to ‘this shouldn’t happen to people like this’. Establishing ‘worthiness’ may clarify the obscenity of the injustice, but this does not mean that the injustice is less obscene because it happens to someone who has made unrelated mistakes in their life or who belongs, by chance, to a group with less status. This became particularly relevant in later months as the Government apologised for the Windrush scandal but defended the deportation of criminals — as though their crimes justified their unfair immigration treatment. But Wilson was a grandmother, who had worked at the House of Commons, volunteered at her church, and had no criminal record as an adult — all features that made her ‘worthy’. And she had suffered a traumatic, bureaucratic injustice which had almost seen her expelled from the only country she really knew and in which she was a citizen — all features that made her a victim. ...

Continue reading the full piece online, free to download for the month of June, or in Wasafiri 114.
Gary Younge is an award-winning author, journalist, broadcaster and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. He is an editorial board member of The Nation, a Type Media Fellow and formerly editor-at-large for the Guardian.
Summer 2023
Wasafiri 114: Windrush – Writing the Scandal

Wasafiri 114, guest co-edited by Henghameh Saroukhani and John McLeod, considers how we aesthetically and politically reckon with the Windrush scandal. The lead feature comes from Gary Younge, while our interviews for this issue are with Caryl Phillips and Hazel V Carby. You can also expect our usual range of fiction, art, life writing, poetry, and reviews.

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