Wales’ lack of journalistic resource is structural injustice, writes Dylan Moore
The dangers of Wales’ weak media landscape were thrown into sharp relief this week as the story broke – first on social media, and then via domino effect through Wales’ mainstream outlets to the wider UK press – of the death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan.
The 24-year-old black man from Cardiff died hours after his release from custody in Cardiff Bay police station. Arrested at his home in Newport Road on Friday evening (8th January), Hassan was released without charge at 08:30 on Saturday morning (9th) but was dead by the time officers returned to the property at 22:30 the same day. Hassan’s family, and their legal representatives, claim he had ‘no apparent injuries’ before his arrest, but returned from Cardiff Bay police station ‘with lots of wounds on his body and lots of bruises’.
Followers of the IWA’s work on Wales’ media over the past decade will be familiar with the arguments about its weaknesses. Just this week we have hosted a series of events focused on the findings of our latest piece of research, including an event today on news. Those conversations are about policy – funding, regulation, jobs, ownership, skills – but the truly alarming weakness of the media comes sharply into focus when considering a case like this.
‘Alarming’ is one of those words that, when used in certain contexts (like reports by think tanks) has all but lost its ability to disturb. The world is weary of crises and emergencies at the moment, but generally when an alarm goes off buildings are vacated immediately.
Before the story of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan’s death was picked up by the BBC, Wales Online, ITV Cymru and then Nation.Cymru, South Wales Police tweeted: ‘We are aware of the extensive reporting on social media but due to the on-going investigation and referral to the [Independent Office for Police Conduct] we are unable to comment any further at this stage.’
However, this supposed lack of ability to comment did not stop them from commenting. ‘As part of our investigation CCTV and Body Worn Video has already been, and will continue to be, examined,’ they tweeted. ‘This will assist in establishing and understanding the events that took place. Early findings by the force indicate no misconduct issues and no excessive force.’
As the story broke on each of what would be considered the ‘major news outlets’, it was chilling to observe how the police statement was regurgitated, unchallenged and without qualification. The testimony of eyewitnesses was given secondary or no importance.
The ITV article is entirely based around the police statement with no recognition that it was put out in response to ‘extensive reporting on social media’, nor any attempt to engage with that reporting. It also makes a crucial error in reporting the date of Hassan’s arrest.
The BBC did quote Zainab Hassan, the dead man’s aunt, who said she saw him after his release ‘with lots of wounds on his body and lots of bruises’ and that he ‘didn’t have these wounds when he was arrested and when he came out of Cardiff Bay police station, he had them’.
To their credit, Wales Online quoted Lee Jasper, the human rights activist whose blog was largely responsible for breaking the story. However, after a social media outcry, they were forced to apologise for their misrepresentative coverage of the ensuing protest outside Cardiff Bay police station, where around 200 people gathered to demand justice yesterday.
Wales Online admitted it was ‘understandable’ that the image chosen to illustrate the story could be used to ‘undermine’ or ‘discredit’ the protest.
Such an apology is perhaps too little, too late when the Daily Express is already reporting the story in completely unrepresentative and sensational terms, with the tragedy of a young man’s death relegated to the footnotes of a story headlined ‘Wales chaos: Furious protests erupt in Cardiff as angry crowds hurl smoke bombs at police’.
The Welsh headlines are insipid: ‘Mohamud Mohammed Hassan’s death in Cardiff investigated’ (BBC); ‘Death of 24-year-old Mohamud Mohammed Hassan referred to police watchdog following arrest in Cardiff’ (ITV) and ‘Man, 24, died suddenly after being in police custody in Cardiff overnight’ (Wales Online).
What is missing from all of these reports, of course, is context. All refer to Mohamud Mohammed Hassan as a 24-year-old man. It was not until the report by Mark S Redfern on Voice.Wales, a platform supported to the tune of less than £500 a month via Patreon, that a report on this death foregrounded the fact that Mohamud Mohammed Hassan was black: ‘Demands for Answers & Justice as Black Man Dies Following Detainment by South Wales Police.’
Given the global impact and prominence of the Black Lives Matter campaign – ignited by the death of a black man in police custody – this seems the obvious way to frame the story.
The death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, however it turns out to have been caused, is set against a history of 1,773 deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990 and no British police officer convicted of killing someone in detention since 1971.
It took Voice.Wales to remind readers that the lawyers now assisting the Hassan family, Hillary Brown and Lee Jasper, also ‘helped the family of the young [Christopher] Kapessa… after [South Wales Police] failed to properly investigate the Black teen’s death in July 2019.’
Christopher Kapessa’s bereaved mother ‘told a press conference in February 2020 that South Wales Police were guilty of institutional racism and they had failed her and “continued to fail black families.”’
Lee Jasper is quoted by Wales Online, saying: ‘When it comes to suspicious deaths in custody there is no justice in this country. We continue to be treated like third class citizens in a supposed first class democracy. As a consequence we see fundamental repetition of the same scenarios and fundamental breaches of our human rights.’
However, with no reference to the plentiful evidence that would support Jasper’s point, this fact can be read as an opinion. Indeed many keyboard warriors immediately flooded the comment section with uninformed, unevidenced opinions on various aspects of the story that inevitably affect the public reception of the facts.
Jasper’s comments are, of course, borne out by the UK Government’s Independent Review Into Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody by Dame Elish Angolini QC (2017), which called for action in tackling discrimination and recognised the disproportionate number of deaths of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups following restraint – and the role of institutional racism and police training.
It concluded that: ‘Deaths of people from BAME communities, in particular young black men, resonate with the black community’s experience of systemic racism.’
Journalism in Wales is suffering from global trends that have radically altered the way news is paid for and consumed. This means journalistic resources are stretched so thin that what we might call ‘proper journalism’ – eyewitness reporting, and/or journalists talking directly to those involved in the story – has been replaced by what might better be described as public relations.
We are so used to listicles, slap-dash articles powered by a quick internet trawl, and hastily regurgitated press releases that we have become desensitised to our poor diet of uninquisitive articles that foreground institutional comms over the words of people who were there. When this approach is taken in matters of life and death, and justice, there is a huge problem.
This is multifaceted, of course, and does not solely lie with mainstream news outlets. On social media, unverified ‘facts’ and competing versions of events circulate quickly and narratives emerge that may be a long way from the truth.
In this context, it is entirely understandable, and right, that South Wales Police make a statement. Healthy 24-year-old men should not be dying in our capital city in ‘sudden, unexplained’ circumstances. The family of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, and the general public, are owed an explanation – and quickly.
The problem with the police statement is that it is not simply an update in the public interest, and a reassurance that the matter has indeed been, quite rightly, passed to the watchdog. It is a brazen, and largely successful, attempt to seize control of the media narrative.
The explicit mention that ‘We are aware of extensive reporting on social media’ is a de facto admission that the purpose of South Wales Police’s own thread of tweets is a rebuff to ‘speculation’.
Without the pre-emptive claim that ‘Early findings by the force indicate no misconduct issues and no excessive force’, the statement is understandable; with it, it becomes a clear attempt to put a thumb on the scales of justice that are already loaded against black people.
A bold, well resourced, well trained body of journalists in Wales would be able to call this out. In the circumstances, we must be thankful for the power of social media and the existence of sites like Voice.Wales. But relying on citizen journalism to do the digging that professional reporters don’t have time for can not be an acceptable future for our country.
The IWA and others have long been concerned about a deficit of democracy caused by a weak media. This tragedy has highlighted that a weak media can also cause a potential deficit of justice.
Lee Jasper concludes his blog by saying: ‘The Black Lives Matter emphasis going forward has to be on the wholesale reconstruction of the system of enquiry and accountability surrounding policing.’
My only addendum to this statement is that this system absolutely needs to include a robust and well-resourced media – to properly inquire, and to hold those in power to account.
People need to know the truth. It’s time to press the buzzer.
All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.