Notting Hill Carnival’s relationship with the media has often been stormy and occasionally abusive. For 40 years, journalists and NHC leaders have eyed each other with suspicion, if not downright hostility. Carnival’s high profile and sometimes amateurish management make it an easy target. Papers and TV alternately demonise and trivialise the event. Carnivalists have had good cause to complain about the mainstream media’s lack of understanding and lack of respect for the artform and the culture. The media, too, can justifiably say that Notting Hill Carnival has rarely shown much understanding of, or respect for, their community. Respect, after all, is a two-way street…
Appointed by organiser LNHCET as its event manager, Street Event Company (SEC) has pledged to change all that. We will look in more detail below at the way SEC plans to give Carnival’s image a much-needed makeover, but first we need to consider how Carnival ended up with a toxic brand.
Local festival, national news
Under Rhaune Laslett, Merle Major and Leslie Palmer, Notting Hill Carnival grew from a small local multicultural parade into a major showcase for Caribbean music and culture. The local newspapers were supportive. When the local council – the now thoroughly discredited Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) – attacked the original organiser, the London Free School, the Kensington papers took LFS’s side not the council’s.
The disturbances of Carnival 1976, when the streets of Notting Hill became a battleground between police and local youths, grabbed the mainstream media’s attention and shocked the nation. The local papers were less surprised, because their reporters knew tensions had been rising for years. And because they listened to the people involved, they were less judgemental too. But it was the national dailies that set the tone, and they, like the police, began to see Carnival as a riot-in-waiting.
As the news agenda slipped from Carnival’s grasp it was seized by the police, politicians and residents. Through the 70s and 80s, as August bank holiday approached, headline-writers dipped their pens in vitriol, photographers prowled the streets looking for ‘trouble’ and NHC’s leaders mentally hunkered down in their bunker. Carnival and the media settled into trench warfare.
Positive public relations
After NHC gained professional leadership under Claire Holder press coverage gradually acquired a more positive spin. Although Holder herself remained somewhat suspicious of the papers, the use of a PR agency and the holding of a proper press launch with media packs for journalists encouraged a softening of attitudes. Papers that had previously demanded the event be banned began issuing Notting Hill Carnival supplements, and for a few years the BBC ran a TV special. True, much of the coverage was superficial, focusing on jerk chicken and dancing policemen, but that was better than constantly harping back to the riots of 1976 and 1958.
For a few years after the coup d’état that ousted Holder from office the papers retained their broadly benign view of Carnival, perhaps because of the Greater London Authority’s commitment to the event. That changed when a Conservative administration took over in City Hall, the Evening Standard’s editorial stance became more right-wing and intolerant, and Carnival’s organisation underwent further upheavals. Readers and viewers were told that the bank holiday bacchanal was beset by knife crime, overcrowding, financial disasters and incompetent management.
Instead of challenging the inaccuracies, NHC’s leaders retreated to their dugout under Powis Square and rarely defended or promoted Carnival. Perhaps that was just as well, given the disastrous public relations fallout from a LNHCET board member’s ‘car crash’ radio interview. It was left to individual carnivalists to try to shore up Carnival’s reputation.
Guilty as charged
That reputation took a massive, self-inflicted hit in 2015 when LNHCET made the jaw-droppingly inept decision to charge photographers and journalists £100 each for covering Carnival at the judging point on Great Western Road and demanded free use of all their photographs and video. The judging point is on a public road, so charging for access may not have been legal; the demand to hand over copyright was certainly unethical; and the £100 fee showed LNHCET knew nothing about modern media realities. Most photographers at NHC are poorly paid freelancers, many of whom had loyally supported Carnival for years at their own expense and could never earn enough to justify such a cost. Goodwill evaporated overnight and the National Union of Journalists and other media organisations organised a boycott.
LNHCET’s ignorance and greed destroyed its chances of making friends in the media and influencing the news agenda about Carnival. The anti-Carnival faction had a field day, portraying the event as inherently dangerous and out of control. Some, including Kensington MP Victoria Borwick, suggested charging people for the pleasure of watching dispirited masqueraders trudge around a park; others just wanted it banned.
The Metropolitan Police – never shy of promoting its own agenda in the media – weighed in with a carefully curated collection of horror stories, backed up, as always, with irrefutable ‘evidence’ in the form of increasing numbers of arrests. Except that when Soca News challenged its figures under a Freedom of Information request, the force was unable to provide any evidence about those arrests. Bizarrely, the Met claims to have no details about how many arrests were made in the Carnival Zone or outside, how many led to charges, how many cases went to court and how many actually resulted in a conviction. As an indicator of ‘crime at Carnival’, police figures have the statistical value of a jellybean.
It should really be job of LNHCET and the mainstream media to challenge potentially ‘false news’, but both treat the Met’s dubious data as if they are divine truths carved on tablets of stone. Failing to call the police to account means the myth of Carnival mayhem is able to spread unchecked.
The good news is that LNHCET has finally accepted that it needs to do something about its dismal media profile – something more, that is, than just creating another pretty website and issuing a few forgettable statements in a press release.
In June, Street Event Company appointed Andrew Hillier as director of communications. He told Soca News that there will be a new media policy this year. The hated £100 charge has been swept away, there will be no requirement for pre-accreditation and no seizure of photographs or videos taken at NHC. As long as they hold a press card issued by the PCA (see http://ukpresscardauthority.co.uk), “all journalists are welcome”, Hillier said. The aim is to work closely with media professionals and to look after their needs by providing better facilities. He hopes to set up some kind of press centre at the judging point and to set aside dedicated areas around the route for photographers and film crews.
“My job is to create a positive atmosphere, with a focus on the [masquerade] bands and the music,” Hillier continued, acknowledging that in the recent past there has been too much coverage of the festival’s negative aspects. In particular, he wants to see broadcasters pay more attention to the mas bands and steel bands and provide television coverage of Panorama.
The problem, he admitted, has been getting sufficient information from carnival participants. “We need the input of the individual bands,” he said. Hillier appealed for them to get in touch directly (via firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: 07710 325535), rather than just through CAMF and the other arena organisations.
Promises and doubts
According to his LinkedIn profile, Andrew Hillier was interim director of communications at RBKC in 2001. His company, Hillier Consulting, has worked on RBKC and Metropolitan Police assignments in the past, so he knows the territory. He sounded passionate and sincere when he spoke of his mission to change the way the world perceives Notting Hill Carnival, and he echoed many of the points Soca News has been making for 15 years or more.
Nevertheless, carnivalists have heard many promises over the years and are wearily familiar with optimistic plans ending in disappointment. Some people doubt whether this ‘new approach’ really does represent a major change for the better.
Both SEC and Hillier will have their work cut out to gain the confidence of the Carnival community and the media. We have to hope they realise they need to be in it for the long haul. It will take more than one bank holiday to overcome four decades of distrust.