The Activist: Paul Meszaros
Paul Meszaros is a regional organiser for Hope Not Hate and completed a forensic analysis of national far-right activity in the aftermath of the 2001 disturbances.
Paul, what does your community work in Bradford entail?
It’s manifold really. In my work with Hope Not Hate, we’re to combat the far right; to combat their ideas; to combat them in elections. But the way we do that is to try to build resilience in communities against those pernicious ideas.
Is Bradford a hotspot for far right activity?
If you were to believe everything you read in the national press, you would think that is. There are far right activists in this city. But the fact is that it’s not a centre for the far right. In fact, I could say categorically that Leeds has got a much more active far right presence historically. Bradford does have a presence, but it’s not the biggest, even in this area.
Why does the national press paint a picture that Bradford is rife for far right activity?
I think for some sections of the media, it’s lazy journalism. What they do is, they use the fact that Bradford is unfortunately synonymous with, in quotations, “racial problems”, and use that to bolt on to stories where the think they’ve got a good story about the far right.
Is this something you’ve encountered first hand?
I’ll give you an example. So I once had to do a Radio 4 interview before one election, might be 2010, and the interviewer starts off asking questions, and it turns out that each day they have a different theme. So the day they came to Bradford, the theme was around immigration, and there you have it in a nutshell. They decided Bradford had a problem, and they wanted to do a problematic story about what they thought was a problematic issue.
What’s your response when it becomes obvious that there’s a predetermined narrative?
My first response to him was to say, “If you’re talking about immigration, wouldn’t you be better off in Grantham where there are real issues around immigration? Bradford is a big city that can cope with a few Eastern Europeans coming, and we welcome them, we welcome people from all over the place. So really it’s not immigration that he wants to discuss. Either you want to talk about issues that may exist between different communities, or if it is immigration, you’re in the wrong place. I put it to him that it’s lazy journalism.
When did Bradford start to become a source of fascination for the national media?
Look, my personal view is, they’re doing a job, and they want to get a story. So I don’t think they’re malicious. I think it’s lazy. I don’t know if it’s always been this way but I think my experience with dealing with the media in in a broader context begins with the rise of the BNP as an electrical force of the turn of this century. The national media have been all over the place with it. Take The Sun: crazy headlines about immigrants one day, and then attacking the BNP the next day.
The BNP did get some candidates elected to the City Council in Bradford a few years ago, so isn’t it understandable that the national media would want to talk about that?
I’m not saying it’s not. I’m not saying it’s a non issue. Of course it’s an issue, and you know, it’s a two way street. We’ve gone to the media with stories and we wanted them to print things about it throughout the years, so journalists do need to cover stories. I’m never going to suggest that they shouldn’t cover stories. What I am suggesting is that they should do it with a little bit of sensitivity, and they should also do it in a more informed way.
How have your experiences differed when working with the local media?
In Bradford, the Telegraph and Argus have been good. On the issue of of the issue of the far right, I mean, when the EDL came to town and it was being billed as ‘the big one’, they were explicit that their aim was to to come here to try and create tension. The EDL wanted a repeat of the riots if they could. Our approach was that we wanted to bring as many Bradfordians with us on a journey, and where we could demonstrate our resilience to that kind of extremism. We had a petition about stopping the EDL being allowed to march through multicultural areas, and the T&A ran that petition on their front cover. I thought that was brave of them to stand up and explicitly oppose organised racists, and they did it in defence of Bradford.
How did the national media react to that specific demonstration?
I’ll tell you what we’ve never seen so many media in a town. I mean, we were probably the 20th place for the EDL to hit, but I bet the journalists outnumbered them in Bradford. We were tripping over them! We did a live blog for Hope Not Hate that day, so I guess you could say we were doing some journalism too. We found ourselves a nice spot overlooking the demo site, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different news TV crews in one place.
Do you think a lot of these national media outlets might have been disappointed that it didn’t kick off?
They got there for a story didn’t they, so of course they were. Look, the last bit of the Hope Not Hate blog we did that day was about the dozens of Asian families bringing samosas and whatnot down for the police to say thank you. Of course it’s not a very sexy story is it? A ‘non riot’ isn’t a story. But it’s the story we’re interested in.
How is social media impacting the way such events are covered?
For spreading all kinds of nonsense, it is powerful. But I think people get carried away. People find themselves in the little bubbles and echo chambers where they only follow and interact with the people that say the same things.
So how do you think Bradfordians can help paint a better picture of their city?
I think the first thing we have to do is to remind each other that positivity needs to be at the front of our thoughts. A student journalist from The Guardian came to see me a few weeks ago. He wanted to do a story about Bradford, about the usual discord and disharmony. So I deliberately met him in City Park and said, ‘Look, I think your whole premise is wrong. This is a really vibrant, young city. If you want to write an article about Bradford, that’s a little bit different to the same crap everyone else does, why don’t you start somewhere different? Start by looking at how fantastic this area [City Park] is. Look how many different kinds of people all playing happily together…’ Our job is to remind Bradfordians that they have something to be proud of, and civic pride is important. Where there is an erosion of civic pride, that’s our responsibility, not the national media’s.
Do you think the national media has already typecast different sections of the community?
Yeah, and it’s our job to break that. It’s absolutely our job to break that, because it’s pernicious and self serving and it’s simply not the reality. Why not spend a bit more time talking to people? I hear people say that young Asian women are marginalised, well, go and talk to them! Because you’ll find talented and educated and opinionated and active young citizens. So instead of imaging that they haven’t got a voice, go and give them a voice.
What message would you like people to take away from Above The Noise?
The thing about Bradford is that we are about ten years ahead of the game. We’ve already dealt with problems other towns are only just starting to come to terms with. We’ve already solved them. We’re solving new problems now.