Modern slavery and the media: What we don’t know can hurt us

This piece was originally published by René Cassin.

Who has read about John Lewis and Habitat’s decision to stop selling a range of granite worktops over worries that slaves played a part in making them? When the news broke early this month, only The Guardian and The Metro gave it airtime. An imbalance is hardening in the British media.

What the public knows about modern slavery relates overwhelmingly to the prosecution and conviction of criminals. But that’s only a fraction of the story – and, when it comes to slavery, what we don’t know really can hurt us. The more mugshots fill front pages, the harder it is to see the bigger picture.

For newspapers chasing headlines, supply chains and victim protection rarely fit the bill. At the centre of Britain’s problem with slavery, though, are the hidden tentacles of networks that reach well beyond our borders. Modern slavery is as much about the businesses and consumers that can plead ignorance to the labour that goes into our products, as the victims who, once rescued, are routinely denied basic support and fall under the radar once more.

And there’s a genuine risk to journalism that gift-wraps a story which is messy and complex. Under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, priority has already been given to the criminal prosecutions of traffickers and slave-holders. Legislation has, in many ways, picked its battles – it’s far easier to pin responsibility on a trafficking gang than an entire supply chain, far less complicated to put criminals behind bars than to help victims through their trauma.

This is the imbalance that is hardening: a many-sided problem reduced to a single dimension. By redoubling this narrative, the media oversimplifies when it could do so much more. We risk knowing more about slavery while doing less to combat it. If all we hear about are convictions, we’ll end up believing that slavery is all about criminal justice – and not about welfare, immigration, business, international trade, consumer choice. And we’ll let ourselves be lulled into believing that something is being done about it, because aren’t mugshots marks of ‘progress’?

Expecting businesses to change

Yet central to the government’s modern slavery strategy is the ‘deterrent’ effect, the shaky hope that the social norm will change, that we will come to expect businesses to hold their supply chains to ever higher standards. Because the legislation finds it hard to get a firm grip on companies in globalised industries, policy leaders have chosen to move the game to a different playing-field. The duty to remove slavery from supply chains has become an incentive. Businesses, so the theory goes, will come to see a reputational boost and a consumer dividend when they secure cleaner labour practices.

There’s a catch: it’s down to civil society to give this theory force. And this is where the media comes in, if it so chooses. How else could we have found out that John Lewis was buying beds from a company running sweatshops in the UK? How else would we know that John Lewis had withdrawn the granite worktops in part produced by slaves in India? This is the kind of reporting that changes a norm, both within a single company and an industry as a whole.

As the Evening Standard launches a long-term investigation into London’s modern slavery problem, there could be no better time for the media to take stock. The Standard can afford to be ambitious in three important respects. First: for every story about a court case or conviction, journalists should aim to give equal prominence to a story about victim support. Secondly, we should open our newspapers to stories about businesses that have successfully removed or prevented exploitation in their supply chains, to demonstrate best practice and to encourage the reputational benefit that current legislation relies upon. And thirdly, when the media investigates modern slavery, it should do just that, scrutinising whole industries and uncovering slave labour wherever it can – because if journalists don’t, who will?

For our hope for a better world to become real, we need to start reporting on the good as well as the bad – rewarding proactive approaches to slavery and rejecting lazy ones. We need to widen our lens so that we can see beyond the faces of criminals to the faces of their victims. If the Standard’s investigation is to make a splash rather than a puddle, this should be its mission.

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