Witchcraft and the British Media

Can a belief be condemned as immoral? Or must we accept cultural difference, and merely condemn the acts that follow as a consequence?

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Yesterday, Magalie Bamu and her boyfriend Eric Bikubi, were convicted of killing Magalie’s younger brother Kristy, who was fifteen. Kristy and his two sisters had travelled from Paris to visit his older sister in Newham, East London for Christmas in 2010. There, in a council block identical to thousands of others across London, Kristy was branded as a witch, a ‘kindoki’, and tortured for days in the most horrific of ways. When police entered the flat, they found the materials of his abuse scattered around the flat — pliers, ceramic tiles, a hammer — and Kristy’s exorcised body lying drowned in the bath.

Following their conviction, the British media, from print (The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent — who provided the most in-depth and interesting coverage of the murder) to TV (Channel 4, the BBC and Sky News), all ran reports of ‘witchcraft’ in Britain. It seems Kristy’s death, in addition to the high-profile case of Ivorian Victoria Climbié, an eight year old who was ritually abused and finally murdered by her great-aunt in 2000, touches a nerve about belief, and incites the media to speculate not only about the beliefs themselves, but our placement — as cultural ‘outsiders’ — in relation to them. Can a belief be condemned as immoral? Or must we accept cultural difference, and merely condemn the acts that follow as a consequence? These are the questions that the British press, across different platforms, have grappled with.

The Guardian took a contextual and soft approach to the issues surrounding the death. The article suggested that ‘accusations of witchcraft are part of growing patterns of child abuse in the UK’, linked to the rise of pentecostal churches in Britain. With statistics from Scotland Yard and The Victoria Climbié Foundation, The Guardian reported that “the 83 incidents uncovered in the past decade only scratch the surface of a hidden crime, according to Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe, head of the child abuse investigation command at Scotland Yard. An average of eight children a year in Greater London are victims of abuse based on witchcraft-style exorcisms, but this only reflects cases resulting in police investigations.”

The Guardian also suggested that the internet can play a role in disseminating aggressive ideas about witchcraft to those living abroad; Youtube videos featuring well-known Nigerian preacher David Oyedepo reveal disturbing aggression and humiliating tactics against women he brands ‘evil’.

Sky News took a different tactic, seeking less to understand how witchcraft beliefs are sustained within Britain, instead producing a short film in DRC on exorcisms, interviewing people affected by the belief of witchcraft. It showed disturbing images of pastors and ‘child witches’, giving British audiences a somewhat closed, isolated entry into the practices that surround witchcraft belief within the DRC, failing to mention any kind of contextual or historical factors that might play a role (but of course mentioning the buzzword ‘poverty’). It clearly made the link between financial gain and belief, suggesting that pastors and preachers were exploiting worried parents.

A Newsnight feature on the BBC called the murder ‘ferral’, rightly, but then goes on to broadcast images of the implements used in Kristy’s murder: the blood-stained pliers and ceramic tiles smashed and smeared in blood. This kind of reporting succumbs to the media’s tendency to indulge in horror, knowing it will both disgust and attract their audience. Moving on to an interview with African religions expert Dr. David Hoskins — who links cultural and historical events with Kristy’s death — the balanced nature of this part of the programme feels undermined by the earlier sensationalist images.

Channel 4, who also ran a programme about the murder, showed an incredibly moving interview with Pierre Bamu, Kristy’s father. Tender, painful and sensitive, the Channel 4 coverage then undermined this approach by the inclusion of the sentence “…the ancient West African rituals of ‘kindoki’ or the belief that someone is possessed by an evil spirit, have weaved their murderous path into a family which had long left such beliefs behind.”

It’s the ‘ancient’ that clearly rings untrue in this, for what Kristy’s death illustrates is that these are in fact not ‘ancient’ beliefs, but current, contemporary modes of thinking. It’s easier to think of them as archaic, irrelevant, rearing their heads at moments of extreme brutality. But, as the situation in the DRC and other African countries shows, this isn’t the case. It is a commonplace, widely held belief. Clearly ‘kindoki’ is not something left behind, in the ‘primitive’ days of central Africa, but rather a powerful, often-destructive belief that aids people in explaining the harsh realities of contemporary life. Few people in the mainstream media would call Christian beliefs ‘ancient’.

Hoskins, a senior lecturer in the Study of Religions at Bath Spa University, links the resurgence in witchcraft accusations toward children with their involvement as soldiers during the war, which has led to a deep fear of children as capable of evil and brutal acts.

He also claims that one of the main problems in effectively dealing with witchcraft abuse and killings in Britain is the ‘liberal multicultural agenda’, which acts as a block within British politics. Quoted in The Guardian, he says “we’re quite happy to talk about what is inappropriate belief when it comes to terrorism or paedophilia, but when it comes to fundamentalist religious belief affecting child protection, we don’t seem to want to talk about it.”

The articles and broadcasts reflect a grey area; for they either explain away the fact of its happening in Britain by claiming the witchcraft beliefs originate elsewhere, thereby bypassing Britain’s role in protecting, accommodating or changing these beliefs, or, they sensationalize the case, feeding once again into the predictable stream of news reporting that feeds Britain’s anxiety toward ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’. I won’t even go into the reporting in The Daily Mail, whose article about the murder is just offensive.

What these articles and broadcasts show is a sense of unease about migrant beliefs, and Britain’s role in accommodating them. The reporting shows a will to contextualize witchcraft, but merely by linking it to ‘Central Africa’, rather than seeking to understand the truly complex political, social and religious reasons for their resurgence to such extremes, particularly when believers are in other parts of the world.

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