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Joseph Harker

Race against the tide

British Journalism Review
Vol. 19, No. 1, 2008, pages 23-31

Joseph Harker is assistant comment editor at The Guardian and former editor of Black Briton newspaper.

Contents - Vol 19, No 1, 2008

Editorial - Trivia pursuit 3

Investigative journalism

David Leigh - Time to climb out of the sewer 5

Ivor Gaber - The myth about Panorama 10

Roy Greenslade - People power 15

Joseph Harker - Ethnic balance: race against the tide 23

Chris Moss - Travel journalism: the road to nowhere 33

Bill Hagerty - Tony Hall: fighter pilot, enter stage left 41

Kevin Sutcliffe - Not guilty - but who's to know? 48

Tom Whitwell - Rogue elephant: editing in cyberspace 57

Lauren Bravo - The devil wears Primark 63

John Knight - Last of the long goodbyes 69

The Cudlipp Award - 74

Gus Macdonald on World in Action 81

Joy Johnson on Reporting Iraq 77

Don Berry on Guardian Style 79

Julia Langdon on Katharine Whitehorn 81

Jon Snow on Channel 4 83

Michael Leapman on Christina Lamb 85

Anthony Delano on media moguls 87

Quotes of the Quarter 22

Ten years ago - The way we were 32

  The appointment of a black national newspaper editor is as far away as ever, argues a senior Guardian journalist and diversity co-ordinator of the paper

Late last year Kamal Ahmed, The Observer’s executive editor, left the paper to become communications director for the new Equality and Human Rights Commission. With him went probably the best chance we’ll have in a long time to see a black national newspaper editor (ironically, The Observer’s editor, Roger Alton, stood down just a month later). Just as Americans discuss the significance of potentially having their first black president, for the British press the appointment of the first black editor, if it ever happens, will be also be hugely symbolic. But how likely is it? And how soon?

Ahmed was a former Observer political editor, as well as media editor on his previous newspaper, The Guardian – positions never before or since held by a person of colour on any national newspaper. Indeed, the number of racial minorities in editing positions across all Fleet Street is tiny. One thinks of Peter Victor, who news-edits the Independent on Sunday, or Malik Meer on The Guardian’s Saturday Guide, as possibly the only two who run a significantsized department. Aside from that, most of the main desks on the nationals – home, foreign, city, features, sports – are run by entirely white teams. One may find the occasional black or Asian journalist in a junior role on the commissioning desk, but rarely, if ever, in a position where they can make a decision on what goes into the next day’s paper, let alone have any major longterm impact.

Don’t get me wrong. Things have improved. I entered journalism, working within the black press, in the late 1980s. Within the nationals, this was the era of “black crime shock” headlines emblazoned across the tabloids and long before any industry codes on race reporting. I worked with several very good journalists in a niche sector that was thriving, but as they moved on to new challenges, just one gained a staff job on a national newspaper – the rest went into television. The national press was effectively a closed shop: jobs were, proudly, never advertised and only those moving within media circles stood any chance of getting one. This did not include black or Asian people.

Now things have changed a little and some newspapers have recognised the unfairness of the old system. There are ethnic minority reporters and/or sub-editors on most papers, though mostly in very small numbers. Progress has been slow. Many editors initially thought – and some still do – that they could change their mix of staff without changing established methods of recruitment. Earlier, this had, after all, been sufficient to bring women into the ranks. Nepotism could be extended to women family and friends, and the dinner-party circuit gave women guests a chance to impress. With racial minorities, though, both routes were non-starters. They were raised a long way from the privileged and often public-school backgrounds of many Fleet Street editors and their associates. Further, it’s now more than 50 years since sections devoted to women’s issues – written by women, for women – began to appear in the British press. Through their pages have emerged many top women writers, seizing the available space to hone their skills, to prove their ability and to demonstrate incontrovertibly that their voice is valid, product enhancing, and impossible to ignore. There has, however, been no equivalent outlet for any minority-race coverage, despite the potential benefits – although some of the regional press, covering areas with significant minority populations, have run dedicated sections.

Plan to redress inequality

A few national newspapers have made some positive efforts to redress the imbalance, occasionally offering traineeships specifically for black and Asian starters. At The Guardian we have been running a positive-action workplacement programme, targeting racial minorities. The large numbers of intelligent, enthusiastic, hardworking and motivated young men and women we’ve been able to bring into our office (and, yes, Muslim women too) have given lie to that old media mantra, “but they don’t apply”.

Last year the editor Alan Rusbridger introduced a plan of action to redress inequality. This is backed up by ethnic monitoring, so we can measure the progress we’re making. But The Guardian apart, most papers seem to believe the small steps they’ve already taken are enough to level the playing field. I contacted four other national newspaper groups, and all were quick to claim that they do not discriminate, yet none had even a rough idea of the numbers of minority staff they employ. This despite the fact that diversity organisations see monitoring – now common in many industries such as banking and manufacturing – as a crucial step in tackling institutional inequality.

Monitoring “is not something I regard as significant”, Sunday Times managing editor Richard Caseby told me. “The overriding factor when employing people is: if someone can do the job well, they get the job. Performance is the only issue we consider.” But without any supporting information, can newspapers really be sure that their recruitment is unbiased and that their editors see beyond the indeterminate cultural factors that so often lie behind selection decisions, such as: “Do I feel comfortable with him?” “Would she be a good laugh down the pub?” “Would they fit in with our reporting team?” Journalists I contacted who work in some of these newsrooms reported that they are very white places indeed. Of course representation is more than just a recruitment issue. The internal culture of a media organisation is a major influence on its external output, which in turn can have a significant impact on the wider public and its attitudes.

The extremist reporting of 20 years ago generally gave way to a more measured approach during the 1990s, most notably in the reporting of the Stephen Lawrence murder and its aftermath, with even the Daily Mail weighing in heavily on the side of the victim’s family. And when the Macpherson report into the Metropolitan Police’s investigation of his murder was published in February 1999, there was a sense that papers had to reflect the communities they served. A little fewer than 1,000 days later, however, came 9/11 and a new form of scapegoating was unleashed, with Muslims bearing the brunt. Space prohibits examining this issue in detail, but I will just ask why is it that picture editors so often choose pictures of niqab-wearing women to accompany articles on Islam? For the most part, this veil has no relevance to the piece and in any case, it is worn by only a tiny number of Muslim women. In effect, this image has become the modern equivalent of the notorious police mugshot of Winston Silcott (the man wrongly convicted of killing a policeman during the Broadwater farm riots of 1985) – a face of menace that demonised a whole community.

What do Britain’s ethnic minorities think about this? At about 9 per cent of the national population, and 30 per cent of London’s, they are now an established part of the country and play an increasingly important role. Despite this, our newspapers have made little or no effort to attract them as potential readers. Marketing executives tend to think in terms of social status (A, B, C1, C2, D, E – the former deemed readers of broadsheets, the latter, of red-top tabloids) or job type (public sector, The Guardian; lawyers, The Times; business, The Daily Telegraph). Promotions departments then put their efforts into shoring up their own traditional group, or launching advertising campaigns in attempts to reach out to others. They assume that racial minorities fit wholly into this matrix – they buy the dailies just like the rest of the population, so surely they’re no different to any other readers?

Three years ago at The Guardian we carried out what was possibly the first focus-group research aimed purely at minority readers. Talking to black and Asian broadsheet buyers, we found that they had markedly negative views about the coverage of minorities – both in terms of the space given and the issues reported. And this was true for all papers, regardless of political stance. In another focus group, one member said he believed that black people are only ever reported as “victims, villains, or village idiots”.

Tiny space for minorities

Are these perceptions correct? Last year we carried out some analysis of content from a fortnight’s papers taken at random. Obviously this has to be viewed with caution – we weren’t using established scientific methods – but it was interesting anecdotally nevertheless. Outside the foreign pages, a tiny amount of space was allocated to minorities. And within the overall coverage, white people were reported overwhelmingly positively; Asian people were reported overwhelmingly negatively (almost all stories were about Muslim terrorism); and, although black people’s coverage was equally balanced between positive and negative, almost all the positive stories were, stereotypically, either entertainment- or sports-related. So it seems that the black and Asian readers are right. There is no paranoia – the media really have got it in for you.

Editors would no doubt counter that we’re in the middle of a major Islamic terrorist threat, so this is bound to affect coverage. I accept this point. But the issue is balance. For every story about a (white) politician who’s been exposed as incompetent, there’s another of (white) human achievement, or act of selfless charity, or miracle birth, or whatever – and, let’s face it, even stories of white criminals, for example, are offset by the appearance of a prominent, responsible, white authority figure, be it a judge, barrister or police chief. With black and Asian coverage, such counterbalance is rare. It has to be significant that almost every story which is published in the national press has to have the approval of a white desk editor – most of whom have had little or no contact with any of Britain’s minority communities. This means that a story which might be of great importance to, say, a person of Indian or Caribbean origin is far less likely to arouse the interest of the man or woman deciding the news list.

We all remember the Asian tsunami, when more than 100,000 people drowned. Well, we probably don’t, because I’m talking about the huge tidal wave caused by the Bangladesh cyclone in 1991. It was covered at the time by some newspapers, but within a couple of days – even as the massive scale of the disaster was becoming clear – the story had been relegated to the international pages, and the main news agenda had moved on.Compare this with the tsunami of December 2004, which involved white British holidaymakers, and the contrast couldn’t be sharper. And, yes, the latter did happen on Boxing Day – a quiet news time – and the local suffering did end up being reported; but that followed from the fact that the world’s media converged on the region from the outset, placing their senior correspondents in position to relay the shocking individual tragedies which emerged.

Britain has a large Bangladeshi-origin population which would have been anxiously awaiting reports of the 1991 cyclone, but the fact that they had no access to the mainstream media meant they had no easy means of receiving news of their relatives. An editor who had a connection to Britain’s minorities might have realised that not only was there a huge story to be reported, but that his (and in 1991, it would more likely to have been “his”) newspaper might also gain extra readers, too. I believe that’s what marketing types call a win-win situation.

Even when overseas stories are reported at length, one often gains only a one-dimensional impression of events. When sporadic fighting broke out in Kenya over the disputed election results last December, many of the press dusted off their tired old “tribes fighting each other” line to report what was mainly a politically based conflict. The word “tribe”, evocative of those spear-carrying “natives” from the old Tarzan movies, has become raciallyloaded shorthand. It says, basically: they’re savages, they’re irrational, and they’ll fight over anything. So there’s little need to explain the details, or the often complex history, of a particular issue. Compare the coverage of similar conflicts in Europe, such as Northern Ireland or the Balkans – which could equally be described as tribal warfare but never are. Europeans don’t walk around carrying shields and wearing grass skirts – and neither do Kenyans. Foreign reporting, though, has to be more than just about disasters, or wars. We hear of white people – be they in Australia, South Africa, Europe or, of course, the United States – when they have surfing accidents, when the sprinklers on their golf courses run dry, or when they have embarrassing TV incidents. All of these serve to bring us closer to the citizens of those countries: we see them in their full humanity – as more than just victims of atrocities or natural disasters. People of colour, however, seem to make news only when the four horsemen arrive in town.

If our media reported internal American news the same way as they do Africa’s, which stories would we have heard this century? Doubtless only that the U.S. had elections in which the presidency was seized by a candidate with fewer votes than his rival; that the centre of one of its major cities was reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack; and that when another city was flooded, with its homes destroyed and a thousand dead, the dominant tribe left the minority tribe to rot. Doesn’t exactly provide the full picture, does it?

Another dehumanising phrase

Domestically, the commonly-used term “black-on-black”, always in the context of violence, is another dehumanising phrase. Again, no need for further explanation: it’s just what these people do. Can the wife and mother-in-law of the policeman Garry Weddell, who killed them before shooting himself, be written off as victims of “white-on-white” violence. No, there must have been some kind of reason for it. We must find out what happened. If only those last two sentences applied more often when black people make the news.

So why, despite the fact that black and Asian journalists are playing a role in our national newspapers, does this kind of reporting still happen? Obviously, the low numbers are a key factor. Despite the reticence of newspapers to give figures, I’m willing to bet with any of them that their minority journalists could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Their responses are reminiscent of the comments one would receive 10 or so years ago: “We can’t have a racism problem here – we don’t have any black journalists!” Another factor is the lack of seniority. Given that many minority journalists have joined their papers only in the last decade, they are not able significantly to affect their newspaper’s editorial line. Having said that, anecdotal evidence is that black and Asian journalists who’ve been around for many more than 10 years haven’t risen up the career ladder as quickly as their white colleagues. There are several white editors who have been in the industry less than a decade. In a way, this mirrors the situation with black footballers. Two decades ago, they were seen as not having the right attributes to make it as professionals – not enough strength of character, not quite the right temperament, the managers and pundits would say. Today, black footballers are at the highest levels everywhere, yet they still face the same old prejudices if they want to move into management. Despite the large number of black players, in the entire 92-club Premier and Football Leagues there is only one black manager – and there has yet to be a black British boss in the top division.

So do today’s newspapers really trust us minority journalists yet? It seems they now feel reasonably OK about sending us out to cover stories, but giving us real responsibility for managing staff and deciding tomorrow’s news agenda is another matter. Added to that is the need felt by so many journalists to fit in. National newspaper offices are can be very intimidating to those journalists either straight out of university or who have worked only on small publications.

Imagine you’re the only brown face in an all-white office: you’re likely to feel inhibited suggesting ideas about the latest Bollywood film or black theatre production. Your first contacts are likely to be with junior editors who know that the best way to move upwards is to get to understand the boss and give him or her what they want. The higher up the chain – as a 2006 survey by the Sutton Trust educational charity confirmed – the more middle-class, public school and Oxbridge the structure becomes. Would they prefer a story from Peckham or Purley? Brixton Academy or the Royal Academy? After a few rejections (and I’ve had this conversation with several black and Asian colleagues), many minority journalists are left wondering whether they should simply keep their individualism quiet. Moreover, what do you say when you see a particularly negative and misleading example of reporting of your own community? Speak up, or shut up? Risk your career by alienating your bosses, or live a lie and take the misery home with you? All of this calls into question the very meaning of the word “diversity” within the print industry.

Do we want our newspapers to reflect properly the communities they cover? Or is it just about having brown faces covering the same stories, from the same angles, as before? Aside from the editors, the major newspaper power figures are columnists and critics – the so-called opinion formers. On politics, books, music CDs, cinema, theatre, DVDs, concerts, restaurants, these are the people paid to tell the readers what to think. And their exclusive club is even whiter than the editors’, with writers Gary Younge and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Daily Mail showbusiness columnist Baz Bamigboye being notable exceptions. Across the press there are literally hundreds of pundits with a regular space to air their views, yet the number from a minority background does not even reach double figures.

Just before Christmas I had a call from Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose play Statement of Regret was on at the National Theatre. He couldn’t understand why many of his black colleagues had been complimentary about it, yet the national paper reviews had been mixed. So he organised a separate press evening for black journalists, many of whom worked in the national press (but, obviously, not as critics). I went along and thought that, although the play wasn’t flawless, it was entertaining and raised many significant and thought-provoking issues about the relationship between British Africans and British Caribbeans. Many others present that evening thought likewise.

A ridiculous allegation

Reading those press reviews afterwards, it was as if I’d seen a completely different play. One reviewer couldn’t get over the fact that it was set in a black think-tank (such a thing, he surmised, was beyond the bounds of possibility); another wondered why anyone would be interested in such an internal black issue; yet another was annoyed that it left his mind “swimming” with thoughts (I always assumed that this was the sign of a good production). I’m not claiming that every white critic will automatically pan black productions, only that sometimes you need a little knowledge to understand exactly what it is you’re critiquing.

When, two years ago, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair accused the media of institutional racism over their coverage of white murders compared with black, leader articles and columnists swiftly and roundly condemned him. This was a ridiculous and unfounded allegation, they declared in united outrage. Interestingly, every one of the columnists so moved was white, and few of them even bothered to examine the grounds for Blair’s claim. Might it not have been interesting to see a black or Asian perspective on this issue – or did commissioning a different voice require too much creative thought, too much thinking outside the box?

In the current context, having a black Fleet Street editor would almost certainly make little difference beyond symbolism. Would anyone with a significantly different outlook be able to work their way up to a position where they could seriously be in the running for such a post? If we really are to make our press more fair and representative in its coverage, we need to get beyond mere “diversity” and move towards inclusion – where members of staff feel equally valued whatever their background. Where they wouldn’t feel it damaging to their career to query the selection of stories, the columnists’ lazy stereotyped assumptions, or their paper’s leader line. Where the difference of their culture, religion or global origins is seen as an asset, and a way of reaching new readers, rather than a threat to the established order.

In modern-day Britain, papers retaining a mono-cultural outlook could soon begin to appear outdated and out of touch to their readers and risk missing out on major stories. On July 7, 2005, as London was ravaged by bombings, how many news editors were pleading: “Is there a Muslim in the house?” And as global issues become more and more local, how much of an advantage would it have been recently to be able to call on someone with a Pakistani or a Kenyan family connection?

As newspapers face more and more intense competition, both in print and online, surely they can’t afford to ignore Britain’s growing minority populations. The assumption that things can continue as they always have, with a wealthy, well-connected elite handing down news from above, expecting their underlings to try to imitate them, just doesn’t fit our 21st century profile. Ultimately, what surely we all want is for all sections of society to feel they are properly represented in the range, variety and balance of stories written about them. In other words, expand the overall treatment afforded to white people in the press – as journalists, readers, and those reported – to the whole population. But how many newspaper organisations will genuinely commit themselves to reaching that goal?