Race in the media: In plain black and white

The picture on the right shows a typical Fleet Street scrum of snappers, hacks and camera crews. And barely a black face in sight.
Click to follow
DOES ANYONE know precisely how many journalists working in the national press are drawn from ethnic minorities? More to the point, does anyone in the national press actually care?

The answer to the first one is almost certainly "no". As for the second, well, judging by the complete lack of any systematic ethnic monitoring on any of our national titles (including this one), the current response runs something along the lines of "probably not", or at least "not enough".

Politicians ducking uncomfortable truths habitually head for the nearest statistic and hide. The newspaper industry seeking similar refuge will find precious little behind which to crouch. The National Union of Journalists estimates that around 1.8 per cent of its 28,000 members are from ethnic minorities, a figure based on a voluntary questionnaire enclosed with each membership application form.

According to the most recent research available, carried out six months ago by Beulah Ainley, author of the book Black Journalists White Media, there are only 24 non-white staff journalists on the national press; that's 24 out of approximately 3,000. The union believes the figure is slightly higher, but puts it above no more than a "few dozen".

"The situation is very fluid," explains Ms Ainley, who is also a former member of the NUJ's Black Members Council. "People come and go all the time, which makes it difficult to be precise, and of course there may be more writing and contributing freelance like myself. But they won't be getting the benefits of full-time work: holidays, sick pay, pensions."

Whichever figure you believe - and they are all contestable - the total lags some way behind the 6 per cent of the national population that blacks and Asians constitute.

Newspaper editors do not need surveys to tell them that ethnic minorities are under-represented: they can look out across the office every morning and see it in the faces of their staff.

"The press have for months been reporting the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the under-representation of black people in the police force," says Ms Ainley. "They fail to report that they employ even fewer black people than the police. I don't think there is any direct racism, and certainly no black journalists I spoke to have said that.

"No editor says `we're not going to employ black people'. It's just that they don't take it very seriously. The biggest problem is that it's not seen as a problem at all."

Does it matter? "Yes, because the media is the visible face of society," says Chris Myant, of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). "It is a key way that people see role models and positive images. Positive images in the sense that if Trevor McDonald reads the news or the editor of a national newspaper is Asian, then it sends out the right messages about career possibilities. It also defies the stereotype that black people are either thick of lazy.

"I also think it helps the media better understand issues of race in society. One reason the print media has had such difficulties in relation to race issues is race equality is not a part of their everyday life."

The CRE confirms what most suspect or probably know to be the case: in terms of equal opportunities, broadcasting has moved into the digital age while print is still mucking around with typewriters and carrier pigeons.

The NUJ believes there has been some progress, but it is simply that broadcasting has taken off at such a lick that the press is positively static by comparison. It probably takes no more than 20 seconds to rattle off a list of high-profile names from the broadcast media - Trevor McDonald, Martin Bashir, Samir Shah, Zeinab Badawi, George Alagiah, Rajeev Omaar, Trevor Phillips, Andi Peters, Moira Stuart.

Even for the industry-literate, it takes a few more minutes to come up with Kamal Ahmed, media editor of The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph's Mihir Bose, Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail, The Independent's columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Emma Lindsay, an Observer sports columnist, and Ekow Eshun, editor of Arena magazine. Broadcasting is, admittedly, an easier industry for the commission to lobby; relatively few players account for a hefty chunk of the business. Broadcasting is also governed by certain social responsibility obligations: the BBC's charter and the Broadcasting Act both contain provisions that relate to equal opportunities.

On the other hand, print is an unregulated mess. It is not so much a function of intent, says the CRE, as the way papers have evolved: more an issue of an unsound structure than a suspect attitude. There is no formal ethnic monitoring (although News International may well have a system in place within a year) and, almost without exception, no formal recruitment schemes beyond graduate entry.

"The fact that there are few black or Asian faces may raise the issue, but it is not evidence of discrimination," says Mr Myant. "There have been no industrial tribunal cases, for instance. It's just that the networks through which people are recruited tend to disfavour black and Asians.

"We have to, I think, be very concerned about the lack of any formalised, open recruitment procedures for national newspapers. You almost never see a post on a national advertised, unless it's something specialist they are having more difficulty filling, like Guardian On-line.

"We're not saying that the issue stands or falls, or whether employers advertise posts, but it has significant impact on people's awareness and perceptions of the opportunities available. We argue that the only way forward is open, measurable, accountable procedure based on objective criteria."

In other words no more of this arcane, word of mouth nonsense which only perpetuates the present imperfections.

"It's a cultural rather than racist point," says Mr Bose, who writes about sport and business for The Daily Telegraph. "When newspapers recruit, it's haphazard, therefore the old network links remain. Nobody seems to be sitting down and saying `shouldn't we be looking at other ways of finding people?' There's not much creativity in the way people are found."

The CRE favoured strategy is to appoint sector leaders, figures who will campaign for equal opportunities in their particular fields. For example, the efforts of Clive Jones, Carlton's chief executive, have helped secure the recruitment of a special producer who ensures that the casting in programmes is suitably multiracial. Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, has promised to publish the ethnic breakdown of his staff in the bank's annual report.

The newspaper industry's sector leader is Robin Pauley, managing editor of the Financial Times. Mr Pauley says that part of the problem is that many black and Asians are not applying for the FT's graduate trainee scheme in the first place.

The mix is improving, helped by adverts in the ethnic press, and for the last two years, an Asian has been one of the two to be recruited.

Like the CRE, the NUJ believes it is time to act. But while they both share a common purpose the two have yet to formulate a joint approach. The union wants first to establish the precise levels of black and Asian staffing on the national press; it has briefed chapels to count and report back and then confront the sector with its inadequacies.

But it recognises that change, though positive, will be gradual and probably starts with training. Through the George Viner Fund, the NUJ hands out six grants worth pounds 1,000 each every year to black and Asian students who have secured places on journalism courses.

The CRE at least senses a shift in desire. "When we went to national newspapers six years ago," says Mr Myant, "we were looked on as politically correct imbeciles.

"The feeling now is that it needs a new approach, and that we would be more successful if we were to go back today."