THE VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS

Its enemies include the Mail on Sunday, the head of the Metropolitan Police, and many black journalists. What is it about Britain's leading black newspaper that puts people's backs up?
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The Independent Culture
FOR SOMEONE supposed to start riots, Annie Stewart looks rather delicate. Inside the cuffs of her smart dark suit, her wrists are thin. As she slips in behind the vast desk from which she edits the Voice, the black tabloid widely held to have whipped Brixton into a self-destructive fury eight weeks ago, her cheekbones catch the strip-lighting. She seems more ready for salad at Nicole Farhi.

But Stewart has a hard stare. By her office door, above a pile of proofs for next week's paper, she has pinned a notice. "Do not take Annie's pages from here," it reads in thick capitals. "You are fucking up the system." To the right of her desk, there is a firm-jawed photograph of Malcolm X; behind it, a photocopy of a recent article about the Voice from the London Evening Standard, entitled "A Riot Of A Read". At this desk, she has just overseen a six-page assault on Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, for suggesting on local radio that her newspaper is deliberately inaccurate, "dangerously irresponsible", even "inflammatory". The police have shown, she says, "a lack of respect".

The Voice has been feuding with them for months. It began last July, when Condon made a speech suggesting that 80 per cent of muggers in some parts of London were black, and the paper splashed "Condon You're An Ass!" across its front page. Since then, animosity has spiralled into accusation and counter-accusation, with neither side apparently wishing to concede or keep quiet. In early December, a young unemployed black man called Wayne Douglas was found dead in a cell in Brixton police station. He had been arrested an hour before, for stealing a loaf of bread at knife-point; the police said that they had chased and restrained him with their newly issued long batons. A week later, the Voice produced a witness who claimed to have seen more than restraint: "Police were kicking him and punching him," read the witness's front-page account. "You could hear the sound of their batons on his bones." An accompanying photograph of thick police batons emphasised the point.

The next day, a demonstration outside the police station over Douglas's death turned to rioting. Afterwards, other newspapers were quick to identify the Voice as provocative. Its "inflammatory reporting" helped "to fuel the flames", reported the Evening Standard. Two weekends ago, Condon went into the studios of London News 97.3fm to expand on this, claiming that the Voice's Douglas story had "fuelled discontent" and relied on "alleged eyewitness accounts that were never substantiated". The paper's allegations of a police beating "had no substance", he said. In reply, the Voice 10 days ago put out a "Met In Crisis" special: a photograph of Condon on the front, in black silhouette, stiff as Oswald Mosley; afterwards, page after page on deaths in police custody ("47" since 1969), police harassment ("black people are five times more likely to be stopped"), internal police racism ("many leave in despair"), and, in consequence, "decades of trouble" between black Londoners and the Metropolitan Police.

Now, the day after publishing all this, Stewart is waiting in her glass- walled office for Condon's reply. All morning and afternoon her phone has been shrill with responses - readers have been "very supportive", inquiring Evening Standard reporters less so - but the Commissioner's office is saying nothing. The Police Complaints Authority is investigating Douglas's death, but will not report for weeks. In the meantime, Stewart is not going to back down: "Putting this special together has let a lot of people know what is happening between the police and black people," she says, clipping her Caribbean emphases. "I've no second thoughts about printing at all."

Her defence of her original Wayne Douglas story is unyielding: "We didn't print anywhere near half of our witness's statement... I spoke to him yesterday, and he is willing to go into a court of law." How had she come across this witness? "A friend of his phoned. The witness had seen this thing. He didn't know what to do, and his friend said, 'Let's go to the Voice.'" Why did she give his account such confrontational treatment? "You've got this grieving family - they want to know what happened. The people who are getting together and demonstrating - they want to know what happened. And we want to know what happened as well." She sounds practised, resigned to the passing interest of "white" newspapers. So far she has not smiled or shaken hands. She looks past the photographer, through the glass walls and into the early-evening hum of her small newsroom. If he wants to take pictures of her staff, he "will have to ask them". They may not want to give their permission.

A VISIT to the Voice initially seems to confirm the prejudices of those who find it threatening. Its offices are on a dim stretch of Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, opposite a stained grey cliff of council housing. One neighbour is a car-tyre warehouse ("London's Largest Selection"); the other protects its premises with old barbed wire. Trains rattle by, very near. Entrance to the Voice itself, which occupies an upstairs fraction of a squat factory block, is a squeeze through parked cars, then a quick duck along a cold concrete corridor, scattered with litter, to be met by scarred factory doors and a black plastic intercom. As you speak into it, a security camera watches.

But this is not the hidden-away headquarters of some black version of Class War. Behind the factory doors, reception is a warm blast of soft chairs, plants, and recessed lighting. The lattice frames of the (Thirties) factory windows are as carefully repainted as any Hampstead business conversion. Copies of a black women's lifestyle magazine called Pride, which is also published here, wait to be thumbed. "Refugee Turned Cover Girl", reads a cover line. Staff walk past: some black, some white, some crisply middle-class, all smart. One says "Ciao".

In their editor's office, the frost melts after 15 minutes. "I thought our Condon special would put the story to bed," Stewart confesses. "I haven't been in this job long, and it's quite wearing. It's a very small company, and it's very difficult sometimes to keep reacting to all these criticisms..." She smiles wearily. "They make us look as if we are some kind of subversive rag out there."

With careful pauses, she disarms her views on the police: first, down to mild Guardian-leader complaint - "Sometimes the police can be extremely heavy-handed... they would like to keep it brushed under the carpet" - then to conciliation that even the tabloids would approve of - "The police are there to do a job. The majority of black people are extremely conservative, and will always be behind the police." She points out that the Voice condemned December's riot. She is fairly convincing. The Voice's kneejerk militancy - "flashpoint" was the caption for a neutral-looking photo of a policeman meeting a black man in the "Met" issue - is not its only tone, just its most noticed. The paper's non-news pages, as Stewart points out, are a thick fold of consumer listings, friendly profiles, "day in the life" features, even religious columnists preaching about responsibility - all the mild, aspirational stuff of middle-market journalism. A substantial majority of its 47,000 weekly buyers are young women. "We've always been accused of being the black Sun," Stewart says, "but the last edition was a very Mail On Sunday look."

This dual desire to aspire and to confront has been with the Voice since the beginning. Its founder, Val McCalla, was born in a poor part of Kingston, Jamaica, during the Second World War. Unlike most of his peers, he got out: winning a place at Kingston College, training as an accountant, and emigrating to Britain in the Seventies. A decade later, he was helping to edit a double-page of news aimed at the black readers of a left-wing London paper called the East End News. McCalla's section was already entitled "The Voice"; he had the idea of expanding it into a complete national newspaper for black people whose parents were from Africa or the Caribbean but who had themselves been born in Britain. Existing black newspapers like the Caribbean Times and the Jamaican Gleaner, which had been imported since 1951, wrote more for older immigrants, with an eye for news back "home". Nevertheless, "nobody thought the Voice would work," says Beulah Ainley, who was McCalla's co-editor on the East End News. "But there were a lot of aspiring black journalists around, who would work for very little." By 1982, when McCalla set up shop in Hackney to launch his paper in time for the Notting Hill Carnival, something else was in his favour. The previous summer, Brixton had rioted, and black enterprises of all kinds were now being encouraged in the hope of preventing a repetition. London's councils, in particular, were keen to advertise for black staff, and even keener to do so in a black newspaper. McCalla also had a business partner, Alex Pascall, with BBC connections; soon the Corporation was advertising too.

McCalla also received start-up money from a less popular source. "He borrowed from Barclays Bank when it was up to its neck in South Africa," says Ainley. She refused to work for him, but plenty of others would: for a time the Voice attracted "the cream of black journalists", remembers one of its old staff. From the start the paper campaigned, especially against racism in the Metropolitan Police. It quickly became a black sounding-board. "The majority of calls we get are from black people with problems," says Stewart, who joined as a reporter in 1987. "It's not necessarily even a story that they want us to do... They want to know who can help them." But success also took commercial form, in which McCalla was equally interested. He started in London, then swiftly spread the paper to other British cities with substantial black populations. He moved the paper's offices first to Mile End, then to more high-profile Brixton. By the end of the decade, a line of black Saab Turbos sat outside. In the early Nineties, circulation peaked at 55,000 - the Voice was selling to one in 10 of London's black population. Council recruiting carried the paper during recession years; McCalla decided to diversify.

In 1992 - the year he became, thanks mainly to the Voice, Britain's 14th richest black businessman - McCalla launched a weekend Voice, a colour supplement, a magazine called Chic, a record label and, another, broadsheet newspaper called the Weekly Journal. All of these except the Journal failed quickly. "McCalla had one really good idea," says one of his former employees. The Journal was widely criticised at its launch as an alleged "spoiler", intended to undermine another new upmarket black paper, Black Briton. This had been founded by a former Voice editor; McCalla was said to perceive it as a long-term threat to the Voice. Within two months of the Journal's arrival, Black Briton was driven out of the market. Last Decem-ber, McCalla closed the Journal. Former staff say its paper-thin res-ources were never intended to sustain it - just to protect McCalla's Voice, which now sells more than twice as many copies as any other black newspaper. "I don't think he messes around," says Ainley.

McCalla is not popular. Black critics say his business tactics are unnecessarily rough and secretive (he never gives interviews or agrees to be photographed). Critics in the white media, notably the Mail On Sunday, accuse him of hypocrisy: for living comfortably in Sussex - they reported he owned a "pounds 150,000" house, drove a BMW, and sent his daughters to private school - while the Voice claims to reflect the anger of Brixton.

Not all of this seems quite fair. McCalla has got through eight editors in 14 years of the Voice, and he does ring up halfway through an interview with his latest (he asks Stewart about how long it is, and who it's with), but newspaper proprietors tend to be dictatorial. And McCalla's bad reputation is not based solely on such behaviour: "Some people in ethnic journalism are jealous of his success," says Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. The hypocrisy charge, meanwhile, looks mean-spirited. Mc-Calla's house is hardly a palace by the standards of the South-east, let alone by the standards of white newspaper proprietors - or Mail On Sunday journalists. "It's a hundred, a hundred and twenty thousand just for a little terraced house round here," says Stewart, who lives in east London. "Perhaps the perception is that black people should all live in Brixton in a council house and be on the dole." If McCalla did that, you imagine, the Mail On Sunday would just swap its "hypocrite" angle for "scrounger".

The attacks on his newspaper for being "inflammatory" betray unpleasant assumptions too. The leap from publishing a headline saying "Tell Us The Truth" about a death in custody to actually provoking a riot is a large and unlikely one; that so many papers were so quick to believe that the Voice had made this leap may say more about their attitudes to race than the Voice's. The kind of front-page anger that is seen as tough in other tabloids is perceived, often by the same white commentators, as dangerous in the Voice. And Stewart has to answer the outrage of MPs and policemen and talkshow hosts, of a type never suffered by other tabloid editors: she is told to "lead" her perceived "community". As she points out, "How would those papers feel if Condon, or Michael Howard, turned round to them and said, 'You shouldn't print that story?' "

MORE SUBSTANTIAL criticisms can be made of McCalla's newspaper, however. Many of its intended audience challenge its worthiness to act as their "Voice". "A lot of people buy the Voice because they feel they should," says one black journalist who has chosen to work elsewhere. Another is blunter: "I think the Voice is a pile of shite. It does its readers a huge disservice." The problem is the sheer weight of the expectations it carries. One of Sir Paul Condon's attacks will have met with much covert agreement: "I have been disappointed because the Voice should be an influential paper within the black community..."

All newspapers are prejudiced and inaccurate to some degree, but the Voice seems to have a particular reputation for axe-grinding and shoddiness. Non-racial angles are ignored to an extent that can sometimes blot out areas of likely reader interest, while misprints and awkward phrasing are common. (A recent headline misspelt "Rejuvenate" as "Rejunevate".) There are countless newspapers that are worse; but, with the Voice, people seem to mind.

Darcus Howe, a prominent Black columnist - perhaps Britain's only prominent Black national newspaper columnist - sees it as "a mediocre paper... You can have a campaigning paper, but your facts have to be accurate, your writing has to be good." Steve Pope, who used to edit it, and now co-owns the X Press, a black fiction publishers, says, "You won't get experienced journalists being paid pounds 10,000 a year. You'll get a certain level of journalism... Money has gone elsewhere that could have been used to make the Voice a better product."

For a paper with the circulation of a substantial local weekly, the Voice has a tiny staff: 20 people and a few small clusters of swing chairs and Apple Macs. Stewart's tour of the offices lasts minutes; she says she currently has no deputy editor and no news editor ("gone to South Africa"). Why do she and her staff persevere? One answer is the continuing lack of opportunities elsewhere. Beulah Ainley has written a PhD about black and Asian employment in the British media. "At the moment there are between 12 and 20 black journalists on the national papers," she says. (This is less than 0.5 per cent of their staff, around 10 times smaller than the black proportion of the national population.) "They all have one, but there's no more than three on each. It's a covert quota." Local papers, she says, are even worse. When Stewart started at the Voice, "You'd get a lot of young black journalists coming in. Give them a job, and they'd be here for six, nine months, and off they'd go to the BBC... That seems to have stopped now." She lowers her voice: "Maybe the BBC have got their quota of black people [they do employ a representative proportion], and don't want any more." What she does not say is that the Voice may not be the CV point it once was.

But the paper does have power still. The very attacks on it help ensure that. "Condon is going to regret taking it on," acknowledges Howe. "The Voice is not easily defeated... I know thousands of black people who would put money in boxes to save it." Herman Ouseley sees a wider influence. "Who the hell knew of Wayne Douglas? Most black people only heard about him through the Voice." Its effect may actually be the opposite of inflammatory: "There is a huge sense of grievance that black people are being ignored by the press... Because the Voice is there, it helps to cool some people."

Perhaps this power is the best it can achieve. All attempts to launch more upmarket black newspapers, to sell what the Voice's critics say it lacks - thoughtfulness, precision, elegance - have failed. By and large, corporate advertisers still do not advertise in black papers; the Voice, for all its sales and longevity, still relies heavily on a dozen pages of recruitment notices from the capital's councils. Mean-while, black readers who want a more considered newspaper still do what they have always done: they buy a white-run broadsheet.

In the end, the Voice is a tabloid which is scrappy in places, but no cruder or ruder than most. Yet its 65p-worth of weekly distraction also has to carry the weight of the black experience in Britain. Ouseley sees the Voice as having to satisfy the "anger" and "aspiration" of "black youth". Stewart says, "I've been accused of stitching people up many times: you do a story on someone... Because it's a black newspaper, they expect you to be pretty sympathetic. When you're not, they do get very upset."

Outside in reception, a phone rings. "Good Afternoon. Voice Group. Can I help you?" a secretary asks, politeness helping pay for a degree. "You want to talk to a reporter? What is it regarding?... Regarding race?... I'll put you through." !

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