t was 1981 and Coventry was enjoying, or rather enduring, an unaccustomed prominence in the national news agenda. The former boom town was experiencing mass unemployment for the first time in living memory and industrial correspondents and television reporters were queuing up to deliver the obituaries. On a brighter note, local band The Specials were still riding high in the charts. But the racism that they had set out to confront turned nastier than ever when two separate street attacks led to the deaths of a student and a GP. Both were Asian.
In the offices of the Evening Telegraph, the editor pondered the paper's response. Geoff Elliott had recently arrived back in the city where he had grown up and was determined to do more than just report the depressingly horrific facts of those killings. "I needed to understand what was going on and how the various faith groups felt about the way their members were being treated," he recalls. "So we established a network of links and appointed a community relations reporter. We also set up a memorial appeal, which enabled an awful lot of readers to register their support for a more tolerant society."
Elliott, now 60, is still wrestling with journalism's response to the issues raised by racial and religious difference. His guidebook, Reporting Diversity, offers advice on how journalists can contribute to community cohesion in a United Kingdom that has become complex in its ethnic make-up in the intervening 25 years. The book, commissioned by the Home Office, has been praised by Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality and ordered in some numbers by the Daily Mail. How significant is that? Well, Elliott points out that the Mail has keen antennae for changes in attitudes among its readers. The same goes for other newspapers that traditionally pander to the prejudices of what the chattering classes call Middle England. "I sense," he muses, "that these papers are more interested in the sort of society that we have now than their histories might suggest. Attitudes are changing fast as each generation becomes more tolerant than their parents."
The Mail published a guide to Islam in the aftermath of 11 September. Unfortunately, the article came with a picture of the prophet Mohamed for which it subsequently felt obliged to make profuse apologies to Muslims. Offence might have been avoided had Elliott's book been available at the time. There's a section on "how to get it right". Not to be confused with political correctness, he says. "I'm not telling journalists to use euphemisms instead of the truth. They are, quite rightly, willing to offend when it's necessary to do so.
"In the course of researching this book," he goes on, "I gathered together a lot of information that I felt would be useful to pass on to journalists who want to make their coverage more acceptable to ethnic minorities. If you use the correct terms, readers will take on board your story or your argument. Get it wrong and they'll switch off."
The book also contains information about the UK in terms of its religious make-up and the urban concentrations of black and Asian population. Elliott then goes on to recount efforts by editors in places such as Birmingham, Leicester, Bradford, Oldham and, yes, Coventry to widen their appeal to potential readers from minority backgrounds. He quotes Jim Williams, editor of the Oldham Evening Chronicle, as saying: "Significant numbers of our, shall we say, traditional readers have reacted badly to an increase in pictures and stories from the minority ethnic communities, so inclusiveness is not without its problems."
Isn't that also an issue for national papers as they struggle to please readers in ethnically diverse London as well as, say, the overwhelmingly white West Country? There's hardly a black or brown face to be seen here in the café at Taunton Dene services on the M5 where Elliott is discoursing. He lives not far away, in a Devon hamlet, having opted for early retirement after editing three regional newspapers and being head of journalism at the University of Central Lancashire. "There are parts of the country," he concedes, "where you find people talking as though Britain hasn't changed. And I guess there are some white people who are turned off by coverage of issues that seem remote from them. But as journalists we have to have some belief in promoting a society that is at ease with itself. Regardless of the difficulties, editors in all sections of the media have to accept responsibility for changing the communities that they serve. If they can't make different people in communities understand one another, then there isn't anybody who can. Who else can address broad swathes of people from different ethnic backgrounds?"
Broadcasters have led the way in recruitment as well as coverage. Greg Dyke addressed the "hideous" whiteness of the BBC during his brief reign as director-general. But he wasn't alone. In 2001, all the major UK broadcasters announced that they planned to put diversity "right at the heart of the creative process". Clive Jones, then chief executive of Carlton and now of ITV News, became the first chairman of the Cultural Diversity Network, proclaiming: "I'm a commercial broadcaster. I want bums on sofas watching programmes on ITV. Show-me-the-money is an ethic I understand, and one that motivates my programme-makers and sales forces. But the diverse population of Britain will watch programmes only if these are relevant to their lives."
Show-me-the-money is a concept that newspaper proprietors also understand all too well, and the creation of the National Newspaper Diversity Forum is one sign that the issue is being taken seriously. "You only have to see the number of black and brown faces on our screens to realise that the recruitment targets in broadcasting have brought real benefits," Elliott says, "and that hasn't been lost on newspaper managements."
He is also encouraged by the bursaries being offered by the National Council for the Training of Journalists and workshops being set up by the Society of Editors - both aimed at potential recruits from ethnic minorities. Elliott's association with the society goes back a long way. Indeed, he wrote Reporting Diversity on its behalf, having persuaded the Home Office that a publication for journalists should be written by a journalist rather than prescribed by its Media Practitioner Group. "The consultation process with interested parties seemed to take longer than the research and writing," he confides. "Some of the suggestions were so 'right on' that, had we accepted them, most journalists would have taken one look and tossed the book in the bin."
The Race in the Media awards take place this Wednesday at the Royal Opera House