Lester Holloway: 'Victim stories have had their day in black papers'

The new editor of 'New Nation' newspaper, says it's time for the ethnic press to move on from a 'oppressed' mindset, but insists slavery is still a hot topic.
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The Independent Online

Four decades after Enoch Powell's scapegoating of post-war immigrants in his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech, it really is time, says Lester Holloway, that Britain's black communities escaped the yoke of victimhood and started celebrating their successes.

Holloway was last month confirmed as editor of New Nation, which styles itself as "Britain's number one selling black newspaper", and he is convinced that an adjustment in tone is overdue in the media that targets the African and Caribbean populations.

"Stories with an emphasis on victimhood – what they have done to us – have had their day. There are stories on racism that have to be done, but they have to be quite spectacular really, we don't want to get into the situation where we are running victim of the week," he says. "We have emphasis on empowerment stories and historical stories, stories that uplift and offer food for thought."

So, New Nation finds room to profile the black burlesque dancers and the classical music protégés who challenge prejudices. "We are not just interested in success in sports and pop music, but unusual achievements as well. We did a great story on a young violin player getting rave reviews and we are looking to constantly break the stereotypes about the areas that black people can achieve in," Holloway adds.

Whether Britain's African-Caribbeans are walking with an extra spring in their step after the recent revelation on the New Nation's front page last week that "Spongebob Squarepants is Black!" must be questionable, but last month the paper scooped an exclusive interview with Thierry Henry, in which the Barcelona star appealed for greater respect for Muslim culture.

Holloway, 37, says it's time for the paper to up its game in business coverage, reflecting strides being taken by its target audience. "We are now rejecting some of the stories that come our way about small or medium-sized start ups – if we are going to be profiling business people, we need to be profiling people at the top of their game," he says.

There's a problem there, in that many people choose not to be identified by their ethnicity. "There are a lot of successful black people out there, but they don't chase publicity themselves, nobody but their friends know who they are."

Indeed in 2008, some might question whether there's a need in Britain for an ethnic media. Holloway, unsurprisingly, says he is a "passionate believer" that there is such a need, and cites the recent launches of online radio station Colourful and the British version of the American-owned television network Black Entertainment Television (BET) as evidence of this. He accepts, however, that there are black people who are not drawn to media just because it features people of similar ethnicity. "The target audience in the black press are people who are more conscious, who are really interested in what's going on and what debates are happening," he says. "Clearly there are a large section of those who don't and that's fine, they can continue to use the BBC and mainstream media. But we are doing a lot of stories that you won't find elsewhere."

All newspapers are having to fight harder than ever for advertising and the situationis especially tough for New Nation and its fellow black weekly The Voice which, along with titles targeting Asian readers, no longer enjoy the advertising revenues that were available in the Eighties and Nineties from an equality-conscious public sector.

The money hasn't moved online to websites belonging to those newspapers, it's just not being spent, says Holloway. "The onus has shifted and the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry has disappeared into the distance. What we have seen is a massive fall in public sector spending in the traditional black media."

New Nation, owned by the Ethnic Media Group, has an ABC of 21,000 and claims a readership of 60,000. The Voice, where Holloway once worked as a reporter and which he says was once a "cash cow", does not have an ABC figure. The Voice was founded in the aftermath of the Brixton riots more than 20 years ago and has been a launch pad for such journalistic talents as Rageh Omaar, Trevor Phillips and Martin Bashir. The two titles are now locked in what Holloway calls "a real dogfight".

Holloway's quest for good stories is not entirely new, as the paper's founder, Tetteh Kofi, has said he wanted New Nation to be less victim-oriented than its competitors when he launched the paper in 1996. It's also not been easy to ignore discrimination stories. Coverage of claims about town hall racism preventing the growth of black-run churches is a recent example.

The London Evening Standard's Andrew Gilligan is critical of New Nation's reluctance to follow up his investigations into the conduct of Ken Livingstone's race adviser Lee Jasper, but Holloway has seen up close Jasper's efforts in fighting prejudice.

"We recognise that Lee Jasper has decades of campaigning behind him and that cannot be written off. We did an editorial saying whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, it's affecting more than just Lee Jasper and his associates. It's having an effect on black organisations across London."

Holloway, a journalist for nine years, formerly ran a black information website called Blink, which he says was "destroyed by the far right", who continually posted on the site. With a black Zimbabwean mother and a white English father, he is aware that many of his readers are, like him, of mixed ethnic background.

He is also aware that the issue of mixed race relationships remains a hot potato for the black press. Unlike the victim stories, he does not think this is a topic that has had its day. "When you look at the extent to which black people are in relationships with Europeans the question is asked 'what is going on?'" he says.

"Some people could say that's going down dangerous road and bordering racism but, even if you accept that love should have no colour boundaries, it's still right to ask why mixed relationships are happening to such an extent in the UK and people could ask if the legacy of slavery has something to do with that."

Slavery? But isn't New Nation supposed to be moving on?

It's still a relevant issue, says Holloway. "The more you write about slavery itself and the impact of colonialism, the more you are drawn to there being lasting traits and attitudes that are passed down," he says. "It's only five or six generations ago, it's not that far away."