Muslim columnist trades Yorkshire Pudding for Currant Bun shocker!

The Sun has broken through a cultural glass ceiling with its new columnist, says Chris Arnot
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The Independent Online

At any one time, Anila Baig could be classified as Asian, Pakistani, British, a Yorkshire woman, a single mother or a Muslim. She is all those things as well as being a feature writer and columnist on Britain's biggest-selling daily newspaper. The Sun made her an offer soon after she was named Columnist of the Year 2004 in the Regional Press Awards for her musings in the Yorkshire Post.

Back in February, in the course of explaining why she wears the hijab, she told Post readers: "I don't shudder with horror if I see a woman dressed in next to nothing." Just as well, perhaps. Judging by her byline photograph, Baig drapes more material over her head than the average Page Three model sports on any part of her body. "Don't be put off by the picture of me," she pleaded in her introduction to Sun readers, "I'm just a gal who likes to hide her highlights under a bushel - or a headscarf."

Ms Baig won her award for a body of work that included pieces headlined "Wherever I lay my hijab that's my home" and "A singularly unsuccessful way of finding Mr Right", which was based on her attempts to find a man through a Muslim matrimonial website. The Press Gazette judges said she was "a breath of fresh air, with real star quality" and that her writing was "brave and funny".

One of the judges said: "There are echoes of Lenny Henry and The Kumars in her self-deprecating humour, but she is a complete original."Baig's style is calculated to undermine stereotypical views of Muslims as being too earnest and lacking a traditional British sense of humour. The Ferreira family in EastEnders is a pet hate. "I'm against extremism of any kind," she wrote in The Sun on 25 September, "but within weeks of the Ferreiras moving in, even I was perilously close to voting BNP. "

As one of the paper's desk editors put it: "Humour is the key to it. Anyone who writes for The Sun has to hit the funnybone." Not that Baig has shied away from serious subjects. The meaning of Ramadan has featured, as well as the revulsion of moderate Muslims over kidnappings in Iraq, and, particularly, the gruesome fate of the hostage Ken Bigley.

Baig, 34, lives in Bradford with her parents and her eight-year-old son. She joined the Bradford office of the Yorkshire Post as a reporter in 1998. Six years on, and Asian representation in editorial throughout the Post has dropped from one to nought. That's a state of affairs that deputy editor Duncan Hamilton, the man who first asked Baig to write a column, says he would love to change. "Recruitment is difficult," he maintains, "because Asian parents don't see journalism as an honourable profession."

Baig herself hinted that this might be the case when she told the Society of Editors' October conference of her father's reaction on being told that she wanted to write for a newspaper. He suggested that she should first train to be a doctor and then become a health reporter. One of her suitors apparently told her family: "Get her on an MBA course and then we'll talk."

Laughter all round and perhaps a few eased consciences among the assembled editors. The lack of brown faces in newsrooms could be laid at someone else's cultural back door. Blame the parents. Is it really that simple?

Not according to The Independent's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Cheered as she is by the news that another Muslim woman has been elevated to the position of columnist - "I'm joyous" - the print media has "an abysmal record" on ethnic-minority recruitment, she maintains. "Believe me, the Asian parent thing is just an excuse," she says.

Paul Macey, of the Creative Collective, a media consultancy which targets would-be journalists from black and Asian communities, is also sceptical. "All I know is that when we offered an internship for would-be black and Asian journalists to spend six months working on a newspaper, we were inundated with hundreds of applications, and most of them were from Asians."

Nobody at Wapping seems keen to talk about hiring Baig. Could there also be a wider agenda? "Certainly the paper is very close to Downing Street," says Ahmed Versi, editor of The Muslim News. "I'm not suggesting that anybody in Government told them to do this, but it could be that the paper wants to be seen as taking a more balanced approach. It also wants to increase circulation among Muslims."

Nina Nannar, ITN's media and arts correspondent, worked her way up through BBC local radio and regional television. "Working for the most famous broadcast organisation in the world carried some prestige with my parents' generation," she said. "I don't think they'd have felt quite the same if I'd joined the local paper [in Scunthorpe]. It didn't matter that I was doing a holiday job in the newsroom at Radio Leeds."