Nick Pollard On Broadcasting
Why is it so difficult to bring diversity into the newsroom?
Monday 12 February 2007
Most journalists I know wouldn't agree with the view of Mary Fitzpatrick, BBC News's diversity director, that coverage of foreign countries would be better if it were done by reporters from those countries themselves.
I don't think the idea stands up to close scrutiny, and to my mind the award-winning work of great BBC journalists such as John Simpson, Jeremy Bowen and Matt Frei reinforces that. British broadcasters have an enviable record in international reporting. That reputation has been hard won through bravery, enterprise and independence of thought. Moreover, throughout my career I've been constantly impressed by the sensitivity and understanding of many of the UK's top news men and women when reporting, often under extreme difficulty, on the world outside Britain.
It's strange, therefore, that that same sureness of touch doesn't always seem to be in evidence within the UK itself. The recent stories about the Muslim "beheadings" plot in the Midlands seemed a case in point. My impression was that reporters and presenters from all the main news broadcasters struggled to make sense of what was going on, not just within the shadowy world of extreme radical Islam, but inside the Muslim communities of Britain generally. It sometimes seemed that the TV teams were more like outsiders struggling to make sense of a foreign country than our own national broadcasters reporting confidently from the heart of England.
There isn't one simple reason for this but it inevitably raises the question of the ethnic make-up of our newsrooms. It's an uncomfortable fact that they are still, in Greg Dyke's memorable phrase, "hideously white". That goes for pretty much every facet of operations - presenters, reporters, producers, camera crews and certainly for newsroom executives.
According to the last census about 8 per cent of Britain's population is non-white, though in London, Birmingham and some other big cities that figure is much higher. It's at least worth asking the question: would our coverage be better if we had more ethnic staff?
I think the answer is probably yes, but 30 years in television newsrooms have left me with the strong impression that it's much easier to aspire to than achieve. Why is it still so hard to find, recruit and develop non-white talent? All executives are on the lookout for it and take every chance to open doors when someone good comes along, but the awkward truth is that it often seems in short supply. Even when recruiting for entry-level trainees with the door pushed very wide indeed for promising ethnic candidates, not many have come forward.
I'm sure there are quangos aplenty to provide figures but my non-scientific hunch is that journalism lags behind other high-profile areas of public life such as law, medicine, sport and the arts in this. I don't in any way want to underplay the great work of the non-white staff, both on screen and off, who do work in the UK's newsrooms. It's simply to wonder out loud why, after all this time, there are still so very few of them.
It's partly a matter of class too - not something as immediately visible as race, of course, but just as entrenched. Newsrooms, with some notable exceptions, are pretty middle-class places, and that's not going to change anytime soon. Recruitment is, more than ever, from the ranks of graduates and postgraduates. With university fees rising, that implies well-off, supportive parents and ambitious, focused offspring. It also seems to be true that for many of the ethnic middle class, journalism is still not seen as something worth striving for, certainly not something on a par with say medicine or the law.
All news broadcasters see the sense in trying to widen the base of their staff but the truth is that it's proving much harder than we thought and change still seems to be a long slow process.
Hats off to a great unsung hero: Brunty of the Yard
He's got a gumshoe raincoat that Columbo would envy, a lived-in face that suggests the public bar rather than the gym and the best contacts book in TV news. Step forward Martin Brunt, Sky's much envied crime correspondent.
When I was at Sky it was clear that "Brunty of the Yard" was the one correspondent whom any of our rivals would have poached like a shot if they could. He's also one of the very few, I think, who is regarded with real admiration and even a sense of awe by his Fleet Street counterparts, a notoriously difficult bunch to impress.
The reason for that is simple: Brunt breaks stories. From Brinks Mat to bombings, from Soham to the Suffolk murders, he's done what all reporters aim to do - tell the public new and genuinely exclusive facts and have the satisfaction of seeing his rivals scramble to catch up. And not just rivals. Senior officers have occasionally let slip in public what they say in private, that often they're following developments by listening to Brunt rather than the other way round. He's also a great on-screen performer. I remember being amazed one afternoon during a major terrorism alert to see him answering questions from the studio virtually without pause for hours, yet still somehow finding time to contact his sources and produce a stream of new information.
Yet for all this, next week's RTS journalism awards will come and go once again without recognition for this unassuming master of his craft.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Brunt's reports are inevitably not very rich in picture and though they are the very essence of live, unfolding news, they don't necessarily have the same impact when viewed by an awards panel six months later. I've sat on enough juries to know that top-class reporters on all channels suffer from this.
Secondly, 24-hour news can sometimes seem to celebrate the art of describing a scene or talking about a story - both valuable skills, of course - over that of actually getting the facts in the first place.
That's one reason why those of us who have made their careers in TV have always been uneasily aware that national newspapers, still untouched in many ways by the multimedia revolution, continue to set the nation's news agenda and to find 90 per cent of the stories that we all cover.
So next time you see Inspector Brunt shivering outside the Yard on a TV screen, listen closely to him. He's an original who bucks the trend of modern TV and the chances are he'll be telling you something you won't have heard anywhere else.
Nick Pollard is the former head of Sky News
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