Where are the black hacks?

It's time we addressed the fact that there are so few Afro-Caribbean journalists in our national newsrooms, says reporter Paul Macey
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The Independent Online

Walk into any big city newsroom and the lack of black and ethnic minority journalists is all too apparent. Those who do make it - like this correspondent - invariably face endless shifts with no prospect of permanent employment and a journalistic diet of menial or stereotypical assignments: "Could you follow up on this black-on-black shooting in Tottenham?"

Earlier this month, the Commission for Racial Equality relaunched its Race in the Media awards to try to encourage good reporting on Britain's ethnic minorities. But, for black reporters, the prospects of writing for national papers have hardly improved since the awards began, in 1992.

There are just a handful of established black reporters on the national scene, notably Baz Bamigboye at the Mail and Gary Younge at The Guardian, but black writers have not progressed in the same way as their television counterparts - think Rageh Omaar, Sir Trevor McDonald and Moira Stuart. Asian print journalists - led by Mazher Mahmood, Mihir Bose, Rav Singh and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - have fared only a little better.

The Journalists at Work survey, carried out in 2002 by the Journalism Training Forum, found the profession to be overwhelmingly white and middle class. And in the mid-Nineties, Dr Beulah Ainley, author of Black Journalists, White Media, found that out of a national newspaper workforce of 3,000, no more than between 12 and 20 were black.

Peter Victor worked in Fleet Street for over 15 years, becoming news editor at the Independent on Sunday and assistant editor at the Daily Express, but he left the media altogether two years ago.

"Like many professions, journalism looks after its own," he says. "Editors and commissioners tend to want to work with people who are from the same social framework, and hire people who do not threaten that. It is interesting to note that, while there may be more black and ethnic minority journalists, none that I am aware of has a distinctive African or Caribbean accent or dialect. It is a fiercely competitive business among the middle classes, so to be successful if you are black requires not only skill but also persistence and luck."

Lester Holloway, formerly a senior reporter on The Voice and now editor of the Black Information Link website, is less forgiving. "Too many newsrooms are hideously white and effectively stuck in a pre-Stephen Lawrence zone where the odd black journalist is seen as token, and where diversity means more pictures of black figures rather than black hacks who write the pieces," he says.

Holloway finds it insulting that some news editors complain that they simply cannot find good quality black journalists. "Why can't they? Further education is bursting with black media students."

Angela Phillips, deputy head of the media and communications department of Goldsmith's College, University of London, has carried out extensive work gathering the experiences of black journalists. "Many black journalists are put through a sort of initiation test, in terms of the stories they are given, which makes it difficult for them as black people," she says.

Four years ago, black journalist Joy Francis and I set up The Creative Collective, an internship scheme, specifically for black and ethnic-minority journalists aiming to access the national and regional press. These are talented and enthusiastic young people who deserve to be given a fair chance.

Brian Lashley, a journalist at the Manchester Evening News, was one of the first graduates from The Creative Collective scheme three years ago, and says his experience in newspapers has been positive.

But he says: "I think that for many minority ethnic journalists, breaking into the industry is viewed as a feat of gigantic proportions. My worry now is whether this could be leading many to turn their backs on the industry. Tales of negative experiences from those who get a foot in the door could have left a lasting impression."

The writer is managing director of The Creative Collective and has worked in a freelance capacity for a number of national newspapers