White supremacy in the newsroom

Few newspaper bosses care that they have hardly any black or Asian journalists, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
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The Independent Online
Here are some roughly calculated figures. In 1995, out of approximately 5,000 journalists on staff or long-term contracts with Britain's major newspapers, fewer than 30 are black or Asian. We have wine and chess correspondents, but no minority community correspondents who may be able to present news with special depth. Not a single editor, regular commentator or critic comes from these groups although occasionally there are sightings of the odd reviewer, usually pronouncing on ``ethnic'' books, plus a few freelancers here and there.

Unlike many other industries, newspapers have no ethnic monitoring so the number is based on conversations with managing editors and estimates by the National Union of Journalists and the Black Journalists' Association, a media network that has existed since the mid-Eighties.

Ask editors why this should be so and the reactions are interesting. Some are plainly uncomfortable with the question. Indeed, one man thought it was an affront even to be asked because of the implication of conspiracy. Others said candidly that they had not given the subject a moment's thought. Only three felt that the issueneeded to be raised.

Three stock responses emerged: that the industry employs people of calibre and is colour-blind, that (perhaps) ethnic minorities do not apply, or that the problem lies with the regional press. You get theimpression that these individuals genuinely believe that their employment practices are equitable and efficient.

Gordon Barkaway, director of personnel of the Telegraph group, is fairly representative: "We recruit and promote on merit. I believe that race and sex are immaterial. We don't support reverse discrimination." John Honeywell, the managing editor of the Express group, adds: "We don't set out to exclude anybody. Eventually it will happen, as more of them get on to local papers and come through." Not one of the people interviewed thought there was anything improper about the fact that, unlike any other business, journalistic jobs are rarely advertised and there is no open competition or fair selection process.

Dr Beulah Ainley, who has undertaken a seven-year study on ethnic minorities in the media, has little patience with such views: "Newspaper editors are complacent. Talk to them about equal opportunities and it's like a red flag. In fact, they don't even accept there is a problem at all. Yet black and Asian journalists are doing well on television, so it is not as if there is no talent out there."

If the papers operate a meritocracy, the implications are alarming. Is there some genetic propensity which makes white, middle-class males particularly gifted at print journalism? And has the gene recently mutated so that white women are suddenly showing the same talent?

And merit itself is not an objective quality. Often individuals who impress are the ones who fit in with the dominant culture and because so many jobs are handed out through personal contact and patronage, those who seem exceptional might appear much less so if the pool were larger and the system fairer. Gordon Barkaway admits that "getting a break often depends on who you know in the business". Craig Orr, managing editor of the Evening Standard, would agree: "We select on merit, but there is a clique and it is easier, say, if your father was in the business." This is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Nepotism and the old- school-tie network mean that selection is far too often made not of the most capable but of the best connected.

It may well be true that few black and Asian journalists apply to work on papers. Colin Hughes, managing editor of the Independent, says that this has been his experience. He would "love to see more coming through". Kim Sengupta, an Asian journalist on Today, thinks their reluctance to apply for newspaper jobs may be because television is the more glamorous medium. Joel Kib-azo of the Financial Times is optimistic that the papers will begin to draw in more ethnic-minority writers, but is concerned that at present programmes such as Newsnight seem to be reaping the best of the crop.

Interestingly, only 10 years ago, television was making the same complaints. It was then that powerful individuals took proactive steps - mainly because black organisations were exerting pressure for change - to encourage minority communities. London Weekend Television led this crusade. It is no accident that talented journalists such as Trevor Phillips and Darcus Howe and top guns like Samir Shah and Farrukh Dhondy, who run prestigious departments, have come out of the LWT stable. In the Eighties, the BBC, too, discovered that less than 1 per cent of its journalists came from the minority communities. Training and equal-opportunity initiatives were launched. The results are clear. Across the board, in all areas, blacks and Asians have a presence at the BBC.

But, just as in the UnitedStates, there is a backlash against equality initiatives. Tory MPs regularly attack the corporation for its "discriminatory" policies. The most recent was Toby Jessel, MP for Twickenham, quoted in the Sunday Times: "It is counterproductive for the BBC to allow those with bees in their bonnets to let rip, spending a lot of money on them" (sic).

Seeing faces on the screen triggers aspiration in others. With newspapers providing few such examples, ethnic minorities have come to believe that the industry is a closed shop. Peter Preston, managing editor of the Guardian and Observer, believes passionately in role models, although he says, quite rightly, that the way to do this is to make sure that the people who come in are "good and that their talent is used prominently across a wide area."

Andy Anderson, deputy managing editor of the Financial Times, thinks the almost all-white applicant pool in the regions is also a worry: "I am puzzled why this is happening. Perhaps we need to use the ethnic press to get trainees. We do need to attract people from a broad range, including class."

Perhaps we need to learn from women, says one black television journalist who spent a brief, unhappy time on a newspaper: "On newspapers, you were never quite considered as good as the white boys. I was the only one there and it was painfully isolating. Now when I see women newspaper executives complaining that there is still a glass ceiling, I just want to laugh. We are not even allowed into the dark cellars. But I think their example is worth following; they're fighters.''

Kathleen Heron, the deputy managing editor of the Sunday Times - a paper which, unusually, has a black religious correspondent and an Asian letters page editor, but has scrapped its positive action programme - accepts that, compared to white women, ethnic minorities are not even a dot on the horizon. "I think it is because women made a noise. Ten years ago you did not see women across the board. Now we have women foreign correspondents, sports writers ... The deputy editor, Sue Douglas, is a woman.

"Remember though, those who make decisions never travel outside their circle. It is incestuous. A crime correspondent is guaranteed to be another 32ish-year-old white man. This is done not maliciously, but blindly, even innocently."

But is such innocence fair to those journalists, who - like me and many others - spend years writing, and who remain on the margins, primarily because we are not part of the in-crowd?

Take the issue of Islam for example. There are no working Muslim journalists on British papers and yet the encounter between Islam and the West is one of the big stories of our times. When I write on this subject, I do so with an intimate knowledge of the Muslim community. I have access to groups that mistrust the press; people can be interviewed in their own language; mainstream debates can be transformed by including different perspectives.

Anderson thinks this is the only valid argument for change: "The papers deal with the whole world and we need to reflect the many facets of the different worlds within this country, too." Peter Preston agrees: "This is important not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is essential for any modern newspaper today."

Change is long overdue. But it will come about only if editors actually think about ethnic representation and do not waste time finding reasons to defend the status quo. Proactive measures are not difficult to implement. The Commission for Racial Equality works with others in the private sector and would be ideally placed to suggest practical strategies.

The papers could set up training schemes, offer contracts to freelancers, arrange bursaries and work experience targeting black and Asian people, advertise in the ethnic press, get editorial staff to make links with the ethnic minority communities in order to encourage interest and establish open lines of communication. Not radical, not original, just good sense measures for an industry which in recent years has, in many ways, transformed itself for the better.

``I have been a freelancer for six years. I have given up writing asking for an interview. You get nowhere. One features editor told me that they already had someone black. Another told me that really the paper was more interested in lifestyle articles and not serious social stuff. I had to inform her that the fact that I was black did not mean that I sat worrying about issues all the time."

Sandra, aged 29, "now drifting into radio".

``The national papers should be training more black and Asian journalists, which is something we do all the time. But I feel they don't really want to because they are afraid that a critical mass will influence the perspective - and the kinds of stories the papers peddle about us."

Winsome Grace Cornish, editor of `The Voice'.

``Where the media has picked up black and Asian journalists, they have brought in a beneficial dimension. This is most evident on television. It is surprising that the papers have not capitalised more on this talent. One has to ask why. It must be because so much recruiting is done through a nudge and a wink and you're in.''

Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.

``I think TV is doing somewhat better, though it is a clever trick to put so many black and Asian people on the screen and very few behind. But they have set and reached targets. LWT has achieved 10 per cent. But the papers have one or two token blacks and Asians. One of these guys told me how he would show the ropes to some white Oxbridge chap and then watch him shoot ahead. It's like they always have to be grateful just to be taken in."

Dr Beulah Ainley, lecturer in media studies.

``I sent off dozens of applications. One paper asked me for an interview and then when they saw I was black, I was told they no longer had a vacancy.''

Sam, a young aspiring black journalist.

``The British press seems to rely on the token Asian journalist within its paper who will then be forced to cover any issue with an ethnic stance in the way the paper dictates. The whole way the national press operates works against an Asian journalist. It is riddled with racism. We are not asking for favours but for a reasonable chance. The industry needs to wake up to the fact that Asians are under-represented within the profession. And that we are more than just a colour."

Sarita, journalist with Asian newspaper `Eastern Eye'.