James Robinson, The Observer, 16 April 2006
Two pieces of weighty research commissioned by the Commission for Racial Equality are about to land on the desks of news editors – and their contents will make uncomfortable reading.
The first, a Mori poll asking people from ethnic minorities about careers in the print media, found that 21 per cent believe there is racism in the profession. The second, an exhaustive analysis of industry attitudes towards ethnic minorities, based on interviews with those working in the profession and others who have recently left it, paints a depressing picture of ‘low-level racism’ as an everyday part of working life. ‘In London, the only area where there was a significant proportion of ethnic minority workers, they were in low-paid, low-status occupations such as cleaning and catering,’ it claims.
Still, there has been some progress: there are leading columnists from ethnic minority groups and some newspapers actively recruit and promote people from ethnic minorities. Even Associated Newspapers, which publishes the more conservative Daily Mail, has more black and Asian reporters on staff, according to the commission. But change has been ‘slow and piecemeal’, and more needs to be done to break down the ‘white, middle-class and male “old boys network”‘.
Commission chairman Trevor Phillips says that broadcasters have a far better record of recruiting minorities than newspapers: ‘The industry needs to be embarrassed by that. It’s clearly wrong from the point of view of justice and morality, but just as importantly, if you don’t have great chunks of the population in your industry, you can’t possibly be telling the story properly.’
According to the Mori poll, 27 per cent of respondents felt that the industry was dominated by white people, and a quarter thought there were too few ethnic minority role models. Nevertheless, 17 per cent of those surveyed still wanted to pursue a career in e-media, compared with 10 per cent of the entire population. But newspapers have been too slow to capitalise on this interest, Phillips says. ‘Although there is a disproportionate interest in working in the media among ethnic minorities, the take-up is disproportionately low,’ he says.
The second report was from the Working Lives Research Institute, which uncovered more alarming evidence of low-level racism. It examined why ethnic minorities left print journalism, drawing also on conversations with those who still work in the profession. One young journalist had been asked ‘if they knew any Yardies’ on their first day in the job. ‘[There was a] perception that anything street or black or to do with gun crime, I would be an expert.’
The journalists interviewed gave many examples of racist attitudes and language in the office: hearing comments like ‘get Mrs Tikka Masala on the phone’, and the assumption that black journalists should cover crime stories.
Many choose to cut their teeth on ethnic minority publications, including the Voice and Asian Age. ‘For those who do make it [on to nationals] the experience can be uncomfortable and intimidating. They will often be the only ethnic minority person in a white newsroom,’ according to the report.
The anecdotal evidence is backed up by official statistics; the 2004 Labour Force Survey showed that 5 per cent of all those working in print and publishing were from ethnic minorities. It is the attitude of editors, whose views were canvassed by the Working Lives Institute, that is most revealing. They agreed there was a severe level of under-representation. One conceded that: ‘In my 15 years as a journalist, I’ve only seen two ethnic minority journalists in the newsroom – I suppose it could be discrimination but it is so subtle.’
Editors were divided about the causes. ‘It’s where you went to school, who you know’, admitted one. Another said that, unlike the medical or legal professions, journalism is not regarded as a serious career by some cultures. ‘Black and Asian people don’t come knocking on my door,’ complained another.
Phillips says: ‘That’s probably true. But people are not dumb. Why would you spend a lot of time applying to an organisation you’re pretty sure you’re not going to get into – or if you did manage it, one at which you’re not going to stay for long?’
There is no doubt that journalists from minority groups are treated differently, he argues. ‘I’ve got no qualms about this. The leadership of the industry still doesn’t have the confidence in minorities that it does in other people. They are constantly being asked to prove themselves in a way others aren’t – again and again and again.
‘Give them a break. Everyone makes mistakes and files indifferent stories. When an [ethnic minority] does that, that becomes the definition of their work and that doesn’t seem fair.’
Some papers are better than others, but none adequately represents the diversity of the country or city in which they are based, Phillips claims. ‘You’re talking about organisations based in London, but everyone feels very pleased with themselves when their ethnic minority workforce reaches 10 per cent.’
He says newspapers should take their lead from broadcasters. ‘They have made a substantial effort to put faces that look more like their audience on screen,’ he says, but won’t criticise editors. ‘I’m not the first person to stand up for newspaper editors, but this is all very new to them. The current generation of editors don’t have deep hostility to seeing black or Asian faces in the newsroom. Most of them just haven’t noticed it.’
The message from the commission is that it makes commercial sense for newspapers to ensure they are as diverse as the country itself. ‘We’re saying: “Do yourself a favour. Wake up to modern Britain. Having more minority reporters on staff will give you access to new and interesting stories”.’