Twisting on the hook – time for media to address its own institutional racism

30 January 2006 – The media’s response to Police chief Sir Ian Blair’s accusation that the industry suffers from institutional racism was a classic example of ‘spin’. Seizing on his injudicious remark about coverage of the Soham murders, a chorus of protest and vilification forced him to apologise.

It was a concerted effort to deflect attention from the core of his argument – that the make up of the media sets it apart from the society it seeks to report and represent.

Of course there are excellent examples of journalists exposing racism and racist organisations, and highlighting crime committed against black and ethnic minority communities – but there are  many more that demonstrate how poorly black and ethnic minority communities are served by the print and broadcast media.

The tabloids especially are quick to demonise minorities and scapegoat those least represented in their newsrooms. Think Gypsies and Travellers, asylum-seekers and refugees, the Irish; think of the way young black men have been demonised as ‘muggers’ and ‘yardies’, pimps and pushers’; consider the Islamophobia that seeps into copy often because there is no understanding or contact with Britain’s varied Muslim communities.

It is not as if such criticism is new. The NUJ has been campaigning on the issue for thirty years. There have been numerous campaigns against racism in the media since then, books have been written about it, and there have been conferences galore – MediaWise (then PressWise) ran a national forum on Ethnic Minorities in the Media in 1997.

Always the initial reaction is the same ‘What, us? How dare you!’ Indeed the Daily Mail, which relied on unnamed police sources for it infamous ‘Murderers’ headline naming those alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence, once published the name and address of a persistent complainer about racist reporting in the 1980s and invited readers to vent their spleen on him – in a leader column.

In January 2001 the then Director General of the BBC Greg Dyke admitted that the Corporation, like the Metropolitan Police, had a problem with race relations. He said the BBC was “hideously white”, with black and ethnic minorities making up less than 2% of its management staff. The BBC seemed unable to retain staff from ethnic minorities and he wondered if they really were made to feel welcome – despite the corporation’s much vaunted diversity policies.

Traditionally newspaper editors have been reluctant to conduct internal ethnic audits, claiming that their notoriously opaque recruitment process is designed to take on the best candidates regardless of race or colour. Like the broadcast media they are keen to showcase the relatively few Black and Asian faces they do employ, but until very recently they have ignored the fundamental sea-change that is needed to really make a difference.

However ‘Journalists at Work’ an industry-backed study in 2002 highlighted concerns about diversity, and recent research by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) claims that 96 percent of Britain’s journalists are white, and that only 5 percent of media workers in London are from the Black and Asian communities who make up 25% of the capital’s population.

Similar evidence of the lack of representation of Black and ethnic minority communities emerged from ‘Diversity in the Newsroom’, a study conducted by the Training Committee of the Society of Editors in 2004.

The Society Editors and the NCTJ have now followed the example of the NUJ’s George Viner Memorial Fund and the Creative Collective in offering bursaries to would-be journalists from ethnic minority communities, from which journalism courses at colleges and universities have had difficulty in recruiting. After all why apply when job opportunities are rare and media representation of your community is resoundingly negative?

These are long-overdue, sensible and welcome moves, even if the motivation is as much about vested self-interest as social responsibility. They will take time to work through into the newsroom. Meanwhile it is vital that the print and broadcast media – so quick to point the finger and demand change from other professions – needs to open its mind as well as its doors to those who have legitimate grievances about their lack of representation.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 118)

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