#AllWhiteFrontPages: Challenging the lack of ethnic minority representation in the media

Samantha Asumadu, founder of Media Diversity UK, explains the background to its campaigns.

It’s about three months since I launched Media Diversity UK and our Twitter feed @WritersofColour. Over 100,000 views later on the website, we’re hitting goals I had never even aimed for. First and foremost, we found an audience. That audience has brought us opportunities. The intention was always to feature a wide selection of subjects from gaming, TV and immigration to geopolitical analysis of Middle East conflicts - the difference being that finally readers would get to read content that was from the point of view of a non-white person. Of course there are universal traits but our experiences colour our outlook. That experience could be like mine, raised on a council estate in Clapham, or that of a middle class black woman, who was sent to boarding school and may end up working at a FTSE company.

Media Diversity UK is a non-profit organisation. It is a place where writers of colour who have been unable to break into the mainstream media or have been marginalised can publish their work. Our aim is to help writers and journalists of colour to be published in national newspapers and magazines and to get their voices heard in the broadcast media. We do this by giving them advice, contacts, promoting their work online and of course by word of mouth, which in Life 2.0 is Twitter and Facebook. Our most successful article has had over 20,000 hits and there are others equally as good that have had only 500 (that was an article about Syria).

My aim is to bridge that gap so people are reading our feminism and popular culture articles but also reading the subjects that embrace geopolitics, ethnic conflicts, resources and the structural effects of racism and how to tackle it. One of my favourite reads each week is our "This Week In Islamophobia" column by a writer called Yasin Bangee, who lives in the north of England. He has charted the rise of Islamophobia and media prejudice, with a wry and individual tone that keeps readers coming back.

Both our campaigns, #AllWhiteFrontPages and #AllWhiteTV have seen success in some quarters and resistance in others. We launched the #AllWhiteTV campaign at the end of August. The chair of the Royal Society of Television diversity committee approached me to work with them after seeing the work we’d done on #Allwhitefrontpages. A group of volunteers found mainly from Twitter began monitoring primetime TV on the terrestrial channels on Sunday 1 September and finished on the following Sunday. It was an eye-opening experience for the volunteers who were of mixed backgrounds, some who had rarely watched any terrestial TV before. The results will be presented at an event for TV industry decision makers in October.

The Twitter campaign #AllWhiteFrontPages aims to raise awareness of British media’s need to include ethnic minority groups in their stories. Frequently every image featured on the front pages of the national newspapers is of a white person. When the media does cover stories of people from diverse backgrounds and class the stories are often negative, reinforcing stereotypes. Our overriding aim is to bring equity and the "normalisation" of ethnic diversity to our screens, to the radio and in our newspapers.

Our writers range from talented teenagers to seasoned academics and authors. We recently launched a space for experimental academic-type writing, curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam, a lecturer at Goldsmiths. We also recently launched the #EightWomen poll about notable women of colour, all of whom were successful in their fields, all of whom made a difference - but who would you vote has changed the UK?

Media Diversity UK (though we may change the name soon, as we are hoping to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation) isa collective and a space where we can support and encourage each other. Sometimes when I get a submission I wll ask the writer if they want to submit it to the mainstream media first. Sometimes they reply “no” as they’d prefer not to receive the torrent of racist comments they see other writers get, such as those under my first article for the Guardian.

Our comments range from two lines to contributions bordering on essays but they always engage critically with the material, for which we’re all thankful!

One of the highlights of the last couple of months was going on Dotun Adenayo’s Sunday night BBC London Show with Minna Salami. We were discussing this article which we successfully pitched to the Telegraph’s Wonder Woman section, written by Joy Goh-Mah. It was a fun hour despite the difficult and emotive subject matter and I was surprised and pleased when one woman from a feminist group I belong to said it had gone viral around black women in London as they rarely get to hear one, let alone two, black women on a radio show debating on primetime broadcast media. It seems a long way a way from creating the Storify about #AllWhiteFrontPages and being ecstatic when the Head of Comment at the Times tweeted me back to say he’d noted my happiness that they’d featured a non-white woman on their front pages (in July during Ascot).

I’m grateful to Rodney Sealy who wrote an article titled "The 'Evening Standard’ Of Whiteness" in the Voice newspaper. It was really that article that gave me inspiration for our motto: "Tackling the ubiquity of whiteness".

Sealy did a simple analysis of pictures in one edition of the Evening Standard,  andafter completion he decided to boycott the paper. This quote stuck with me:

Does London’s only paper reflect the reality of London life in 2013? - 40 per cent of ethnic Londoners are crudely white washed out of its view of our city is a terrible indictment. People of colour did not feature on any page as fully formed characters as often as we should but, in fact, if we all packed up and left, London would grind to a juddering halt. We are integral to this city’s smooth functioning.

Simple and true.

The Twitter campaign #AllWhiteFrontPages aims to raise awareness of British media’s need to include ethnic minority groups in their stories. Photo: Getty
Samantha Asumadu is a documentary filmmaker, campaigner and founder of Media Diversity UK. She was previously based in East Africa, Great Lakes region and is now based in London.
Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.