#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.
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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism