Why is there such a lack of ethnic minority journalists?

Getting ethnic minorities through the door in the media in the first place is not the only problem.

Last month, the NUJ’s Black Members Council (BMC) had its last meeting of 2012. As one of the two student representatives, I had been looking forward it. I joined the BMC to push for a campaign that would encourage students from ethnic minorities into journalism and, after deciding on the first steps of our plan, we seemed to be making some progress. I should have expected disappointment. The union’s equality officer had to deliver the news that after three attempts she still had not been able to contact anyone at the NUS who wanted to help us, though they never failed in finding someone else to pass her onto. The battle-hardened campaigners in the room showed disappointment but little surprise, after all, the BMC was set up precisely because the issues of minorities in the media were too readily sidelined.

The BMC has faced the same type of criticism as similar organisations, such as the Society of Black Lawyers - that they discriminate against white people. I also experienced something similar after getting my first internship, with the Guardian on their Positive Action Scheme. Many of my colleagues in student media did not like the idea because it was an opportunity that was not offered to them based on the colour of their skin. A few of the other people on the scheme had a similar experience, one even had a full blown argument with one of the newspaper's editors. What those others students could not see was that the exclusion they bemoaned is one that affects non-white journalists in the industry as a whole. Their hostility, I assume, was the result of a lack of awareness of an issue which is, after all, hardly treated as important. The New Statesman’s survey of newspapers received nowhere near the amount of attention as the Guardian’s study on the lack of female writers and there’s barely any available data regarding the employment of ethnic minorities; ask most newspapers and broadcasters for some information and they’ll either refuse or conjure up an excuse. We know that there is a general lack of ethnic minority journalists and an even greater paucity of those working specifically in news and politics - as opposed to entertainment and culture - but while only the most deluded of journalists could cast an eye around their newsroom and believe it fairly represents the various elements of British society, it is hard to prove that this is the case.

Facing hostility from other students might seem a trivial matter but it is significant. For one, it definitely dents your confidence to be essentially told that you did not deserve an opportunity but it is also symptomatic of a culture of denial when it comes to dealing with equality in the media. There has been very little direct action taken to encourage ethnic minorities into journalism. The diversity schemes run by the Guardian and the FT automatically become fairer because they are organised internships rather than the more common, arbitrary method of emailing an editor and hoping you will be lucky enough to get a week or two working on their desk, which leaves the door open for nepotism. I worked hard for every bit of experience I have, with no uncle or family friend to get me into placements and a school whose idea of career guidance was to do a google search; the same cannot be said for many of the more privileged students who like to play the victim when they see ethnic minorities given a chance.

But getting ethnic minorities through the door in the first place is not the only problem. Connie St Louis, a fellow member of the BMC and director of City University’s Science Journalism MA, has recently highlighted the problem that the BBC, in particular, have had with retaining ethnic minority journalists. Her report, published in the journal Ethical Space, showed that a total of 75 per cent of ethnic minority staff recruited into BBC news journalism leave during their first five years at the broadcaster. This was something Greg Dyke, the BBC’s former Director General, admitted in 2001, suggesting: “Maybe they don’t feel at home. Maybe they don’t feel welcome.”

His suggestions could actually be confirmed or denied by the BBC if they shared the responses given by departing employees during the exit interviews the organisation conducts however, that information is unfortunately beyond the obligations of a Freedom of Information request. Another example of how we are left guessing instead of being given the information that could be used to build productive solutions.

In the same issue of Ethical Space Bob Satchwell, Director of the Society of Editors, made the point that diversity needed to be prioritised, not simply because there was little progress being made but because, he warned, journalism seems to be “becoming more white, more metropolitan and more middle class.” Very promising.


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David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide