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.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.