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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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times