Kerry Washington, whose role in Scandal broke new ground. Photo: Getty
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Introducing our latest theme week: Race and media

The New Statesman partners with Writers of Colour to bring you a week of reflections on race in the press, TV, film and wider society.

In 2011, the New Statesman ran a special report on race in the media. Its conclusions were shocking, if not surprising. In a country where 16 per cent of the population define themselves as black, Asian or mixed-race, there were no non-white national newspaper editors, few columnists and staff writers, and political reporting was dominated by a monochrome majority

Since then, there has been some positive progress, such as the appointment of Amol Rajan as editor of the Independent. But the media is still dominated by white faces and voices, and this inevitably affects how stories are covered and presented. As Peter Wilby wrote in our special report:

Editors rarely advertise jobs or even set out systematically what skills they require from recruits. They rely on proxy indicators: a first degree from Oxbridge, a postgraduate journalism certificate (after completing courses for which there is only limited financial support), a willingness to spend months on unpaid "work experience", backed by a recommendation from somebody the editor once worked with or met at a dinner party ("Bright boy/girl, just give him/her a try, would you?").

The tiny number of black and Asian people who somehow squeeze past these exacting requirements - which also exclude just about anybody who doesn't have connections in the metropolitan professional classes - will find that they become instant experts on "race relations". A riot in Tottenham? Send the black reporter. Islamist stirrings in Birmingham? Send the Asian. Somebody to cover Royal Ascot? Send . . . oh, perhaps not.

Some deny there is a problem, insisting that they merely hire the best candidates for the job. But this system is inevitably skewed, as Gary Younge explained in 1999:

Most of those who run, and recruit to, British newspapers . . . claim they are colour-blind. But blindness is a disability. If you cannot see race you won't see racism; nor will you notice that the overwhelming majority of your staff is white.

This background has led to our collaboration with Writers of Colour, an initiative to uncover and promote a more diverse range of voices in the British media, and to expand the cultural subjects which are deemed interesting and relevant. Over the next week, we will be hosting both alumni of the Writers of Colour project and journalists commissioned directly by us in a series of essays on race and media. We are taking media in its broadest sense - film, TV and the press - as well as trying to approach race in a more nuanced way than a simple "black/white" divide. 

First up is Samantha Asumadu, the founder of Media Diversity UK and the operator of the @WritersofColour account, who writes about her campaign on All White Front Pages. If you want to tweet us about the week, please use the hashtag #NSrace

Monday: Samantha Asumadu on #AllWhiteFrontPages

Tuesday: Elizabeth Pears on colourism

Wednesday: Yacine Assoudani on EastEnders

Thursday After the Bechdel test, we need the Shukla test for race in film

and Where are my Chinese-British role models, by Lu Hai Liang

Friday Bim Adewunmi on Kerry Washington in Scandal

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.