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.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.