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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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