The British media has a terrible problem with “surface diversity”

At first glance, the British press appears to be embracing diversity. But scratch the surface and it is as white as ever, with a few non-white writers pushed into mostly covering only issues related to their identity.

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Last week India’s prime minister launched a campaign to clean up India and a BBC radio programme invited me on to discuss the topic. I also received an email from a commissioning editor for a comment piece on why the campaign was doomed to fail and I turned it down.

In 2012 I published a travelogue about the Indian railways and since then I’ve increasingly been approached by the British press to write about issues that centre not on food, travel or trains, but on Indian women, despite the fact that I was born in Norfolk, grew up in Hull, Sheffield and Birmingham, went to university in Leeds, and have lived in London for ten years with a one-year stint in India aged nine.

After the Delhi gang rape I felt compelled to write a couple of comment pieces to challenge some of the imbalanced arguments being brought by white British columnists, but since then I’ve found myself hemmed into a corner writing fewer and fewer food and travel articles, and increasingly about women and ethnic minority issues. It’s with a depressing sense of irony that I pen this piece, but the truth is that the handful of ethnic minority writers who feature in the national press are largely called upon as mouthpieces for black, Asian and minority ethnic issues.

In January 2012 Mehdi Hasan wrote for the New Statesman about race in the media, and cited Gary Younge, Hugh Muir, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Amol Rajan and India Knight as the small group of non-white columnists who appear on the opinion pages of national newspapers. You can add to that list Sathnam Sanghera at the Times, Ellen E Jones at the Independent, and Bim Adewunmi at the Guardian, but otherwise little has changed.

On the face of it the British press appears to be embracing diversity, but scratch beneath the surface and there’s an ugly truth that it is as white as ever. After a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism from City University I spent 18 months as a features assistant on a national magazine before a former colleague called me in to the Evening Standard to cover for the features assistant while she sat her final exams at university. A few months later she left and I was called in again to cover while they recruited for the now-empty role. I plucked up the courage to ask if I could apply and my colleague sighed and looked uncomfortable. “It usually goes to one of the [then] editor’s daughter’s friends.”

Flicking through those double-page spreads in the ES, it is unnerving to see white twenty-somethings at hot yoga, flashing new smiles after corrective dentistry, or playing ping pong at a pop-up in the Barbican, purportedly representing average Londoners, when, in the 2011 census, only 45 per cent of Londoners described themselves as “white British” – a drop from 58 per cent in 2001. For the record I have experienced all three activities – as have many other Asian and black Londoners who also practise yoga, use adult orthodontics or play table tennis.

The problem begins at the intern and work-experience level where most internships involve spending two or more weeks living and commuting in central London, unpaid, which immediately sifts out a large portion of ethnic minorities who simply can’t afford it, allowing the affluent, middle-class white candidates to get ahead.

To combat this problem the Creative Access programme was founded in 2012 to support BAME candidates in finding placements. In June the BBC announced that it would take on 20 BAME graduate trainee interns from the programme, and candidates have been placed at the Times and the Daily Mail. The New Statesman, too, is trying to do its part with a science writing scholarship for young BAME writers that is sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. Sathnam Sanghera, a chair of Creative Access, says that while they have successfully placed hundreds of interns across media, film, television and PR, “the newspaper industry is the least enthusiastic to take on people. It matters not just morally, but because we are not getting the breadth of stories to reflect Britain. There are some Asians in Fleet Street now, but almost total invisibility of black people.”

Nesrine Malik, a Guardian commentator adds:

“It is very, very, very, frustrating. People have lulled themselves into a false sense of representation because it seems on the face of it that there are plenty of ethnic minority writers out there but look closely and you will find that they are in a pen. This sends a dangerous message to those growing up in this country, it gives the impression that they are minorities first and foremost, rather than citizens that have a say in all sorts of ‘vanilla’ topics that impact their lives more directly such as public spending, foreign policy, etc.”

Other than Janan Ganesh at the Financial Times, Ben Chu at the Independent, and Aditya Chakrabortty at the Guardian there are few ethnic minority writers covering broad topics, and a scan of last week’s papers from Monday to Friday perfectly illustrates Malik’s point.

The Telegraph’s Shashank Joshi discussed paying ransoms to terrorists; the Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown called upon British Muslims to stand up against Isis; the Guardian’s Gary Younge interviewed Theaster Gates, an African-American installation artist; and Hugh Muir wrote on his Hideously Diverse Britain series. Only the Independent’s Ellen E Jones wrote on the last night’s TV; the Times’s Matthew Syed on Kevin Pietersen; and the Daily Mail’s Nasser Hussain and Baz Bamigboye on cricket and TV respectively.

The gross hypocrisy here is that when it comes to hauling up other public bodies on a lack of representation it is the press who leap into action.

The invisibilisation of ethnic minorities within the press leads on to what the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty calls “zoology”. He says: “…where minorities (ethnic minorities, women!) are treated as rare species only able to testify on issues related to their identity. So a writer of South Asian-origin can do pieces and programmes on elaborate weddings and the experiences of immigration, and a journalist of Afro-Caribbean origin must concentrate on criminality; but neither can write about how badly broken Britain’s economic model is, or about the lies of social mobility. You end up with ethnic minorities being treated like exotic zoo animals – and a media based in a global city, yet which is painfully parochial and insular. This doesn’t just apply to ethnicity, but to sex, sexuality, and class.”

No black, Asian or minority ethnic journalist ever wants to write this article, but if the alternative is to wait for a white British writer to raise the issue of our own invisibility then we will be more powerless than ever.