Why isn’t our press more diverse?: Brian Cathcart

Professor of journalism, Kingston University

Are the media institutionally racist? The simple answer is yes, of course. As Jack Straw put it in 1999, any long-established, white-dominated institution is likely to be institutionally racist in the sense that it has habits and practices that are likely to cause disadvantage to ethnic-minority people. The British news media are just such an institution. What matters is that they should recognise the problem and try to do something about it. And there is precious little sign of that.

Look at the papers and you can see the problem. Start with picture bylines: a tiny minority of writers who merit photographs with their journalism are visibly black or Asian. Then look at bylines: how many are obviously from minorities? Very few. If you actually visit newsrooms these clues are borne out. Although all of the national papers are produced in London, about 30 per cent of whose residents are not white, you will see that the personnel is overwhelmingly white. I can't quote up-to-date figures because they don't exist, and that itself is a symptom of the problem. The industry is not acknowledging its responsibility to assess itself, still less to change.

What difference does it make? There are two answers. The first is that young black, Asian and other ethnic-minority journalists, of whom there are many, appear to find it harder to get into the industry than white ones, and that is a straightforward injustice. Again I have only impressions to rely on, and again that fact alone is a reproach to the industry.

The other answer is that it affects the news we read, which is routinely passed through the white filter of the newsrooms, just as news used to be (and still is, to a considerable degree) passed through a male, middle-class filter.

Look at some of the things that papers write about Muslims - to take an extreme example, the Express often writes about Muslims ex­plicitly as if they were not British. Imagine if, whenever reporters at their desks at the Express looked up, they saw British colleagues of Pakis­tani or Palestinian descent, would they write that stuff? Probably not.

They would be less prejudiced and also less ignorant. After the 2005 London bombings the security services were criticised for having little knowledge of, and few contacts in, British Muslim communities. Some of the criticism came from the press, even though they were often in the same position, thrashing around for anyone with information and access.

A few years ago Ian Blair, then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had the effrontery to suggest that British press coverage of murder showed evidence of institutional racism. He said less attention was paid to black and Asian victims of crime than to white victims.

The response was a frenzy of indignant denial. Every possible excuse was trotted out to rebut the charge and, so far as I am aware, no serious effort was made by any newspaper to ensure that there was no such systematic bias. Denial is easy; dispassionately addressing the proposition would have taken time and effort and might have chipped the edifice of press self-regard. So the whole idea was just rubbished.

The press is institutionally racist. It doesn't get it, and it doesn't want to.

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain