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Minority report: the problem of race in the media

The Stephen Lawrence verdict was followed by waves of self-congratulation from the media. But can journalists – starting with the lobby – hold forth on the politics of race when their ranks remain so "hideously white"?

Click here to read more on the New Statesman's exclusive Race and the Media report.

After some newsworthy fixtures in parliament, it is customary for the press to huddle. This is a semi-formal process that involves reporters gathering around an official spokesman, who tells them, in his own words, what they have just seen. They then ask questions to undermine the spokesman's account of what was witnessed; the official rejects this version, sticking to his original spin. The preferred tone for these exchanges is languid-laconic, a professional drawl that is meant to express a veteran's immunity to being surprised. Back and forth sail the responses, like a half-hearted game of lawn badminton where the object is to keep the rally going until everyone is bored.

At the end, the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn't said.

During one such gathering at the end of last year, a civil service press officer, standing with me at the periphery of the pack, said quietly and with acid sarcasm: "It's a diverse bunch, the lobby, isn't it?" By the lobby, he meant the small group of journalists accredited to attend daily briefings with the Prime Minister's official spokesman and who hold passes that allow privileged access to the corridors of parliament. By diverse, he meant almost exclusively white, fortysomething men.

Imagine dividing the rectangular chamber of the House of Commons into four segments. The long southern side hosts the government benches, facing which are the opposition seats. In the galleries above, at the western end, behind a glass security screen, sits the visiting public. Opposite the visitors, also in a first-floor gallery but spared the indignity of a transparent barrier, by virtue of their prior security vetting, are the journalists. Of the four groups - coalition MPs, Labour MPs, ordinary punters, hacks - the last is the most homogeneous in terms of race and sex. Political reporting, even more than politics itself, is an old boys' club.

Why is that the case? Does it matter? It is easier to answer the second question. The media play a function in a democracy, holding power to account. That involves probing the actions of powerful individuals and exposing them where they are corrupt, incompetent or dishonest. It also involves exercising instinctive suspicion of the powerful elite and complacent establishment cliques that largely prefer to conduct their affairs without scrutiny. That accountability mechanism looks dysfunctional when the press pack appears even more socially and culturally exclusive than the cadre whose vanity it is meant to be pricking.

Fleet Street's overwhelming monochrome majority goes unnoticed most of the time, not least because there isn't much incentive for newspapers to report their own failure to represent, in demographic composition, the society they aspire to inform. That failure might also make the media less than tenacious in demanding greater representation for minorities in politics.

By contrast, newspapers are very keen to report the decline of racism in British society. The happy banishment of unpleasant, antiquated prejudice was a dominant theme in newspaper commentary after, on 3 January, a guilty verdict was declared in the retrial of two men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence, the black teen­ager stabbed in London nearly 19 years ago. The press collectively declared a demon expiated.

Tricky arguments

It might be true that indiscriminate violent race attacks are mercifully rare - although who will say there is a tolerable number higher than none? Still, there was something mildly ridi­culous about a bunch of white men sitting in all-white newsrooms, asking white journalists on their staff if they knew any black people who might want to write about how racism is no longer such an issue.

Then, to compound the absurdity, a racism scandal of microscopic proportions - a Labour front-bench MP saying something mildly idiotic on Twitter - was inflated into a national story. Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, shadow public health minister and the first black woman ever elected to our parliament, wrote, during an exchange with a constituent about the legacy of colonialism: "White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game".

It was a poisonous, divisive assertion. But the roar of indignation it provoked, drowning out the previous day's solemn consideration of the Lawrence murder, was out of all proportion to the offence. As the online backlash gathered pace, gleefully reported in many newspapers, you could taste the relish of white men enjoying the opportunity to feel themselves the victims, for once, of racism, as if a single casual generalisation about the cultural and ethnic majority reset the dial of all grievance to zero: generations of prejudice v one nasty remark on the internet. Call it quits, eh, Diane?

None of this means journalism as a profession is inherently racist. If there is any sin, it is likeliest to be one of omission - the failure routinely to represent the perspective of minorities and the failure to employ people who might bring that perspective. Naturally, those two flaws are mutually reinforcing.

The profession's defence, expressed to me privately by a number of editors who didn't want to be quoted, is that newspapers can only hire people who apply for jobs and can only promote people who are there to be promoted. In other words, the barrier to greater minority representation is elsewhere; there is something in the cultural or educational climate that stops non-white people from becoming journalists.

That is a tricky argument to substantiate. It is hard to know what deterred someone from choosing a particular career path and how many would-be black or Asian journalists there are who, taking a look at the general complexion of the media, judge that their chances of being recruited are slim, and so don't bother.

Besides, as editors also ruefully point out, no one is hiring. That is a bigger point than it might seem. Print journalism is an ageing industry and an ailing one. Most newspapers are seeing circulation decline and advertising migrate to the internet. None has yet found a profitable way to generate revenue from its editorial output online. As a result of this commercial mal­aise, there aren't many entrants at the bottom of the industry. The top is still characterised by revolving-door exchanges of high-profile names between publications. Few fresh faces are coming through.

In terms of ethnic diversity, that means two things. First, the cohort that now dominates editorial decisions and senior posts represents a demographic snapshot of the past. Second, school-leavers and university graduates would be crazy to imagine a secure career for themselves in print journalism - and even if they fancied taking the risk, they wouldn't know where to apply.

Moving on up

There are internships, but those are mostly unpaid. Regional newspapers that once provided an avenue of apprenticeship are declining even faster than national papers. In other words, journalism, perhaps more than other professions, is no mechanism for social mobility. It offers no channel for ambitious young people from first- or second-generation immigrant households to break into the establishment, as they have done much more successfully in the law, finance and medicine.

The people who find it easiest to get jobs in journalism are those who can afford to work for no money - relying on parents' support - and those who have well-connected relatives in the industry. That, by definition, favours the white upper middle class, often educated at public school and then Oxford or Cambridge.

It is the same social segment that dominates the front benches of the main political parties. Britain didn't have a black cabinet minister until 2002 (when Paul Boateng became chief secretary to the Treasury). There has still never been a black party leader, or a black secretary of state in one of the big power ministries: the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Treasury.

Nor has any of our national newspapers ever had a black editor. All the current serving political editors are white. Yet a crucial difference between politics and the media is the expectation that MPs and governments look in some degree like the people they represent. At the level of candidate selection and front-bench promotion, party leaders have felt obliged to encourage conspicuous diversity. The British national media, and newspapers in particular, have felt no equivalent pressure.

“The drivers of change that have operated in parliament are missing from the lobby," says Sunder Katwala, a former journalist and leader of the Fabian Society who is now director of British Future, a think tank specialising in identity and integration. Political journalism, he argues, has many of the characteristics that historically have made institutions impervious to change. "It's a club, and a very clubbable club. It's also totally non-transparent."

Party politics in recent years has been infected with at least a modest degree of self-consciousness about racial and gender homogeneity. That hasn't spread to the lobby.

Politicians could turn the tables at some stage and start asking questions of the people who are supposed to be holding them to account. But criticising the media is always a risky manoeuvre. Besides, if MPs found themselves debating ethnic diversity in the media, the lobby might well huddle and decide that the "real story" was something else entirely.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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