Last month, the NUJ’s Black Members Council (BMC) had its last meeting of 2012. As one of the two student representatives, I had been looking forward it. I joined the BMC to push for a campaign that would encourage students from ethnic minorities into journalism and, after deciding on the first steps of our plan, we seemed to be making some progress. I should have expected disappointment. The union’s equality officer had to deliver the news that after three attempts she still had not been able to contact anyone at the NUS who wanted to help us, though they never failed in finding someone else to pass her onto. The battle-hardened campaigners in the room showed disappointment but little surprise, after all, the BMC was set up precisely because the issues of minorities in the media were too readily sidelined.
The BMC has faced the same type of criticism as similar organisations, such as the Society of Black Lawyers – that they discriminate against white people. I also experienced something similar after getting my first internship, with the Guardian on their Positive Action Scheme. Many of my colleagues in student media did not like the idea because it was an opportunity that was not offered to them based on the colour of their skin. A few of the other people on the scheme had a similar experience, one even had a full blown argument with one of the newspaper’s editors. What those others students could not see was that the exclusion they bemoaned is one that affects non-white journalists in the industry as a whole. Their hostility, I assume, was the result of a lack of awareness of an issue which is, after all, hardly treated as important. The New Statesman’s survey of newspapers received nowhere near the amount of attention as the Guardian’s study on the lack of female writers and there’s barely any available data regarding the employment of ethnic minorities; ask most newspapers and broadcasters for some information and they’ll either refuse or conjure up an excuse. We know that there is a general lack of ethnic minority journalists and an even greater paucity of those working specifically in news and politics – as opposed to entertainment and culture – but while only the most deluded of journalists could cast an eye around their newsroom and believe it fairly represents the various elements of British society, it is hard to prove that this is the case.
Facing hostility from other students might seem a trivial matter but it is significant. For one, it definitely dents your confidence to be essentially told that you did not deserve an opportunity but it is also symptomatic of a culture of denial when it comes to dealing with equality in the media. There has been very little direct action taken to encourage ethnic minorities into journalism. The diversity schemes run by the Guardian and the FT automatically become fairer because they are organised internships rather than the more common, arbitrary method of emailing an editor and hoping you will be lucky enough to get a week or two working on their desk, which leaves the door open for nepotism. I worked hard for every bit of experience I have, with no uncle or family friend to get me into placements and a school whose idea of career guidance was to do a google search; the same cannot be said for many of the more privileged students who like to play the victim when they see ethnic minorities given a chance.
But getting ethnic minorities through the door in the first place is not the only problem. Connie St Louis, a fellow member of the BMC and director of City University’s Science Journalism MA, has recently highlighted the problem that the BBC, in particular, have had with retaining ethnic minority journalists. Her report, published in the journal Ethical Space, showed that a total of 75 per cent of ethnic minority staff recruited into BBC news journalism leave during their first five years at the broadcaster. This was something Greg Dyke, the BBC’s former Director General, admitted in 2001, suggesting: “Maybe they don’t feel at home. Maybe they don’t feel welcome.”
His suggestions could actually be confirmed or denied by the BBC if they shared the responses given by departing employees during the exit interviews the organisation conducts however, that information is unfortunately beyond the obligations of a Freedom of Information request. Another example of how we are left guessing instead of being given the information that could be used to build productive solutions.
In the same issue of Ethical Space Bob Satchwell, Director of the Society of Editors, made the point that diversity needed to be prioritised, not simply because there was little progress being made but because, he warned, journalism seems to be “becoming more white, more metropolitan and more middle class.” Very promising.