The Financial Times's new editor is a sign UK newspapers are changing – but not quickly enough

Roula Khalaf joins a growing number of women heading top titles, but her appointment is a reminder of how unrepresentative the media remains.

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Bravo to the Financial Times for announcing that its next editor will be Roula Khalaf, the Lebanese woman who has been deputy editor of the paper since 2016. 

She is the first woman editor of the FT, joining Guardian editor-in-chief Kath Viner and Zanny Minton Beddowes, editor of the Economist, in what feels like something of a moment for diversity at the top of the UK’s national press.

Though women make up a large proportion of those entering journalism, few make it into the top jobs. That three of the country’s most prestigious publications are now run by women is a milestone that should be celebrated.

Khalaf was an obvious choice for the role; she has worked at the FT since 1995, and has deputised for outgoing editor Lionel Barber. The paper itself emphasised in a press release her role in leading foreign reporting, increasing newsroom diversity and attracting women readers and talent. Those tipped as competitors for the job were predominantly white men; Khalaf reportedly beat other Financial Times stalwarts including editorial director Robert Shrimsley and innovation editor John Thornhill.

Broadcast news has a better track record of gender diversity in top jobs than the press. At the BBC, Sarah Sands edits Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, Rachel Jupp is the editor of Panorama, Esme Wren edits Newsnight and Fran Unsworth, who sits on the BBC Board, is director of news and current affairs. Whether or not the BBC's top women are paid as well as their male counterparts is another issue.

Meanwhile, though the editors of Channel 4 and ITV News are both men, Cait Fitzsimons is editor of Channel 5 News, and the chief executive of ITN, which makes all three programmes, is Anna Mallett.

Yet perhaps even more significant than the fact Khalaf is a woman is the fact that she is not white. Women have had a tough time making it to the top jobs in journalism, but black and ethnic minority people are barely represented at all. A report in 2016 from City University found that just 0.4 per cent of British journalists across print, broadcast and digital were Muslim and only 0.2 per cent were black, compared to 5 per cent and 3 per cent respectively in the national population.

So all in all, the appointment of a non-white woman to lead the Financial Times is another laudable step towards greater diversity in a part of society where it is clearly lacking.

Yet I’m going to add in a caveat to the overarching optimism here. Those three national editors – Khalaf, Viner and Minton Beddowes – are all helming highbrow, socially progressive publications read by wealthier people. Those audiences are also not just wealthy, but also international. Having an editor who was born in the Middle East will help the Financial Times signal that it is not blinkered by its Western roots.

Most of the rest of the UK’s big popular newspapers, in contrast, have almost exclusively been run by men. There's the exceptions such as Rebekah Brooks' infamous reign at the News of the World and the Sun, and current Mirror editor Alison Philips, who nevertheless reports to group editor-in-chief Lloyd Emberley. But the print newspapers read by the largest audiences are helmed by men, and that doesn't look like changing anytime soon. The Daily Mail, which has more women readers than male by some margin, has never been edited by a woman; Geordie Grieg, the eighteenth man in a row to edit the title, is unlikely to be replaced any time soon.

And when it comes to diversity of ethnic background, there has only ever been one other non-white UK newspaper editor. Amol Rajan took over another progressive institution, the Independent, in 2013 which he ran until its closure as a print publication in 2017. He now works as the BBC’s media editor.

The fact remains that, at the top, representation of women in the news business is still too often restricted to progressive publications, and representation of minorities remains restricted almost everywhere. Roula Khalaf’s appointment is a sign that things are changing – but also a reminder that the speed of change remains painfully slow.                                                                                              

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.