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10 March 2021

The Society of Editors has made a familiar mistake on Meghan and Harry

As ITV’s Charlene White put it, can we really believe the media is the only UK institution with an impeccable record on race?

By Stephen Bush

What is there to be said about Ian Murray, the executive director of the Society of Editors, declaring that the British press is “most certainly not racist”, following an interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex which claimed that such racism was part of why they felt unwelcome in the UK?

My immediate reaction is: what is it about our industry that Murray thinks is so special? According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, one white British person in four would mind “a little” or “a lot” if a close relative married someone who was black or Asian. Have we really managed to avoid hiring or promoting anyone from that quarter of the population? Twenty five per cent of the population and we’ve managed to avoid all of them? A quarter of British people hold anti-Semitic attitudes – and of course, while some of that cohort will overlap with the quarter that objects to a relative marrying someone black or Asian, not all of it does. Have we really managed to avoid hiring or promoting anyone from what must be around a third of the population? And none of these prejudices, even subliminally, have made their way into print? The phrase “huge, if true” springs to mind.

As ITV’s Charlene White puts it, for Murray’s statement to be accurate, the British press would have to be “the one institution in the entire country who has a perfect record on race”. As this open letter describes, it is clear that we do not have a perfect record on race or anything like it.

[see also: The Meghan and Harry saga encapsulates our biggest political divide]

This reflects a wider problem in public life, though its consequences are obviously more important in the press: a tendency to see allegations of racism first and foremost as allegations about the overall moral qualities and intentions of the people involved. This is a good or relevant defence if you think the problem with gratuitously cruel coverage of the Sussexes is that the people producing it are bad people, or if you think that the important thing about however many paragraphs castigating the Duchess of Sussex for eating an avocado is whether the reporter in question is racist.

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The problem is that the question of whether or not coverage is gratuitously cruel isn’t about intention, but outcome: discussions of racism aren’t best served by treating them as questions of someone’s moral character, rather than what they have said and done.

[see also: After Harry and Meghan, the monarchy faces a choice: change or perish]