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A hostile environment

THE DISPROPORTIONATELY low (and apparently decreasing) representation of black and ethnic minority people in the media was on the agenda at London Freelance Branch's October meeting.

Kurt Barling: photo © Richenda Power

Kurt Barling, right, with LFB Chair Dave Rotchelle

Our speaker was Kurt Barling, until recently Special Correspondent for BBC London News and now Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University. Kurt, a former London School of Economics lecturer, went on to present the BBC's Black Britain, Trouble at the Mosque for Channel Four, and his BBC documentary Who Killed PC Blakelock? was one of several of his that won multiple awards.

Kurt started his fully-funded PhD in 1985, at the time of the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham. "I was at Broadwater Farm that night [then} I saw the riots on TV," he recalled: being a "young, naïve chap" he thought the BBC had somehow missed a trick with its Broadwater Farm reportage, which "didn't quite tally with events."

He did a PhD to "make me more forensic... in my ability to look at society and its problems." Kurt "decided to put off becoming a journalist" until he'd finished his doctorate. "One thing really focused my mind: at a lecture in Houghton Street (at the London School of Economics), Karl Popper was there in the lecture hall, with 150 students. He had then a great intellect, " and was lecturing on "the open society and its enemies". Kurt realised "I was one of the only black popele in the room "one of the enemies of the open society was exclusion".

He realised he had quite a unique qualification... a passion to be a journalist", from a "distinct minority" - and resolved to put this opportunity to good use.

When he then "joined the BBC, very wet round the ears, didactic, very academic," the head of religious affairs sent Kurt to Berlin straight after the Berlin Wall came down - sinc he spoke fluent German. He was one of the first to film in what was still the DDR after the Wall's fall. He recalled staring at "a man straddling the Wall, after midnight, playing Glen Miller on a sax... everyone would assume he would get shot, he didn't." Kurt learnt that "you can never assume things will never change.

Back at the BBC, however, he "soon discovered a hostile environment for those that don't fit in... such as a young man of colour." The BBC then was "an Oxbridge culture," now it's "predominantly a Russell Group culture. When Kurt turned up at reception, before he "appeared on screen it was... 'Who have you come to collect?' '"

On one occasion Kurt returned from assignment to find "a note in my pigeonhole asking me to present my qualifications", as some were said to be joining the BBC with qualifications that weren't what they had said them to be. Kurt's girlfriend told him, "You should go to war on this, (it's) a challenge to you." So Kurt wrote a letter "back to that particular individual, cc'd to 30 or 40 of the most senior people I could think of in the BBC" (except he didn't actually send it to them.)

The manager who'd sent the original note "came to see him almost in tears" the colour drained from his face", pleading with Kurt, "don't ruin my career" I only meant it as a joke". Kurt replied that the really important thing if you do something like that is that you should be able to take a joke too.

A few years later, Kurt was assistant producer of the BBC's Black Britain which the Corporation launched in one of those "we have to do more to get black people into the organisation" moments the BBC sometimes goes through. It lasted for "four or five series" and won multiple awards. But some of the Black Britain team later told Karl that they found the BBC "didn't make them feel comfortable either as people or a journalists" the stories they brought "weren't the stories the BBC wanted to commission".

Kurt left the BBC in April. They sacked him not because he was black, but because he was "too expensive": if you stick around for 25 years "you will get more money". Kurt noted that the BBC "wants to recruit black people, but they let senior black journalists go", there's "a conflict going on there." It not just a question of recruiting Black journalists, but retaining them once they are there. The BBC is good at recruiting minority journalists, but "woefully bad at retaining them."

Kurt Barling again: photo © Matt Salusbury

Kurt Barling again

The BBC "recognise they need more minority journalists in those positions, they just don't keep them there for any length of time... changes have to come in the middle management strata, if you don't get more minority journalists in those positions" there will be no change.

Journalism, as in Kurt's current occupation in academia, is "not a hugely appealing trade for minorities - there is "one black professor of journalism in Europe and I'm sitting before you. Parents say, 'Become an engineer, an electrician, a plumber, you'll make some real money... (as a) journalist you won't be welcome'."

Kurt said he finds "no evidence of discrimination" against Black Minority and Ethnic (BME) or working class journalists at entry level. It's "just not an industry that seems to attract that sort of group... It's historically not been a good place to earn a solid living (so) "working-class parents have not encouraged" their children to enter the trade.

Time was when young journalists entered as (paid) trainees aged 16 or 18, and "learned the hardcore craft, getting doors slammed in their faces." Now such openings are "hard to come by". Ways in are now "devolved to universities" through a route that involves "three years in lecture halls", and this is "a barrier to entry" - inevitably people from lower socio-economic backgrounds "don't have the access they used to... If I go to my old alma mater at the LSE it's much more middle class now that it was in the 1980s."

Answering a question from a George Viner Memorial Fund candidate on a Masters in Journalism from City University, Kurt assured her the course had an excellent reputation, likely to lead to a journalism job. But he expressed concern that young journalists now felt they needed a postgrad degree as an entry-level qualification for journalism.

At the same time, "one of the by-products of the new digital ecology is that the means of production are fragmenting" and this "makes it easier" in some ways. Journalists entering the profession "don't just think of ending up in Fleet Street", setting up your own blog is an alternative entry route, which "may encourage more minorities to enter the business", Other blurring of boundaries may encourage more minorities to populate our trade."

Journalism should reflect "the community it serves," believes Kurt. "Exclusion from the national debate is a real concern for us. Journalists help to fulfil... rights of free expression in the community." The BBC "need to make diversity a management criterion," so that "if they haven't done very well on diversity criteria they don't get their bonus."

Where, asked Kurt, did all those... ethnic minority journalists go?" Anecdotally, a lot seem to have gone into PR, usually after "about six or seven years - they feel they're in a hostile environment.". Kurt "left the BBC twice in two years" and while BBC Director General Tony Hall wrote to Kurt personally to say "what a great pity it was that the BBC let go of me... nobody asked me where I went." The BBC "should do an exit interview with anyone who leaves the organisation, Black, female or whatever, get Tony Hall to sort it."

LFB's Arjum Wajid worked with the World Service. She confirmed that the "BBC doesn't have an environment where you would feel secure: there's a great concentration of very ambitious people - they are bitchy to each other, even to the whites." At the most recent biennial NUJ conference, Arjum said she found herself asking delegates, again, "Why am I the only Black woman in this hall?" Added Arjum, "Branches (of the NUJ) don't encourage Black Members... But also they don't come forward, don't see themselves as leaders."

Last modified: 28 Oct 2014 - © 2014 contributors
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