Online only; updated 18/08/21

We have to address all forms of racism

THE QUESTION of racism in the media was raised recently in an interview with Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, about the British press. The Society of Editors (SoE) issued a swift riposte that "the UK media is not bigoted" but rather "has a proud record of calling out racism". [update] That prompted over 250 journalists of colour to point out that Meghan's comments "reflect the depressingly familiar reality of how people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are portrayed by the UK press on a daily basis".

So London Freelance Branch held a special meeting on 26 April at which we invited speakers to share their experiences as journalists and their observations on the issue of racism in the media more generally. Three of these speakers were signatories to the letter mentioned above.

What can we do to support journalists, and to improve fair and accurate representation of all sections of society? How is diversity at all levels of the workforce - which is crucial to improving coverage - be improved?

Branch Chair Matt Salusbury opened: "Not before time, racism is being debated and challenged throughout society... in politics, policing, football, film and entertainment… and nowhere more importantly than in our business, the media. We hope our speakers can share their experiences and their observations on media racism in the media more generally."

Deborah Hobson

Deborah Hobson in the chair

Our chair was Deborah Hobson, introduced by Matt as "a member of our branch, a long-standing trade unionist and political activist. She is treasurer of the NUJ's Black Members' Council and Chair of the national Publishing and Media branch of Unite the Union. She is deputy editor at the UK's first dedicated citizen journalism website The-Latest.com and is a documentary film-maker. She is co-chair of the organisation Grassroots Black Left"

Our speakers

Deborah introduced the speakers, all of them working journalists:

Haroon Siddique was the main instigator of the powerful response to the Society of Editors. He is the Guardian legal affairs correspondent, having been there since 2007, and previously worked in local press.

Saima Mohsin (@SaimaMohsin) is an International Correspondent who's covered 28 countries and worked for major TV networks: BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel4, and for CNN and PBS in the USA. She was injured on assignment in 2014 and has recently returned to work as a freelancer currently presenting at Sky News as a freelance. She is proud to come from a working-class, British Pakistani and Muslim background, and to have been editor and presenter of the first-ever nightly news analysis show in Pakistan to be hosted by a woman.

Michelle Edwards is an investigative journalist and columnist at independent community newspaper, the Waltham Forest Echo. Her work has exposed local and national government scandals, in stories taken up by ITV, BBC and Channel 4. She's also a columnist and wrote a weekly entertainment column in the Black British newspaper New Nation during the 1990s.

Nosheen Iqbal is a reporter and feature-writer at the Observer who specialises in race, gender, culture and diaspora politics. Before joining the Sunday paper, she worked as the Guardian's women's editor and as a features editor on its G2 section. She has been a judge on the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, the Amnesty Media Awards, the Brit Awards, and the Fourth Estate Short Story Prize.

Haroon Siddique

Haroon Siddique

Haroon Siddique opened by asking whether the SoE can't take a stand against racism in the media: if not, what purpose does it serve? He felt it was important to stress that "Black and Asian journalists should be able to cover any subject, not just race".

As was Deborah, Haroon was very upset and angered by the SoE message. "I thought it was complete nonsense, and it was just so defensive." He had "never really done something like this before, but I thought there had to be a response. At the Guardian we have a network internally for staff member journalists of colour, so I suggested a response on that forum just to see whether people thought it was a good idea. A couple of people said they had been thinking the same thing and others said they thought it was a really good idea. So we got down to writing it. We started with no database of journalists of colour, so it was spread by word of mouth."

Haroon appreciated the Black Members' Council statement in response to the SoE - but he would like to see a statement from the NUJ as a whole on the subject to put further pressure on the SoE.

Saima Mohsin

Saima Mohsin

Saima Mohsin said she has worked in "broadcasting all the way throughout my career," covering 28 countries for the BBC, CNN, Sky, PBS in the USA and more.

Being an Asian reporter can be "very lonely" - and "there's a culture of fear of speaking out, fear of putting yourself out of a job." She called the situation for "black or brown or Asian" people in newsrooms "precarious".

Saima recounted suffering a "freak injury" while covering the conflict in Palestine - her cameraman accidentally crushed her foot, leaving her with long-term pain that stopped her working for a time. Because of that injury and time off she "thought about my career and realised that visibility isn't enough". She had visibility: "I have often been the first British Muslim woman to do X or Y." But "having someone with black or brown skin on screen is not enough - what about off-screen and at every level in every department?" Her presence has been used by editors to say how wonderful and pro-diversity they are - "and it's not true, I don't like being used that."

So more diversity is needed in media organisations - at all levels: "the decision-makers, the people right at the top: that's where we need to diversify. The upper echelons are not representative."

"When I started out," Saima recalls, "It makes me sad that I self-censored. I refused to do stories about anybody Asian because I was refusing to be pigeon-holed. Right up to when I was 28 and at GMTV - that was the first time I felt comfortable and secure in my position to cover other stories including Pakistan."

She described an occasion when she had a story, was ready to do a live presentation on the spot where it happened - and the station instead chose to go to a white male face who was actually in another country. On other occasions my pitch would be given to another (white) reporter to do.

The SoE statement is, Saima says, "the perfect example of what we are up against": she noted "its absolute denial, the aggression with which it was denied, and the lack of space for a discussion or even a pause for thought to ask other colleagues for perspective and what they thought."

She referred to the way Victoria Derbyshire was talked to by SoE executive director Ian Murray – who has since stepped down - on her TV show: his "doubling down in that interview... reflecting an attitude towards anyone who dare speak out, or challenge the norm, which is, you know, to have a predominantly white male perspective in the media." And "if that's the way that somebody speaks to an empowered woman like Victoria, imagine how a young new black or brown woman or disabled person in the newsroom, who already feels very isolated and lonely, would feel when faced with this kind of behaviour."

Saima suggested that in each newsroom someone should be appointed to help journalists address concerns about discrimination without being picked on - so that these issues could be discussed "openly and honestly".

Michelle Edwards

Michelle Edwards

Michelle Edwards reported that when she started out "I thought I was going to be the female Jeremy Paxman." On her course, she took a feature-writing module that involved doing a story about the materials involved in making smoke detectors. The tutor "put the document down on the desk and said, in front of all my class colleagues, 'you didn't write this, did you?' I asked why she would you say that." The work was, after all, based on a document that Michelle had obtained and no-one else had. Other Black students, she says, had similar experiences.

Her next experience of being on the receiving end was when she tried to join a well-established PR agency. "They'd actually heard of me and they'd heard of my work," and on the phone they seemed really keen. She applied by email so only her name was visible. She was invited for an interview. When the receptionist saw her, she mysteriously started to conduct the interview, instead of the person Michelle was due to see: "we sat there for some time and she actually said, 'I don't know what to ask you'." Michelle didn't get the job. She wrote to ask what had happened and was told "you're not a suitable fit for our agency".

Deborah Hobson here raised the BMC statement and its recommendation that the news media needs to:

  • Step up and be honest about its failings.
  • Look to the successes of having a diverse workforce, which represents its readers, listeners and viewers.
  • Put in place robust recruitment processes that make journalists from all backgrounds welcome.
  • Work with the NUJ to put in place policies that foster and encourage newsrooms that reflect the diversity of the UK.

Michelle responded that she wants to make a further point: we also have to talk about Black journalists experiencing racism from Asian journalists as well as from white.

Saima acknowledged this: "we are not interchangeable... and my experience would be very different from a Black man or Black woman's experience".

Deborah responded that on the other hand "there are Asian people who strongly identify as Black, who consider themselves Black politically and ethnically" and we know that white people who are in power can try to divide African Caribbean and Asian people, for example, "and we must not be divided and thus ruled."

Nosheen Iqbal

Nosheen Iqbal

Nosheen Iqbal opened by saying that she thought she "was going to come here and give you lots of egregious examples of racist press coverage - but I feel like we're on the same page and agree that there is a considerable racism in the press." We have to address all forms of racism - and colourism - not just that from white people. She added that she has heard from East Asian journalists who feel they are at the bottom of the pile.

Nosheen feels you are "seen as far more abrasive and troublesome than if you were a white person" who was saying the same thing - and so more likely to be disciplined. "You are not supposed to argue as much on social media."

On one paper she was the acting women's editor for four years and never formally employed as such - because "there were points when my take on the women's pages didn't follow the traditional lines". Her take was "very inclusive, it wasn't just about second-wave feminism. And so there wasn't the boldness to give me the job properly." She "didn't know anyone else who had been in a post ‘acting' for four years and not been give the job" - so she moved on.

Then there's the content of the media. The meeting took place halfway through Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Nosheen recalled that the Daily Mail coverage of Eid, the festival at the end of the month, has always been stuff like "Festival of slaughter". Yes, sheep are slaughtered for Eid. And donations to the poor are a religious duty. Oddly, she has "never seen coverage of Christmas from a turkey battery farm" - though "our experience of dressing up and eating at home with family is, the same, I imagine as Christmas, but with less booze."

Then there's the whole question of representation. "We're obviously aware that you need female voices in the media" - and not just in "women's stories". To interview non-white people as well, "including then in everyday coverage", is key to ceasing to present "just one very narrow picture of and stereotypes of each ethnic minority".

Back in the office, Nosheen observed that "In most media organisations minority journalists are paid less." (See the Freelance report on what freelance journalists were getting last year.)

Questions

Joyce McMillan, chair of Edinburgh Freelance Branch, said he branch had relatively few members from minorities. She asked for the speakers' thoughts on recruiting black and Asian people into trade unions. She thought younger people were friendly to the idea of unions but "they don't see the work they do as being relevant to trade union organisation".

Haroon replied that "as people probably know, the Guardian is massively unionised. Everyone joins anyway." Further afield, there is a connection with "our need to feel supported" when entering new situations. Improving representation in the media will involve "nurturing and developing new talent," and mentoring schemes could be valuable.

Such considerations are "not just for Black and Asian journalists - they are important for all journalists, including working-class journalists," From personal experience, he worked as a City trader before joining the Guardian "and I still found it very intimidating and it took me a long time to find my feet".

Victoria Rosenthal, a student representative on the Branch committee, who is doing a Masters in online Journalism at Goldsmiths, asked how students could do more in this area.

Saima said she understood Goldsmiths was working on the issue but it should be happening all over. Victoria noted that students there are suggesting diversity training for students and for staff, and coming up with a code of conduct, and a glossary of anti-racist terms.

Saima responded that "anything that can be done to tackle these issues, whether racism or anti-semitism or islamophobia, should be done. I do think that there needs to be a kind of glossary or dictionary definition of certain things - what they actually mean." She recalled being at ITV on 11 September 2001 - "9/11" - and how frustrated she was at the terminology being used, how things were being described and what was being reported.

Michelle said she joined the NUJ as a student and "every journalist wants to be paid and protected and the NUJ does that. That's not specific to being non-white." She referred to when she had an invoice, as a freelance, unpaid a month or more after the due date the union got on to it and the recalcitrant client coughed up within 24 hours.

  • 4 May 2021 We clarified that Saima Mohsin remains a freelance.
  • 18 August 2021 On this day the new executive director of the Society of Editors withdrew her predecessor's claim.