Ex-BBC journalist Kurt Barling on 'bigotry' and media: Racism exists everywhere, even in newsrooms

Former BBC special correspondent and serving journalism professor Kurt Barling shares his view and experience of racism in the UK media as part of a series of articles in Press Gazette following criticism of the UK press by Harry and Meghan and a backlash after the Society of Editors’ denial of press bigotry.

The Society of Editors made a basic error of conflating two debates to exonerate industry practitioners. Firstly, a legitimate debate about the levels of racism in the media and secondly, the fundamental importance of the media being able to hold the powerful to account. The trouble is these industry representatives have revealed themselves to be tone deaf.

“The UK media is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account following the attack on the press by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex” – The Society of Editors

There is no doubt challenging those in power is a core value for all journalists, irrespective of their origins. The public interest centres on the notion of trust. The presumption is there should be transparency about decisions and issues that affect the lives of the public.

Those decisions and the decision-making processes which lead to public outcomes should be accountable, as should the decision-makers themselves. It is certainly in the public interest for the media to scrutinise Meghan Markle and Prince Harry and how their bitter family dispute reflects on the institution of the monarchy – and how that might affect us.

It is also in the public interest that those journalists who hold power to account reflect the communities they serve.

Despite its clarification that “there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion”, the SoE showed itself monumentally out of step with an acknowledged reality across the industry, that the reason work needs to be done is that racism exists everywhere, including in the esteemed newsrooms of Britain. Is there salt in the sea?

Nearly 40 years ago I decided on journalism as my vocation after I was caught up in the Broadwater Farm uprising in Tottenham, North London. I was disgusted by the tone of the broad and often prejudiced news coverage describing the black community that had responded spontaneously to the death of Cynthia Jarrett as the result of police action.

I knew the people in this community and I thought, as a journalist, I could bring fresh voices into public debate to demystify the lives of black people. I still believe that. It’s why I now teach journalism to young people at Middlesex University.

Is the UK news media bigoted and racist?

So, is the news media in the UK still bigoted (as suggested by Prince Harry)?

There are times when it certainly has needed calling out.

In 2019, evidence from a Muslim Council of Britain report showed much coverage of Muslims in British news outlets had a negative spin, contributing to a climate of Islamophobia. In 2016, two English newspapers were cited as “fuelling prejudice” by a European Commission report on Racism and Intolerance.

There is still ample evidence that there is a lack of diversity, particularly at senior levels within the UK media, so surely the SoE doesn’t believe the powerful media should itself be above scrutiny?

During my own 25-year career there was plenty of prejudice, pain and pitfalls along the way. Once as a young journalist I was told that my progression was being questioned because it was felt I was “too close to my contacts”. The fact was, many of my sources emerged from stories I had covered on people from minority communities, the implication appeared to be that I might not be impartial enough to keep my distance. A credibility gap, despite unique access to hitherto “unreachable” sources.

Curiously I went on to win several national awards for my journalism on diversity and inclusion.

Was the criticism racist? In my view, my ethnicity was certainly a factor in that assessment. Has the experience for many journalists of colour changed? Not from the numbers of active journalists who I’ve spoken to recently, who seem to be experiencing similar pushback today.

There were certainly times when my own unusual background (I gained a PhD from LSE before becoming a journalist) was held against me. Once a senior manager singled me out, accusing me of falsifying my CV. After a week of stewing, I was told it was an elaborate joke to test if I was as bright as my education suggested. At face value, I rarely trusted a BBC manager after that episode.

We have undoubtedly become a much more diverse country and in that diversity there is a broad range of talent which ought to be reflected in those that staff British newsrooms. Research last year by Women in Journalism based on a random week sample, found that of the 174 bylines on published articles not a single one was from a black journalist and only six were written by reporters from other non-white ethnicities.

White managers need to stop recruiting and promoting in their own image. If journalism outcomes are to reflect the society we are becoming or want to be, those who make the decisions about what we consume need to reflect that diversity.

In his recent book on diversity in the media, Access All Areas, Lenny Henry describes an enduring culture of “initiativitus” which has delivered poor results since the late 1980s. In reality, policies don’t protect and nurture people, good managers do. Journalism managers need to step up. Only then can diversity of outlook be reflected in the words and pictures we publish with insight and sensitivity.

So was the coverage of Meghan and Prince Harry fuelled by racism or holding power to account?

Almost certainly giving the royals a public dressing down is part of the instinct of holding the mighty to account. But the language and treatment of stories on Meghan compares unfavourably with some other recently married royals and this deserves scrutiny and explanation. Media practitioners can’t be above the conventions of scrutiny and it was a serious own goal by the SoE to imply they could be.

We all know the salt in the sea is there. You can’t see it, but you can smell it and it leaves an unpleasant taste. To many journalists of colour navigating the rough seas of British journalism, this is what the journey can often seem like.

Kurt Barling is Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University and a former BBC Special Correspondent.

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