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Ex-Huffpost journalist offering course on reporting BAME communities says news industry used to be 'almost blatantly racist'

Huffpost UK’s first regional reporter left the news website earlier this year to pursue plans to train journalists in improving reporting on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

Amardeep Bassey was appointed as Huffpost UK’s Birmingham correspondent in June last year as part of a push led by then-editor Polly Curtis to “build beyond the London ‘media bubble’”.

It was the news website’s first reporter role based outside of London and Bassey had a remit to find stories of “national importance and interest”.

But when Curtis suddenly left the news website in October last year after just a year in charge, Bassey followed her out the door a few months later.

He told Press Gazette the role “didn’t really work out” following “editorial changes” at the website, but that his departure had been amicable, with staff supportive of his future plans.

Bassey added that a large part of why he left was to pursue the idea of a practical course to help improve diversity in news pages and broadcasts.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists’ Diversity in Journalism report published in November 2017 said ethnic minorities were “significantly under-represented” in the media.

In total 94 per cent of journalists working in the UK are white, slightly higher than the UK workforce as a whole (91 per cent).

But Bassey said the answer to improving diversity in news coverage is “not as simple” as getting more BAME reporters in newsrooms.

How to avoid ‘perils and pitfalls’

Instead he wants to offer a bespoke training course which he said will teach journalists how to “properly report on issues of race and ethnicity and avoid the perils and pitfalls of reporting on BAME communities”.

“Media representations of ethnicity, race and religion are significant because language, emphasis and a lack of context can fuel nationalism and spread fear and tensions,” Bassey added.

He is launching the training as part of his freelance work but will be setting up a company dedicated to the project.

The training is designed to be a practical guide on best practice for reporting in BAME communities, taking in issues of both race and religion with tips from his own career.

He will lead a workshop in the autumn for undergraduate journalism students at Goldsmiths in London and the course will be available online through journalism.co.uk from September.

He has also been in talks with PA Training, the National Council for the Training of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists, as well as individual universities, over his plans.

Bassey, who is Sikh and was born in Wolverhampton, has worked in journalism in the West Midlands for 25 years with particular specialisms in crime and terrorism.

As well as mythbusting and going through cultural “dos” and “don’ts”, Bassey said the course will present practical steps to help reporters “get an in” and then maintain good contacts with so-called “hard to engage” communities that often feel under-served and misunderstood by traditional media outlets.

He told Press Gazette: “There’s clearly a call for more diverse journalists and it’s not as simple as just getting more brown and black faces in the newsroom.

“Being able to report confidently, accurately and well on these communities is a skill no matter what colour or creed you’re from. It’s something that can be taught.”

News industry was ‘almost blatantly racist’

When he started as a journalist in the early 1990s Bassey said it was a “very white environment” with just a handful of non-white journalists working outside London.

He claimed the industry was once “almost blatantly racist in a lot of ways”, mostly through stories chosen to fit news agendas.

When he worked at news agency Newsteam in Birmingham, he said he used to call up national news desks and be asked if the subject of a story was “of the truer faith” – an old euphemism to ask whether they white. If the answer was no, their interest would immediately wane, he claimed.

He said on occasions he was asked if the story was about a “raghead” – a racist slur for someone wearing a turban or keffiyeh – and had stories turned down if he said yes.

Bassey said a story once broke on a Saturday in the 1990s in which an Asian man who had killed and dismembered his wife was arrested at Birmingham New Street station with her remains in a suitcase.

He thought the story was perfect for the Sunday tabloids, but was “stunned” that none of the newsdesks he called showed any interest after asking about the man’s race.

He told Press Gazette some newsdesks who had gotten to know him as an agency reporter and were aware of his ethnicity began to apologise and say “you know how it is” over the stories.

“That really struck me that these stories are being included or left out of papers purely on the basis of a person’s race,” he said.

“So it was always in the back of my mind. I felt in the early years like the outsider – in any press pack I was in I’d be the only coloured face there.”

He added that there was “never any overt racism towards myself or other reporters”, but said he felt nonetheless like he didn’t fit in and that other journalists could be “standoffish” towards him.

He said he has seen an increase in the number of Asian and minority ethnic journalists over the past 20 years – although said this was less so for black journalists – but added: “Still the reporting of certain ethnic and BAME communities is quite stuck in the 90s in a lot of ways.”

Asked what advantage the content of his course could have for publishers and broadcasters, Bassey said: “For the newspapers it’s a simple question of economics I suppose. The more readers you get, the wider audience you get, the more money you’ll make.

“So catering and having stories that talk to these communities are invariably going to attract them to your website or newspaper.”

Course would ‘make better journalists’

The foreign-born population of the UK has almost doubled in the past 15 years, growing from 5.3m to 9.4m between 2004 and 2017, not including second or third generation migrants.

Bassey said this growth means there are now more communities asking “who’s serving us, who’s voicing our concerns, who’s speaking on our behalf?”

“There are a lot of communities that feel under siege and are very suspicious of journalists and won’t even give them the time of day because they feel they’re going to be misconstrued.

“On the other side you’ve got journalists who are very wary going in to certain areas to speak to certain communities because they feel that they’re not going to be particularly well received.”

But, he added: “This will only make you a better journalist, it will just open you to a whole new world of stories that you would never have access to.”

Picture: Amardeep Bassey

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