British Journalism Award winner and leading authority on media diversity Marcus Ryder MBE gives his take on the issue following Press Gazette’s race and the media survey.
When we talk about the racism and bigotry in the UK media industry it is very easy to focus on some of the worst most visible excesses. The recent Press Gazette survey about racism and bigotry in the UK news media makes for shocking reading. When three quarters (74%) of black journalists who responded to the survey were able to answer “yes” to the question: “Have you personally experienced, or witnessed, racism whilst working in the UK Media?” something is horribly wrong.
When you are more than twice as likely to have been subject to, or seen racism, if you are a survey respondent working for a UK national newspaper or broadcaster compared to a non-UK media organisation then it points to a very worrying problem in UK media.
That said, while these issues are important to highlight on a day to day basis I find the vast majority of people of colour working in the media experience something far more subtle and insidious, but no less damaging, that the survey results might not have picked up.
I too, if I had been surveyed, would have been able to answer “yes” to many of the questions regarding both experiencing and witnessing racism in my 25 years plus of working in the media.
Following the interview of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by Oprah Winfrey I have actually lost count of how many times I was asked a similar question in various ways, all on the theme: “As a black man can you give me an example of the racism you have suffered?”.
It’s the most popular yet possibly the most unhelpful question if we are really trying to create a better workplace for people of colour and root out bigotry and racism. Here’s why.
The reason it is so unhelpful and difficult is because although I can point to individual incidents of explicit racism, for the most part throughout my career I have worked for relatively “liberal” organisations and had nice liberal colleagues and bosses. When I have heard racially derogatory language used in my presence or seen someone say or do anything overtly racist it is the exception rather than the norm.
The fact is the most harmful racism I suffer is almost impossible to identify, and can even be denied – as the recent controversy surrounding the report by the government-backed Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities demonstrates.
When I am unsuccessful at a job interview no one tells me it is because of my colour, and since everyone on the interview panels are always very polite, it is very hard to say it is because of racism. After all white people are unsuccessful at job interviews too.
When I am denied a promotion my boss never indicates it is because I am black. Chances are last year my bosses or his/her friends even went on Black Lives Matter marches. So it’s very hard to say it is because of some kind of bigotry. After all white people are denied promotions too.
When a story pitch is rejected by a commissioner, no one says the story is “too black”, and the commissioner regularly tells everyone they are looking for “more diverse stories”, it is very hard to say it is because of some kind of prejudice. After all white people’s story pitches are also rejected.
And so it is almost impossible to definitely say I didn’t get any specific job, or was denied a promotion or my story was rejected because I am Black.
But when I talk to other black media professionals and look at the bigger picture, we see studies that find that only 0.2% of journalists are black (versus 3% of the population). We can see that not a single black person has ever been promoted to the position of overseeing a major UK news or current affairs programme from BBC Breakfast News, The Today Programme, Newsnight, Panorama, to Dispatches. Never ever. And hundreds of families all still suffering from the fact that no editor thought fire safety in tower blocks was worth covering before the Grenfell Tower fire.
These simple facts, alongside the Press Gazette survey, clearly demonstrate that bigotry and prejudice is alive and well in the UK media working environment. But all too often the worst type of bigotry is denied or deniable, as in the case of the original statement by the Society of Editors.
It’s easy to focus on and attribute explicit racism to a “few bad apples” in an otherwise nice liberal industry. Yet, as black journalists we find ourselves internalising every rejection – blaming ourselves and thinking we need to lean into more training to get better. It is often easier to think you have a personal failing that you can work on, as opposed to “playing the race card” and believing that our nice liberal colleagues might not fundamentally value us in the same way they value their white colleagues. Focusing on the latter would effectively take away any control we might have over the situation.
Not only this, we often use the polite and passive language of there being a “lack of diversity”. But the lack of diversity in the media industry is not a force of nature, it is the result of people’s actions. That does not make white people in the media industry “racist” or “bigots”, but it does mean that too many people in influential positions are acting in ways which further the racism and bigotry in the industry that people of colour suffer from.
That’s why it can be highly unhelpful, and problematic to ask if I have specific examples of the racism I have suffered – the overt direct racism I have suffered has rarely directly hindered my career. The statistics however are clear that I must have suffered racism on a far larger and endemic scale.
If those who ask the questions are really serious about addressing any prejudice in the media industry, the first step is to stop asking Black journalists like myself to justify our claims of racism in the media industry by citing specific examples, and instead digest the statistics and acknowledge that for many of us it is not about the overt racist actions that we can point to that hurts us it is the overall toxic work environment that does the long-term damage.
What the industry must do is instead of denial or concentrating on some of the worst excesses of that prejudice is to examine these kinds of statistics and facts, and focus on what it will take to avoid having the same situation in five years.
And that’s where black journalists like myself can be helpful in turn. We can share solutions and ideas for change. That is why Lenny Henry and I wrote the book “Access All Areas – The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond” and set up the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, so that we can all work together and create a working environment free from racism, in all its forms.
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