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March 10, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:06am

Society of Editors boss Ian Murray resigns amid row over Prince Harry ‘bigoted’ press claims

By Charlotte Tobitt

Ian Murray has resigned as executive director of the Society of Editors after the organisation came under fire for dismissing Prince Harry’s claims that the UK press is “bigoted”.

The Society, which represents nearly 400 members from across the national and regional press and broadcast sector, was widely slammed for its statement on Monday dismissing Prince Harry’s assertion that the “UK press is bigoted, specifically the tabloids”.

The Society had said: “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.”

On Wednesday, the Society pledged to “work towards being part of the solution” on diversity in the media after more than 200 journalists of colour signed an open letter slamming an “industry in denial”.

But, after a day in which several more journalists and newsgroups spoke out against the Society – some by withdrawing entries to the organisation’s Press Awards – Murray resigned on Wednesday evening.

[Read more: Bigoted UK press? Guardian and FT editors call for reflection in industry]

Murray said: “While I do not agree that the Society’s statement was in any way intended to defend racism, I accept it could have been much clearer in its condemnation of bigotry and has clearly caused upset.

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“As executive director I lead the Society and as such must take the blame and so I have decided it is best for the board and membership that I step aside so that the organisation can start to rebuild its reputation.”

Murray said he was stepping aside “with a heavy heart” adding he is “proud” of the Society’s work “defending media freedom over the three years I have been at the helm as well as the initiatives we have created and continue to create on diversity in the newsroom”.

Earlier on Wednesday, ITV News anchor Charlene White decided to withdraw from hosting the Society’s National Press Awards, to be held in a virtual ceremony on 31 March. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Huffpost North of England correspondent Aasma Day have both withdrawn their shortlisted entries to the awards.

Alison Gow, president of the Society, said: “I would like to thank Ian for his tireless work on behalf of the Society; he has led campaigns for journalists’ rights and freedoms and worked hard behind the scenes when it appeared legislation might threaten those.

“The society is committed to representing all journalists and upholding Journalism; I am clear on what our mission must be, and we will strive as an organisation to listen and hear everyone’s views, and be strong advocates and allies for all those we represent.”

Eleanor Mills, who until last year was editorial director of the Sunday Times, said “lots of” the Society’s board – of which she is a member – was “very angry” and calling for an emergency meeting and a “turbo boost” to its diversity plan.

Fellow board member i editor Oly Duff said it was “ludicrous” to issue a “blanket defence of all media coverage”.

In a “statement of clarification” issued on Wednesday morning, the Society’s board said: “The Society of Editors has a proud history of campaigning for freedom of speech and the vital work that journalists do in a democracy to hold power to account.

“Our statement on Meghan and Harry was made in that spirit but did not reflect what we all know: that there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion.

“We will reflect on the reaction our statement prompted and work towards being part of the solution.”

Need to ‘practise what they preach’

ITV News presenter and Loose Women panellist Charlene White wrote to Society executive director Murray to withdraw from hosting its Press Awards, which has categories for Driving Diversity and Reporting Diversity, on Wednesday.

In a message seen by Huffpost, she wrote: “Perhaps it’s best for you to look elsewhere for a host for your awards this year.

“Perhaps someone whose views align with yours: that the UK press is the one institution in the entire country who has a perfect record on race.”

White added: “Your organisation approached me to become a judge for its awards and to work alongside you because at that time it was hugely lacking in terms [of] being a fair reflection of the UK population. In other words, the nominations and winners list involved very few non-white journalists.

“This is not an unusual scenario, unfortunately. Over the years several organisations have been held to account for eradicating and ignoring the work of ethnic minority professionals – and women.

“So, you told me you wanted that to change. In fact, we spoke at length about it.

“But here’s the thing. I only work with organisations who practise what they preach. My time is precious, so I’d rather not waste it.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose editor Rachel Oldroyd was one of the first to condemn the Society’s statement on Monday, was nominated in the Innovation of the Year category for its impact and community organising team while its journalist Alexandra Heal was nominated for the Young Journalist of the Year.

It withdrew its shortlisted entries over what it described as a “lack of awareness and understanding of deep-rooted and persistent problems”.

The Bureau said in a statement that refusing to acknowledge problems in the industry “bars the way for much-needed changes – in attitude and action – to support more diversity and wider representation that will improve our industry and our news”.

The statement said the Bureau “wants to strengthen the UK news ecosystem”.

“We see it as our responsibility as journalists and editors to serve all citizens across the country and help create a media industry that is representative of the diversity of people and stories within our society.”

Huffpost’s Aasma Day, who was nominated in the Reporting Diversity category, said: “A blanket claim on behalf of the industry saying the UK media is not bigoted does not sit right with me when racism and bigotry exists in every element of society. It would be wrong of me to carry on with this awards process when [the Society] is denying there even is a problem.

“What’s the point of having a Reporting Diversity award when this statement shows the society representing the industry I work in is burying its head and refusing to admit these issues even exist? Tackling diversity has to start ‘at home’ and this statement clearly refutes this.”

‘Open and constructive discussion’ needed

The Society’s latest statement came after more than 240 working journalists, writers and academics signed an open letter calling the Society’s claims “laughable”.

The letter said: “The Society of Editors should have used the comments by the Sussexes to start an open and constructive discussion about the best way to prevent racist coverage in future, including through addressing lack of representation in the UK media, particularly at a senior level.

“The blanket refusal to accept there is any bigotry in the British press is laughable, does a disservice to journalists of colour and shows an institution and an industry in denial.”

The letter was signed by more than 60 journalists from the Guardian and Observer, whose editor publicly disagreed with the Society on Tuesday.

Katharine Viner said: “Every institution in the United Kingdom is currently examining its own position on vital issues of race and the treatment of people of colour. As I have said before, the media must do the same. It must be much more representative and more self-aware.”

Others who signed the letter come from the BBC, Evening Standard, Vice UK, Channel 4 News, New York Times, New Statesman, Newsweek, Metro, Conde Nast, Insider and Talksport, alongside more than 60 freelances.

Editors respond

Viner was joined by Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf who said: “There is work to be done across all sectors in the UK to call out and challenge racism. The media has a critical role to play, and editors must ensure that our newsrooms and coverage reflect the societies we live in.”

[Read more: Culture of fear and cliquiness’ in UK newsrooms must end to move diversity conversation forward]

i editor Oly Duff, who is a member of the Society board, wrote in an editorial that despite the “sweeping generalisations” made by Harry and Meghan, the UK media does need to reflect on diversity within its ranks and still has “much more to do”.

He wrote: “The Sussexes’ take on the UK press does not reflect the breadth of the industry. Yet newspaper archives do contain plenty of examples of discriminatory news coverage – whether decades ago or much more recently – and our profession is not renowned for its self-awareness.”

He added on Twitter that it was “ludicrous” for the Society to issue a “blanket defence of all media coverage”.

“No wonder so many editors, journalists (and board members- given no knowledge of statement pre-publication) furious,” he went on.

“Blanket denial unacceptable, plenty of examples of discriminatory coverage (both historical, and more recent). Self-awareness and humility required – and action.

“That means newsrooms and coverage that reflect the communities we live in – outreach, recruitment, career development, appointment to leadership positions. Yes media groups are examining diversity within their ranks, some are much further ahead than others.”

Evening Standard editor Emily Sheffield said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon that her paper “believes that the nature of the serious allegations made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex require us as an industry to take time to review and investigate attitudes to race, diversity and representation.

“We were not consulted about The Society of Editors’ statement and it did not reflect our views on these vital issues.

“We are immensely proud of the progress that we have made in this area in recent years and continue to work hard to ensure that we challenge racism and reflect all of our readers in the journalism that we produce. We agree with the clarification issued today by the Society of Editors that we should all be part of the solution.”

In a leader column, the Independent said: “Things do need to change. The worst thing the British media can do now is to go into denial and to gaslight its critics.”

Labour MP Holly Lynch, who in 2019 co-ordinated an open letter to Meghan Markle to express solidarity over “often distasteful and misleading” national newspaper stories about her, has called for action against press bullying.

She told the Guardian there had been no change in the media since that letter: “A lot of media outlets have not heeded those calls for a change, which is why we might start needing to think about a case to government about how we stop hounding women in public life and put them in a position where they feel suicidal.”

Press Gazette is planning to launch a survey of our 10,000 email subscribers to better understand the concerns many have around race and the media. We will report back on our findings.

Picture: PA Wire/Gareth Fuller

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