Racial discrimination in UK journalism

Antiracism sign (photo: Courtesy of Mathias Reding)

Following the killing of George Floyd by the police in America 2020, and the public outcry, there were protests in that country and throughout the world. It seemed, for a while at least, the world was once again taking notice of issues of racial discrimination of White people in power against Black people. The media was intensely involved in following and reporting on this particular case. Indeed, many media outlets – from newspapers to radio and television – covered this story of gross injustice. How strange, then, for the British media itself to become the subject of racial discrimination within its own institutions. In recent times it has become apparent that many Black journalists in Britain feel the industry treats them unfairly.

The British press, in general, and the role of British journalists specifically, are often held in high esteem with regard to their professionalism and general impartiality when it comes to investigating and reporting news. With a long and rich history of more than 300 years, the mass media in Britain is now regarded as part of the national landscape. One of the key functions of the media was to ensure some degree of freedom of the press. England was one of the first countries in Europe to abolish censorship, thereby ensuring press freedom from as early as 1695. This, however, should not mask the fact that newspapers and other media outlets and agencies, in general, provide a range of views and perspectives often reflecting their own particular positions. Media outlets such as the BBC and CNN regard themselves as a champions of impartiality. This impartiality, may, however, relate only to the way news and programmes are covered and presented, rather than how individual workers, especially those from non-White racial backgrounds, are treated.

Of course, many newspapers and journalists simply reflect the prevailing or dominant view of society. For example, the Columbia Journalism Review (18 June 2021) reports that in 2018, National Geographic audited its archives, and told readers that the magazine had depicted people of colour in ‘’exoticized ways, often nude and as “happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliché”. The media and many journalists simply adopted the dominant racist positions of the period in which they lived. But, in Britain today, we should expect a different approach where people from minority racial backgrounds are described and treated fairly whether they are the subjects of discussions or as work colleagues in media.  A report in the Guardian newspaper (2 Sept 2020) cited a study by the Sutton Trust which found that 80 per cent of media editors went to private schools, while only 11 per cent of journalists are from working class backgrounds, and only 0.2 per cent of journalists are Black, although Black people make up 3.3 per cent of the total population. Given this kind of background, it is not surprising that that recent reports have found examples of racial discrimination within the industry.

A recent report by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) claims that racism is still being experienced by Black journalists in the British news media. This research, carried out by journalist and academic Dr Aida Al Kaisy, based on 27 in-depth interviews with Black journalists and stakeholders, found that many felt unsupported, have their ideas routinely rejected, are made to feel as though they don’t belong, and have no one in senior positions to look to for impartial guidance. The racism begins even before people get into the industry, as they face enormous barriers to entry. A similar report published by AKAS in Nov 2022, which looked at the presence of women of colour in leadership positions in media in a number of countries, found that in the UK, there were no women of colour in most senior editorial, decision making positions. Furthermore, in a report by the Reuters Institute in March 2022, they assessed the percentage of non-White top editors in Brazil, Germany, South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom, and found that, in the UK no mainstream media platform had a non-White top editor.

This racism clearly poses problems about how news is presented and who determines how much time and resources go into researching whether a story is significant enough for publication or coverage. People from different backgrounds, with different experiences can, if given the opportunity, present rich varieties of programmes which would interest more people. It is clear that greater diversity is needed in the journalism sector and is perhaps why a report by the London Metropolitan University, about racism in the media, indicated the calls to ensure racial and class diversity at all levels in the newsroom and not just in junior or entry level roles, but top down from executives editors to interns. Racism in journalism will continue until everyone, from top to bottom, is serious about change, rather than merely talking about change.

Dr. Tony Talburt is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University in the UK.

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