Original excerpt from Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
When I later joined the Guardian newspaper as legal affairs correspondent, it was important to me that this was a role that had nothing to do with gender or race. Coming as I did from a world of bundles of paper tied up in pink ribbon, cantankerous public-school boys paid to have a high opinion of their charisma and bravado, and white horsehair wigs, I expected the newspaper to be enlightenment personified.
But there, too, diversity was conspicuous by its absence. When Howard W. French, the distinguished black New York Times columnist, was posted to Japan as a correspondent, he regarded it as a victory far beyond the implications of actually reporting news from the country. He had broken outside the walled city of reporting ‘urban’ and ‘black’ places and stories to which black reporters are usually confined. ‘Howard has reached the river!’ French reported his colleagues as saying. ‘Someone had escaped, or so it seemed, what we sometimes called the “corporate negro calculus”, the careful tending of our presence, never dramatically expanding our numbers but also never letting them fall too low, all the while keeping us employed in predictable roles.’
The world French described is one I still recognise, characterised by what he calls the ‘persistent problem of typecasting’ – a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as ‘black’ and the rest as ‘white’. It’s impossible not to notice a similar phenomenon in the British media. As far back as 2002, a report supported by a number of organisations including the BBC acknowledged that ‘the pattern of minority ethnic participation shows less contribution to heavyweight roles and subjects of a serious nature, while minority ethnic contributions cluster around vox pop interviews or stereotypical topics of minority group issues, sport, music and sex’.
To me, it’s non-negotiable that newsrooms should reflect the cultural, racial, class, religious and gender make‑up of the nation. I can think of no other profession where the personal contacts and perspective of an employee have such a blatant impact on their output. The playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah tells a story about how, growing up in west London in the 1970s, his mother would – very occasionally – shout up the stairs saying ‘Come quick! There’s a black man on the telly!’ Things were not all that different by 2001, when BBC Director General Greg Dyke famously described the corporation as ‘hideously white’.
I was in my second year at university then, and painfully aware at the paucity of black people – especially senior or visible black people – in all of the professions I was considering entering. Dyke was speaking just a few years after the Metropolitan Police were judged to be affected by ‘institutional racism’; it was as if the ‘R’ word, as the professor and broadcaster Kurt Barling has called it, was finally coming out of the closet and into the open for public analysis and dissection. It was a relief.
Collecting examples of blatant racism in the mainstream press is one of my hobbies. It’s too much work for one person, so I often rely on members of another WhatsApp group, this time a group of female journalists, which includes all races, the only requirement being that everyone involved is committed to increasing diversity in the profession. My phone buzzes endlessly with the constant stream of offensive examples, but some stand out. A Daily Mail cartoon from November 2015 in particular had special significance because of its timing. The newspaper published a drawing by its long-standing cartoonist Stanley McMurtry satirising the fact that the singer Tom Jones was exploring the possibility that he could have African ancestry. The cartoon, which I imagine would have caused offence in 1915 let alone 2015, showed a white explorer in colonial-era dress, in a black‑as‑night jungle, approaching a pot-bellied black tribesman with a test tube. The caption has the explorer telling the tribesman, ‘The DNA matches – now just one more question. Can you sing Delilah?’
What singled this incident out was the fact that, on the very same day that the newspaper published it, the Mail was playing host to a ‘special celebratory reception to mark 10 years of the Journalism Diversity Fund’ – a fund that dispenses bursaries to talented journalism students from ‘diverse backgrounds’. Joseph, the Hull-born mixed-race Guardian journalist who shared his experiences of childhood with me for this book, was at the reception, and listened to a speech by one of the Mail’s senior editors, in which he praised efforts to increase diversity in the industry and stressed how important it was that more was done. After the speech, Joseph made a point of showing the cartoon to some of the Mail grandees present at the reception, asking how depicting black people in this way was compatible with encouraging diversity. ‘Stop being a troublemaker,’ he reports being told.
It’s too easy to implement corporate diversity schemes and social responsibility checklists, without any actual thought about why our society excludes people of colour. Shonda Rhimes, the American screenwriter and producer – creator of multiple hit US shows including Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal – is often asked why she’s so invested in ‘diversity’ on television, in the sense that she has created lead characters who are from different minority backgrounds, who are women and who are gay. ‘I really hate the word diversity,’ Rhimes says. ‘It suggests something other. As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50 per cent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary.’
The problem is, things have been so skewed for so long, that tampering with the old ‘normal’ creates instant enemies. For many people, ‘diversity’ feels like discrimination against them; they see it as a zero-sum game. On my first day at Sky News, a senior female colleague gave me a dressing-down for my audacity in getting my job, saying, ‘Don’t take this personally, but you can’t get a promotion around here if you’re white these days. You should know that. I’m just telling you, as if people are less than pleased to see you, it might explain why.’ There was always this lingering suspicion that I managed to get the job as a result of some sophisticated scam or, worse, affirmative action.
At the Guardian, people kept asking me how I did it, as if there was some kind of story to tell. ‘I applied to the job ad in the Guardian, did two rounds of interview, and wrote three sample articles,’ I said. How did you get yours?’ The fact is that until a few years before I joined the newspaper, jobs weren’t even advertised as standard practice – in some cases, editors simply appointed people they knew. Privileged, straight, white men who lived in affluent areas tended to appoint – guess what – other people like themselves.
The media is changing, with streaming services like Netflix, online news platforms like Vice, and social media news services like The Young Turks disrupting the market and stealing the loyalties of a generation, who would never dream of waiting for the BBC News at Six to find out what’s going on in the world, as my parents used to when I was growing up. But the fact remains that the decisions made in the newsrooms and commissioning offices of our major TV studios still have enormous influence over public opinion and sentiment. Public service broadcasters in particular are among the first to acknowledge that their content is creating a narrative of the nation, to ‘enrich and challenge the assumptions of modern Britain, and connect its past and future’, for example, or to ‘increase social cohesion and tolerance by enabling the UK’s many communities to talk to themselves and each other about what they hold in common and how they differ’.
Afua Hirsch (1981) is the author of Brit(ish), a 2017 Jonathan Cape publication that explores Britishness and identity, and their seismic social and political impact. Afua is a writer, journalist and broadcaster who has worked as social affairs and education editor for Sky News and legal affairs correspondent for The Guardian in Great Britain and West Africa. She is a former barrister and has also worked in international human rights development. In addition to reporting on issues ranging from politics and policy, terrorism, the War in Mali, and Africa’s tech revolution, she writes and speaks extensively about social issues concerning justice and identity around the world. The Dutch translation, Brit(isch) will come out on April 18 2018, published by AtlasContact. (Photo: Urszula Soltys)