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Black Lives Matter: challenges to journalism

THE LONDON FREELANCE Branch meeting during Black History Month asked about the future. What have been the challenges of covering the protests? How do newsrooms need to, er, change to cover these issues properly? How can that be achieved?

Our speakers were Evening Standard crime correspondent Anthony France and Marc Wadsworth, chair of the NUJ's Black Members' Council.

Anthony France

Anthony France on Zoom

AS CRIME correspondent, Anthony France announced, "I have the best job on the newspaper." He has not written much about racism. But "following George Floyd's killing I wrote a piece": this appeared (online) under the heading: "I knew I would never be entirely the same again: Standard crime correspondent Anthony France questions how racism has shaped his life". "I got my family to go through the piece with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it was all sound." And "in our family we have heated rows about why I won't say I'm a victim of racism" - though he was the only journalist convicted in the phone-tapping trials.

"If I suffered racism, or unconscious bias, I never wanted it to define me as a person, a constant dead weight for all time." he said. "People suffer unbelievable acts of racism daily and are real victims."

"The reason I agreed to speak tonight," Anthony told the meeting, "was to talk about diversity in the newsroom - about the representation of black and minority journalists."

But first: how did Anthony get started? "I'd been at university three months when Luton on Sunday offered me £7500 a year to be a trainee reporter, doing lots of crime. I jumped at it." The police force rather took him under their wing. "My first question at a news conference was 'why are you looking for that man?' and a senior officer pointed out that was a photo of the victim." From Luton he went on indirectly to spend 13 years at the Sun.

He travelled to South Africa to report on Nelson Mandela's state funeral for the Sun. He covered the trial of John Worboys, when the taxi driver was eventually arrested after raping probably more than 100 women. Now he has joined the Evening Standard. Earlier on the day of the meeting he'd been reporting on a four-year-old boy who was knocked down and killed in west London.

So how would Anthony sum up his experience of being Black in the newsroom? "When I was at the Sun or the Evening Standard, colleagues who saw an ethnic minority journalist would want to encourage them." But: "we need to look at why people aren't joining papers."

"With a level playing field, I believe a black man or woman can achieve anything they want in the United Kingdom. But you shouldn't have to work 10 times harder than the person sitting next to you to get there."

But "sometimes you simply can't win, as comedian Nabil Abdulrashid found out on Britain's Got Talent" the weekend immediately before the meeting. Abdulrashid joked about the thousands of complaints lodged with the BBC following a dance routine on an earlier episode inspired by Black Lives Matter. (In case memories are overwhelmed: Black Lives Matter is the protest movement against killings of Black people by US police, which went international following the killing of George Floyd in by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin in May.)

"They complained because we said black lives matter," Nabil Abdulrashid had said. "Thousands of complaints. To be honest I'm shocked that many of them know how to write. They sent in thousands of angry letters. Hopefully if I annoy them today they can progress onto words,"

"My personal view," Anthony said, "is that there is no right answer except us all living in harmony."

But "journalism has," he warned, "a very long way to go if it is to represent its diverse readers. I am often the only black person in newsrooms. I think the way journalists are recruited today on lower salaries and short contracts makes it harder for recruits of colour and those who are working class to join the ranks. And do we do enough to retain them? Probably not."

As a crime correspondent a lot of Anthony's job is comforting grieving parents. "Very often for me being black makes it easier." He described meeting a woman whose son had been killed in Croydon, who had been unwilling to talk with other journalists. "The son was mixed race... when you're Black and you say you're from a paper people are like 'oh, really?' When you're dealing with the public it does have its advantages."

"Journalism is a fantastic career," Anthony concluded, "and if there's anything I can do for a next generation of reporters please let me know."

Questions to Anthony

Branch member Mel asked: Are there any specifics - how do newsrooms have to change to cover these issues properly? "When I was at the Sun," Anthony reported, "my news editor asked me to put together a shortlist - when you're in that position you can make a difference."

Member Dapo Ladimeji remembered that during the miners' strike in 1984-85 Skip Gates (Henry Louis Gates Jr.) - who's now a prominent academic but who was then at Time magazine - went to talk with the miners. They had refused to talk with white American journalists - but were willing to talk with him.

Something that concerns Dapo is that he cannot identify a new generation of black intellectuals to follow on from, for example, Stuart Hall in the UK. We need them to answer the question "what can we do to help Black journalists" in a more analytical way than "in my experience," which is "interesting but not the point..."

Marc Wadsworth

Marc Wadsworth on Zoom

Marc of distinction

Marc Wadsworth opened by noting that Anthony had been modest in not making more of the fact that he was the only journalist convicted, in May 2015, following Operation Elveden, a police investigation into phone-tapping and improper payments by tabloid newspapers. Anthony's conviction was overturned in October 2016.

Marc started on the Surrey Advertiser in Guildford and at 19 was first reporter on the scene when the Horse and Groom pub there was bombed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army on 5 October 1974. He'd been a little late filing copy before he went to the pub and "that probably saved my life".

He was a freelance on the Evening Standard in 1978 - back when Tony Benn was Energy Minister. He went on to BBC Radio London and then to Thames Television as a researcher - there he was Father of Chapel (elected representative of NUJ members) there and Chair of the Joint Shop Stewards' Committee with other unions.

While at Thames he worked on "a film we made called Death on the Rock about three Irish Nationalist activists murdered by the SAS". Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher objected - and, Marc said, she "decided Thames would have our licence to broadcast withdrawn" in revenge. Before that, he recalls Margaret Thatcher walking out while he was interviewing her for Thames News and asked about her colleagues voting against her.

In 1998 Marc published Comrade Sak, a political biography of British Indian Labour and Communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala - he observed that now you should get what is "a second edition and virtually a new book".

"In 40 years not a lot has changed," around race in reporting, Marc believes: "Anthony talks about being the only Black person in the newsroom and I remember that from the local paper and I remember it from Thames..."

Guardian columnist Jane Martenson recently observed that of 111 voices quoted on the front pages of British newspapers in a week chosen at random this summer, just one was black. That was Bristol activist Jen Reid, after a statue of her had appeared on the plinth where a statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston had been, Marc reminded us, "magnificently pulled down". Jane Martenson had also observed that "of the 174 bylines on the stories featured that week, not a single one was black, and only six were written by reporters from other ethnic minorities." Marc noted that "I 'm talking about people who are 'politically Black' - that is, people who face discrimination because of the colour of their skin."

And all 17 people interviewed live on BBC Newsnight during one week in mid-July were white.

"There are issues about how Black people are covered, Marc noted. "But Black people should not just be covering race stories - we're as multiskilled as any other group." He referred us to the statement by the NUJ's Black Members' Council, which refers to the Union's race reporting guidelines. The statement concludes: "Black History Month gives us all, as journalists, time to reflect that, if we don't know where we're coming from - and fail to be honest and inclusive about it - we don't know where we're going."

"Diversity in the media should not be seen as purely a race issue or a gender issue," Marc continued: "it's also a class issue". In June 2019 the Sutton Trust reported a drop in the proportion of the UK's 100 most influential editors and broadcasters who went to private school - to 43 per cent. That was down from 54 per cent in 2014. Of prominent newspaper columnists, 44 per cent went to Oxford or Cambridge universities, down from 47 per cent five years earlier.

"The media need to change," Marc insists, "not just for ethical reasons but for commercial ones - we need to reflect potential readers and viewers in all their diversity." When the Financial Times asked women what sort of person the FT would be, "very many imagined it as a white man."

"We can have a voice," Marc believes: "Representation is a defining issue in an age when the news is threatened by misinformation and disinformation." We "need to convince the people doing the hiring that they're missing out on great stories by not having great Black journalists. We're not asking for charity!"

Another issue, that Anthony had touched on, is whether a newsroom is a hospitable place once you get there. Marc has "heard horror stories of Black journalists leaving because, on the contrary, it was a hostile environment."

Questions to Marc

Branch co-Chair Matt Salusbury recalled that Kurt Barling told a Branch meeting in 2014 that the BBC may be fairly good at recruiting Black people and those from other ethnic minorities but retention was "not so good".

David Landau asked what action we could take. Anthony finds that "if someone comes into a newsroom, people try to encourage them..." He mentioned the play Death Knock by Black former journalist Martin Edwards.

Dapo recalled that when the first three or four Black MPs were elected to Westminster, "all they got asked about were their views on race" He had asked a colleague "why not ask them about the Common Market or NATO?" and "he looked at me as if he were thinking 'why would they think about the Common Market?' - this kind of attitude is devastating for people coming into the newsroom."

Marc agreed, and added that what I've also said to fellow Black journalists is that we shouldn't shy away from race stories either, because we'll probably do them best." For example, back in 1984 one Patrick Harrington, a member of the far-right National Front, was "going in to North London Polytechnic once a week and handing out leaflets." Students challenged his presence and "every week Thames News would send a crew to report on student protests 'denying him the right to an education'." One week "the news editor looked around and I was the only journalist available and he sent me to the protest. I interviewed Harrington - and he spoke of wanting to deny Black students places in the Polytechnic."

When Marc got back to the office there was a row about whether to use the interview. "The shabby compromise was a report on the protest, done the way the editor wanted - but with a 20-second clip of Harrington saying that about Black students." After this was broadcast "all hell broke loose, with Harrington saying he'd been quoted out of context. To defend ourselves the station had to run the whole 8 minutes of my interview to show that the quote was in context." Following this, Harrington was excluded from the campus (and offered lectures in an annexe).

Dapo noted that "the onus is on the employer to give people assignments that are nothing to do with their ethnicity." Marc observed that "when we have our feet under the table and are established as great up-and-down reporters, we can be a bit more assertive."

Marc concluded by suggesting the Branch make a donation to the George Viner Memorial Fund, which offers bursaries and mentoring to increase the diversity of entrants to journalism. The Freelance editor said that under Branch rules the best we needed to give members due notice: there would be a motion to the November meeting.

  • 16 March 2020: we corrected Marc Wadsworth's age at the time of the Horse Guards bombing.