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The problem is not just Liddle, it’s the whole exclusive world of columnists

After the controversy over Rod Liddle’s comments about Caribbean men committing crime, and the Caribbean peoples contribution to the UK,  it’s time to look at why there are so few Black columnists for national newspapers and magazines.

By Lester Holloway

Liddle, a former BBC Today programme editor, writes for the Spectator, a right-leaning political magazine, and the Sunday Times. Neither of these publications has a regular political or current affairs columnist African, Asian or Caribbean descent.

In fact the rareified world of the national columnist is so exclusive that the only British-based contributor is Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for the Independent.

It is easier for people of colour to get into Cabinet than get a prominent column in what used to be called Fleet Street to reflect on the week’s events.

Sure, there are a small handful of columnists like the Guardian’s Hannah Pool, writing in the paper’s Saturday magazine and G2 supplements often about social or cultural issues.

But when it comes to the “frontline” opinion formers – the papers’ big hitters who deliver their verdicts on the top political issues or most talked-about stories – it is virtually an all-white club.

But while the daily press desperately needs more Black “commentariats” simply to reflect the modern and diverse Britain who consume media, it’s not merely a problem about ethnicity but about the sort of views this current crop of columnists spew out.

From The Sun’s Jon Gaunt and Jeremy Clarkson to the Mail’s Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips and Jan Moir, there are opportunities aplenty to bash asylum seekers, kick Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti, attack Muslims or stick the boot into public servants taking their bosses to court for racial discrimination.

It’s not just that some columnists don’t reflect the views of the majority of Black people; it’s that they launch written assaults which are felt collectively by Black communities every single week.

Rod Liddle prospers because he is joining a well-established club who feel they can get away with playing on prejudice. And from one month to the next, they get away with it. They are hardly ever brought to book. But that does not mean this should continue. Why should such columnists feed daily on the fear some readers have of black men or Muslims?

Not only do we rarely complain, but we have no protection frame wave after wave of hateful diatribe. Progressive columnists, the Polly Toynbees, Jackie Ashleys and David Aaronovitchs of this world do not make it their business to rebut the nonsense emanating from the more reactionary sections of the press. And to a large extent, why should they? There have a lot of big political questions already on their plate.

But if progressive writers are not responding to the atmosphere of suspicion, or even hate, that the right-wing print shock jocks foster towards Black communities, then who can we look to?

Well, the track record of Alibhai-Brown and Younge, when he writes about British issues, is that they do occasionally hit back. But this is not nearly enough.

At the moment the burden falls solely on Alibhai-Brown, but as a national columnist she has a range of topics to write about. And when she does write about ‘race’ she will sometimes hit the mark and at other times miss it.

But the fact is, we need more than one national columnist of colour tackling the big issues of the day. And the responsibility for this falls squarely on the shoulders of the editors, who themselves need to expand their view of their audience – as thelondonpaper showed.

Since 1997 there have been four black ministers attending Cabinet – Paul Boateng, Lady Amos and Lady Scotland and Sadiq Khan. This alone proves that being a major columnist is a far more exclusive and unrepresentative ivory tower than the top table of British politics. Indeed the career route to Cabinet is a lot clearer than the route to having weekly column inches in tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.

Liddle is part of a wider problem. It’s a problem that Operation Black Vote have been attempting to tackle in the broadcast world, by holding constructive discussions with Radio 4 after we earlier exposed the lack of diversity of their regular presenters.

Quite simply, the make-up of star columnists is a debate that needs to happen.


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