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OBV Exclusive: How white is our media industry?

Joseph Harker of The Guardian exposes the shocking lack of diversity in Britain’s powerful national newspapers.

When OBV did its commendable research into the all-pervasive whiteness of BBC Radio presenters last summer, it could have just as easily focused on the lack of racial minorities on national newspapers: and, in particular, on Fleet Street’s columnists.

For a look at the main quality paper websites shows a disturbing lack of diversity among those promoted as the leading thinkers and opinion-formers.

On the Times, 32 of its 33 columnists are white, on the Telegraph, all its 24 are white, on the Independent, 40 of its 41 columnists and commentators are white, and on the Guardian & Observer, all its 21 featured columnists are white (although, as a journalist at the Guardian, I know this list is not comprehensive and excludes, for example, Gary Younge, Hugh Muir and Aditya Chakrabortty).

The situation is much the same on the tabloids – a rare exception being Anila Baig, the Sun’s Muslim columnist.

Only last week a University of Exeter report demonstrated that the increasing number of threats and assaults against Muslims were in part whipped up by sections of the media, in particular by columnists in the tabloid press.

In the same week, Fleet Street’s finest – among them Joan Smith, Kevin Toolis, and Alice Thomson – laid into the burka in a one-sided assault in which the voices of those women who actually wear it were excluded.

So where are the features which give a full perspective on life for our racial minorities – which treat us as more than crime suspects or statistics?

The media badly needs people who can step forward to offer these alternative views, and give an insight into the lives of our many poorly-covered sections of the community.

Currently we have a vicious circle, whereby writers from those groups feel that media outlets are not interested in them, so they tend to be less pushy in putting forward their own stories.

Not only that, but because it’s unlikely they’ve not had a lot of feedback from professional journalists, a story they pitch may not be perfectly written, and may thus be rejected immediately.

Young middle-class, well-connected Oxbridge boys feel no such reticence, and are happy to force their way to the front of the queue – their confidence impressing editors who are mostly from the same social group.

In an effort to break this cycle, the Guardian has launched a writers workshop for minority voices it will teach participants how to come up with ideas, how to structure stories, and how to pitch them to editors.

At the same time, we are also taking applications for our annual programmes, the positive action work-placement scheme, in which 12 minority writers spend up to three weeks at the Guardian across a range of editorial departments, and the the Scott Trust bursary scheme, which funds students through a post-graduate journalism diploma.

We hope that these schemes will help to redress the current imbalance. They are not the only answer, and they’re not all we are doing.

But all modern newspapers and websites have to understand that they can no longer persist in ignoring or negatively stereotyping large sections of the community.

In an increasingly competitive business, those who continue to exclude Britain’s many diverse perspectives and different voices will be the ones who ultimately lose out.

* Joseph Harker is assistant comment editor of the Guardian, writing in a personal capacity

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