The EVENING STANDARD MAGAZINE, 1999
A new millennium was in the offing and the Evening Standard magazine did something quite rare. It lined up some of London’s black talent.
Frankly, it could have chosen from a pool of thousands and thousands. But someone must have passed over because I got the call too.
We gathered in a warehouse. Some of us knew each other and spoke candidly about the challenges we faced and what we were doing.
I’m on the far right, a TV journalist back then. This week race, employment and ambition garnered news attention, albeit limited. Sixteen years on, what have we learned? What might we do?
Race is marmite when it comes to public discussions. There’s rarely any ambivalence for those that engage, even fleetingly. Then there’s the pub test, but more on that later.
A story criticising an institution for its lack of ethnic representations is most likely to draw negative barbed comments about the unfettered attention paid to minorities, as much as those expressing the dice is loaded against opportunities and the evidence is plaintively clear.
Some comments, and they’re almost unavoidable in comment streams, come from those who may have little empathy for the whole issue. ‘If you’re good at what you do, you’ll get a job’, ‘suck it up’ and ‘Oh here we go again’ is the riposte. From the affected, if you’ve not walked in their shoes, to them you’ve little insight into maligned practices.
UCAS, the body representing university admissions, and a number of businesses in the UK are set to trial anonymised CVs. If you have a surname that sounds remotely ethnic like mine (rotundly African), you may have had your suspicions, or even factual evidence that something’s amiss.
This week, reports on race, culture and employment dropped into my inbox. It brought back memories of that line-up. At the centre of the issue was the UK’s venerable institution, the BBC.
The BBC has been accused of presenting a training video targeting next gen. broadcasters, which features non-whites. The video was produced by the Royal Television Society. Of all programmes too, it’s the flagship BBC Newsnight that’s come under the lens. The PR from Radio 5’s promotion also fails the test.
There’s no point me attempting to write an opinion piece that purports to provide rational utopian solutions. This is an emotive issue that has sought answers and solutions over the years.
There are times when an initiative maps out purpose. Setting up the Cultural Diversity Network or Lenny Henry’s ring fencing of funds for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) productions are examples. But their execution or internal workings have, at some point, been found wanting. Nepotism is also a perennially perceived sore point too for potential applicants getting through the door of the BBC et al.
All that said, I’d like to however share my experience, which offers some panorama of context.
Breaking into Broadcasting
I worked on BBC Newsnight in 1991— one of my most enjoyable experiences to date. I also recall subsequent journalism job excursions and the unrelenting rejection letters to fill my study as wall paper.
In fact, I applied for so many jobs and didn’t get a look in, human resources rooted out my CV and organised a day when I was being interviewed for the benefit of BBC managers.
Was there anything they weren’t culturally in tune with that could be rectified from the eight hours questioning? It put me in front of programme managers and I suspect my Newsnight stint came from that.
It’s a tough old boot, news. Generally, senior executives, I have come to believe may mean well, when they talk about parity and this issue has oscillated between different sexes, disabilities and race.
However, on the shop floor with middle management looking for that senior director’s job and with an eye on BARB figures and targets, such presumed empathy on equality flies out of the window. All bets are off.
After my third job in broadcasting at the BBC, in the summer of 1992, I could not, for love or money, find another post. And I reckoned matters were unlikely to change. There was a recession in the UK.
Hence, I practically emigrated to South Africa, heading towards the biggest story for our generation, the end of Apartheid. The stories I would file invariably put me in harms way, but I was working and those I contacted in London were happy to receive my reports.
For a while when back in London mentoring would-be journalists I would recommend they search out stories they feel passionate about and discard geographical barriers that will restrain their movement.
That was until it became too dangerous for journalists to do their jobs. They became primary targets for abductions and injuries. For the really determined I urged a full-on risk assessment. Two years ago, near the border of Turkey and Syria, I found myself practising what I preach as we set about filming and training young Syrian filmmakers.
I’ve also come to think that perversely qualifications, unofficially, don’t matter, at least for some universities. A background from Oxbridge or Russell Group universities could bring you closer to the face-to-face vetting process, but more socially unwritten behaviours play out.
One of those I have dubbed the Pub Test. Put rather bluntly how does your CV communicate what you’re like if you’re stuck in the pub with your potential team members? Will it turn out to be awkward, or can you swap social currency with them ?
Voltaire’s magnificence, the daring-dos of filmmaker turned part-time nurse during the Crimea War Jessica Borthwick, or how you squirrelled yourself into a conflict zone, are just a few. I know of a few friends who quite literally found journalism jobs from being in the pub. In years gone by in fleet street, a pint during lunch lubricated the conversation for the next file.
The argument for equality is presented as an English, and at large humanity’s, sense of fair play. It’s an acknowledgment that legitimate opportunities should be available to all, or at least sometimes it appears so.
Today, there’s a feeling that the alternative drive for parity, should be presented as a business case. The two however are not mutually exclusive. Diversity within diverse races, cultures and sexes, delivers an eclecticism in ideas and innovation. The new 21st century tech industry that could capitalise on this for good practice doesn’t appear to have done so yet.
However, at a gathering at Penguin books some years ago featuring newbie writer Harry Kunzru, one of its publishers proclaimed they editors and their audience were looking for new experiences, and that discursive cultures (multi diverse cultures ) remained untapped and an exciting market.
Value and Newsnight
At Newsnight it was then editor Tim Gardam, now the principle at St Anne’s College, Oxford, who took a chance on me. Gardam had recognised the issue and following a round of interviews, I found myself the lone person in his office preparing for a run on the programme.
A flashback of our meeting in his office has Gardam stating the following, ‘You’re not here to do black stories’. This was part relief. I would now be considered a journalist who journalises. I understood what he meant.
I believe I paid the programme back for the trust it put in me, as it would expect from any other journalist, except I suspected all eyes were on me as the new boy. Researching the shelling of Dubrovnik during the Bosnia-Croat war yielded a round of staff applause and interesting conversations.
The British interviewee I found in the shelled town bore witness to events that steered the day’s production in a new direction with an hour or so before air. After the show, a producer asked how I came to be on Newsnight.
A background in Chemistry, post grad from Falmouth, growing up in Ghana in boarding school, coupled with presenting shifts on BBC GLR at the time seemed to ease any anxieties.
Leicestershire’s children’s home scandal referencing Frank Beck was another big story. I had previously lived and regularly freelanced for BBC Radio Leicester during my three years as an an undergrad, so relied on my contacts to help build a televisual story.
Precociously, I kept in contact with world events and on occasion was a guest attendee at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. In 1994, a senior member and authority on South Africa, helped me become a member.
Getting back to Newsnight, part relief, too, because while I figured my role didn’t have to be stated, such framing was necessary from the editor to ensure he was understood. Implicitly, that didn’t mean I couldn’t do black stories, but that’s not why I was hired. Since my time there I know of a number of blacks or Asians journalists who have worked on the programme.
These accounts do not excuse the disappointment I feel reading about the BBC. Simon Albury, a long time champion of equality anthropologically contextualises the issue with the work of the Cultural Diversity Network to the present. The story of 27-year old Eno Alfred, according to Albury serves to emphasises what’s wrong. It’s one I recognise.
Next Gen Young Gifted and, er, no job
Alfred, an LSE grad, recruited by Columbia’s Grad school on two scholarships has amassed a wealth of credentials, such as, The United Nations, The Daily Beast, The Atlanta Post, Fortune and Global Trade Review. Yet Fifteen job applications later to the BBC and she was still not being short listed for jobs that spanned broadcast journalism to production co-ordinator. Me, I can recall only one incident of securing a job from the formal process of interviews.
The Independent newspaper, picking up the BBC’s plight emblazoned its media page with ‘No non-white youth in recruitment film about BBC’. It was shared many times. Quoting from Albury’s report, it was a journalistic story whose drama was manifest.
The independent’s Media Editor Ian Burrell writes how seasoned journalist Jasmine Dotiwala was approached to comment on the biopic NWA by Newsnight, but eventually stood down for two rappers. Dotiwala stated in an article for Huff Post
The BBC have the biggest newsroom in Europe but not one TV researcher that could find a decent speaker to represent black pop culture…within its walls…Would they have the same level of pundits if, say, they were making a feature about the historical biopic about The Smiths, or even the Spice Girls?
Perversely, paradoxically, because jobs were scare and I couldn’t afford to place my eggs in one basket. By 1997, I had carved a background as a journalist who could work in television and radio and code online. Necessity is the truthsayer of invention. The irony was that in 2005 I was being invited to speak to several international conferences, including the BBC’s global senior managers conference about this new dawn.
So what to do? The BBC has in place a leadership scheme for BAME. Progress yes, but to cite contemporary strategic approaches, it, perhaps requires a multi-agency approach, so there’s a common purpose and everyone’s aware of the goal.
Today I’m not oblivious to the inertia in media. Contracting jobs and heightened market competition generally limit any sense of conscious fair play with goodwill memorandums invariably stuck in board rooms.
But the appeal and presentations, albeit for the meantime, are still made mainly towards sentients — emotional beings. What happens when it turns to algorithmic psychometric test and to parody a comedy show, “the computer said no!”?
At some point colour will be blind. Today, everyone’s feeling the pinch, but I hope you’ll forgive me for focusing on minorities in this post and that one of many solutions entails mentoring students before they get to undergrad or Masters programmes.
My experience, working several sides of the media gives me a modicum of understanding about reception theory and negotiations. I am still passionate about journalism and storytelling — the thrill yes, but that also the diverse untold stories that need to be heard that will hopefully influence us to be, or become, more compassionate, tolerant, and understanding of each other.
Some of these insights I have been able to pass on makes me feel I’m making a difference — however small.
Today, I’m now also in a field that also would rather not expose its under belly. I once passed by a Chancellor at a conference of educationists who was lamenting the lack of senior executives from ethnic minorities in his university.
Diversity reduces ignorance. It’s the glue to humanity, though yes there was a relatively long period when diversity was largely packaged as blatantly hierarchical. One cultural group saw fit to dominate another. Just over 20 years ago that was the official line in South Africa.
Poet Benjamin Zephaniah, performing in light of Britain’s 50-year ground breaking race relations act sees race and culture as increasingly insidious. It’s in the boardroom now, and those that disagree with its position have a secret weapon that ‘ some of my friends are black’.
Also on Channel 4 News this week was the President of Kiribati Anote Tong whose country faces grave dangers from rising seal levels and effects of global warming, irrespective of the unprecedented deal achieved in Paris.
He’s pressed a long campaign to find solutions. When asked by the presenter why he wasn’t angry at the world’s muted response to his country’s plight, he said the following:
Would it make any difference if I was angry. I don’t have the means to influence the outcome . What I need to do is to get people feel to a little guilty, a little sense of morality, a little sense of responsibility, that they need to see justice done here. But anger is not the right response, because would you care if I was angry. I mean you don’t get angry with your big boy. You hope that they will be able to see what they need to do.
Wise words indeed.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer. His interests are technology, storytelling, philosophy and diversity. He’s been an artist in residence at the South back Centre and jury member for its Television News awards. Six years on from being featured in the Evening Standard he was the recipient of two major global awards, the Knight Batten for Innovation in Journalism and International Videojournalism Awards.