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The Bristol Cable

Taking on diversity beyond tokens


In December, the Cable brought together members of the local community and media organisations to discuss issues of representation.

Photo: KCVisualz

Ever thought of getting into journalism? Here’s a handy guide to success. Number one: be a man. Number two: be white. Number three: get a £28,000 degree, and a £11,000 masters for good measure. It’s also better to be non-disabled. And if you’re going to practice a religion, don’t choose Islam.

What’s the problem?

The UK population is 51% women, 14% BAME people and 18% people with disabilities.

A 2016 Reuters survey found that:

  • 94% of journalists are white, while 0.2% are black.
  • Of the 38% who practice a religion, just 0.4% are Muslim.
  • 45% are women. But 50% of women earn less than £2,400 a month, compared with 34% of men.
  • 98% of journalists who began their careers after 2013 have a bachelor’s degree, with 36% also having a master’s.

A more recent Ofcom survey of the major UK broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Viacom) found their combined workforces comprise 48% women (only 39% in senior roles), 12% BAME people, and 3% people with disabilities. For example, the BBC aims for 14% BAME staff overall, but just 10% in leadership.

This might seem flippant, but the statistics (see box, ‘What’s the problem?) back it up. Most of the UK media has a diversity problem.

Earlier this year, Mayor Marvin Rees revealed that he faced institutional racism while working as a BBC journalist. This followed an earlier revelation that BBC Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans earned around the equivalent of all its BAME high-earners combined in 2016.

This is not just a issue for national media organisations either. In November, the Bristol Post’s editor wrote: “Too few of my staff are from the BME community and neither black writers nor black communities are well represented.” We know changes are needed at the Bristol Cable too.

‘Diversity’: it’s problematic

On a cold Friday night in the Docklands Youth Centre in St Pauls, Delroy Hibbert, a Bristol Cable director and community activist who’s also done a stint at the BBC, gathers a panel of local people to talk about lack of diversity, and potential solutions.

Anyone who’s seen actor/musician Riz Ahmed’s famous speech to parliament will know that the term ‘diversity’ is itself problematic. “It sounds like there’s a benchmark against which everything is measured, and then there’s a little bit of something that you could sprinkle on top. A little bit of spice. It’s something you can live with, but you can also live without,” Ahmed said. This is one of many things the panel touches on. What does it really mean? “We make this big thing of diversity in Bristol, but we’re not really seeing it,” says Delroy.

The first thing panelists agree on is that working class people, including the white working class, are underrepresented too. And one effect of underrepresentation is poor journalism. Panel members question whether people from outside Bristol, or its more deprived areas, can tell authentic stories about the city’s issues. Despite its rave reviews, they cite the recent BBC3 documentary series Drugsland as an example – it neglects whiter areas like Knowle and Hartcliffe to tell the same old story of drugs in St Pauls.

Having realised that underrepresentation is to their detriment, some major broadcasters now set diversity and inclusion targets. Many celebrate events such as Black History Month, for example, by featuring more writers of colour. Is all this to be commended? Noha Abu El Magd, postgraduate student at University of Bristol, suggests not. Such strategies simply lead to diversity being ticked off a list, forgotten about for another year, she says. What looks like diversity on paper ends up being tokenism in practice.

From edition 14, OUT NOW!

front cover of the edition 14thRead more from this edition.

‘Snowy peak’ syndrome

The panel moves on to talking about ‘snowy peak syndrome’, where an entry-level workforce is diverse yet the most senior staff remain pale, male and stale. To get anywhere, underrepresented people are reliant on powerful gatekeepers – so the “usual suspects” end up staying around the decision-making tables and inequalities remain embedded at a structural level, says LaToyah McAllister-Jones, operations lead at Ujima Radio.

Bristol’s alternative media outlets – like Ujima, gal-dem and SimzCityTV – can help redress imbalances. With the city’s BAME people experiencing higher-than-average inequality in education and employment (and, as freelance journalist Neil Maggs, points out, residents from more deprived areas dying up to nine years sooner than those in affluent ones) these outlets can play a huge role.

That’s not only by enabling more people – especially younger people – to have a seat at the table; they can also broaden and challenge coverage of the issues different communities face. Noha and singer-songwriter Joel Douglas, aka Splitz P, say there was no better example of its power than in the snap election, when musicians Stormzy, JME, and others started the #Grime4Corbyn campaign, targeting young people, and giving voice to the often voiceless.

So, what are the solutions to the lack of diversity? Should we be encouraging the mainstream to take alternative forms of media more seriously, as Noha proposes? And what can people working within alternative media do to improve their influence? One thing all panelists agree on is the need for more collaborative working: creating more media, sharing resources, and inviting others into the fold. As Joel says, this will “increase the confidence of wider people to get engaged – collaboration works”.


Joel Douglas aka Splitz P

Singer-songwriter, artist and youth worker; worker at Easton adventure playground.

Why you joined the roundtable: Being half-Jamaican half-Pakistani, and identifying myself as black, I find it interesting looking at how lack of diversity affects BAME people – but also how working-class people face similar struggles that aren’t spoken about.

What needs to happen: To change the wider situation we need to change ourselves: more footage needs to be filmed, more YouTube channels need to be created, more dialogue needs to challenge the powers that be. Artists need to come together in Bristol and get more people into a position where they have a voice.

Noha Abu El Magd

University of Bristol PhD student, former BAME student officer at Bristol’s student union, Cable and gal-dem contributor.

Why you joined the roundtable: I’m interested in diversity in the media, and have worked on a few campaigns on diversity in the university and other areas of the city.

What needs to happen: There needs to be a degree of holding mainstream media to account: the people it’s hiring, the stories it’s producing, why it’s telling certain narratives, issues and topics that aren’t necessarily benefiting the people that it’s about. Institutions also need to put their money where their mouth is and fund opportunities and mentorships for young people.

LaToyah McAllister-Jones

Operations-lead at Ujima radio and community organiser

Why you joined the roundtable: My background is working with street homeless people in London’s voluntary sector. I’m now in the cultural sector in a city I don’t know very well. Going to certain spaces, I will be one of the only people of colour there – often the only woman of colour. That’s really stood out to me of late. I’m interested in how we can change that.

What needs to happen: We need to get unusual suspects around the table, and for those with influence to provide platforms for others. So when you’re calling upon go-to people, question yourself whether there’s someone else that might be just as good in this space, who might not have the same cache.

Neil Maggs

Freelance print and broadcast journalist specialising in community sports.

Why you joined the roundtable: I’ve worked with the Bristol Post, Bristol 24/7, the Bristol Cable, the BBC and BCfm, and have seen the lack of diversity and representation. Being one of the only Bristolian white working-class people in these spaces makes me connect with the stories of Delroy and others.

What needs to change: Mainstream media organisations need to shift the way they recruit. We also need to have some uncomfortable conversations ourselves about how we get there, and start engaging and offering opportunities to wider communities in Bristol.

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