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