Why is no one in power talking about the diversity issue at the heart of British media?

Grant Feller
6 min readJun 3, 2020

The creative world is riven by unfairness and under-representation from BAME talents. The media world especially. Just a few weeks ago, the advertising industry, through a special edition of its trade magazine Campaign, decided to push the argument on.

One of its most inspiring figures, Karen Blackett, who has been at the forefront of its diversity drive, said that in advertising: “The more we reflect modern Britain, the more successful we will be.” At least they are talking about it. In journalism, there seems to be a disturbing omerta about diversity in the industry. Oscars, bad. BAFTAs, bad. But journalism? Well, nothing to see here, guv, move along.

Tabloid misdeeds excepted, criticising the industry as a whole is deeply infra dig. Especially ethnicity. This might partly be explained by the fact that only one of the 26 most important daily and weekly newspapers and current affairs magazines is edited by someone who isn’t white — the Financial Times, with Roula Khalaf.

Perhaps discussions about diversity are happening at the highest levels, but I wonder whether, because they happen behind closed doors, progress is stalled.

That racial imbalance was always more thought of as a governmental issue. For decades we were run by the pale, stale brigade. Now, however, four of the 26 most important elected politicians are from an Asian background. That’s a pretty healthy proportion, especially when you consider that Home Secretary Priti Patel and Chancellor Rishi Sunak hold, on paper at least, two of the three most powerful posts in government.

Diversity is clearly an issue at the forefront of Conservative minds, as no doubt it is for all Westminster parties. BAME support will be crucial to Boris Johnson’s quest for power for the next decade and possibly beyond. According to the Conservative Party website, 7 per cent of all its selected candidates were of a BAME background and nearly all of them were elected. It has 22 MPs of a BAME background in a House of Commons where total representation is 10 per cent.

Not enough, perhaps, but when you consider the party has such high-profile talents as James Cleverly, Sajid Javid and Alok Sharma — plus the London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey — it’s moving in the right direction. A partial reflection of our diverse modern Britain. More needs to be done but credit where it’s due.

With that in mind, I conducted my own completely unscientific piece of research. I want to stress that I could have chosen any mainstream news publication and probably got very similar results. However, on this occasion, I plumped for the one that most closely resembles and reflects this new apparently BAME-friendly government, its personnel, thinking, strategy and ambitions.

The Spectator magazine, because of its extraordinary connections to government (especially Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings), can be relied upon for some of the best political insight today. Personally, I love the magazine. Even the writers I hate (Taki being top of a short list). It and the New Statesman (I’m a subscriber to both) are among the essential publications for anyone who wants to understand Britain a little better, learn something new, and admire some of the finest political, cultural and opinionated writing around.

Yet I’ve been troubled for a while about The Spectator’s whiteness, in part because I often compare the two magazines each week. Although as I’ve said, whiteness is an issue that affects all publications. Just as the political party it strives to champion every week is making concerted efforts to shift its make-up to more closely align with a perpetually changing nation, The Spectator seems to be alarmingly colour-less — in terms of contributors, rather than content.

I looked at the bylines from the past 52 weeks, going through every edition on my iPad. I’m sure I could have chosen plenty of other publications and got similar results. On average, including all the unbylined articles, reviews and columnists, the magazine carries about 50 pieces a week. Let’s say that over the past year there have been 2,500 articles. Of these, by my count, 23 have been written by BAME contributors — unless many more were written without their bylines, such as leader articles. Ten of those bylines were for book reviews. Nearly all of the remaining 13 articles over an entire year were commissions designed to showcase the ethnic minority writer’s knowledge of the subject.

So a woman once forced to wear a hijab discussed why it’s so wrong. A Chinese journalist wrote about China, a black journalist wrote about Britain’s leading black rugby player, an Asian writer contributed insights about curry. You get the picture.

In all, less than 1 per cent of all articles in the magazine over the past year — a year in which Spectator-reading politicians have been desperately trying to shift the character of the party because it feels that more BAME voters identify with it — carry a byline of someone from an ethnic minority. In fact, more articles have been written in The Spectator’s last 51 issues by someone called Black (Conrad) than by actual black people.

Does any of this matter? Good writing is good writing, after all, no matter what the ethnicity of the creative talent. I don’t think for a second that those who run The Spectator or other publications are in any way racist. I have close friends who work at the company which owns the magazine, I disagree with some of the more objectionable columnists, but I don’t think any of them are racist.

So why is it, and most other similar publications, almost exclusively white? Because politically-motivated readers are? Not if Johnson/Cummings are to be believed. Because there are not enough talented BAME right-of-centre journalists and commentators out there? I suspect it isn’t that they don’t exist, more that they are not given the opportunity by a largely white-dominated media — 94 per cent white, according to a recent survey. Because there are so few slots to fill in a magazine dominated by repeat contributors? That’s certainly true.

Or is it because BAME contributors are wheeled out only when their “specialty” is on the agenda? Hijabs, foreigners, and British people of colour? It’s a little unfair to target one publication. As Afua Hirsch wrote recently as part of a Guardian investigation, not a single BAME person was featured on the cover of our biggest-selling magazines over entire months. Diversity is one of the key issues of our time and fraught with difficulties.

For instance, people shouldn’t be promoted in business just because of their colour, but manipulating new recruits so that companies more accurately reflect the diversity of their audiences seems an eminently sensible approach. As society changes, you must change with it. Or perhaps we need to take more dramatic action. When I wielded a scintilla of power in the newspaper industry, the discussion was always about women — “too many male commentators, the balance is all wrong” was the theme of the day. So, everyone actively sought out great female writers until it got to the point where editors (and presumably readers) no longer saw men and women, they just saw good writers. The gender imbalance was forcibly corrected. The fact that, today, there are more female national newspaper editors than ever must be a long-term effect of this.

Few feel the need to have that male/female writing debate today but why is no one having this racial debate? Is it because, unlike me, so many rely on the commissioning largesse of editors to help pay the bills that they won’t speak up? Perhaps it’s just easier to castigate film-makers.

Having a predominantly white staff does not necessarily make an organisation racist but it does restrict an understanding of non-white culture and interests. The 21st century Conservative Party gets this and I’m pretty sure journalists do. So why aren’t we doing more about it? If we are, why aren’t we shouting more about it?

This is a shortened version of an article which appears in the British Journalism Review

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Grant Feller

Content marketing & media consultant let down by poor second serve. I have many contacts among the lumberjacks. More about me: http://www.gf-media.co.uk/