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The Black British innovators creating their own media platforms in the face of industry’s race problem

From newsrooms to front pages, British media, as Meghan and Harry have highlighted, has a race problem. Nadine White meets the Black media creatives challenging the status quo and building their own platforms

The British media has been forced into some long-needed introspection this week, as Meghan and Harry again attributed their departure from the UK to racism within the industry here.

For Black journalists – or aspiring reporters and editors – this conversation couldn’t come soon enough. And if the issues aren’t addressed soon, they say, the impact on the UK’s media landscape could be devastating.

Was racism part of the reason the couple left the UK last year, Oprah Winfrey asked, from the Californian sun of the couple’s new home.

“It was a large part of it,” Harry replied.

“The UK is not bigoted,” he recalled telling someone, but “the UK press is bigoted, specifically the tabloids.”

“But unfortunately, if the source of information is inherently corrupt or racist or biased, then that filters out to the rest of society.”

And while the couple’s comments shone a light on Meghan’s own personal experiences of racist treatment – including an article questioning whether Harry would be “marrying into gangster royalty”, through his union with Meghan Markle, originally from LA – they mirror the painful reality of how people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are portrayed by the UK press on a daily basis.

It’s a cyclical process, say Black journalists, whereby those creating and curating content in traditional outlets are largely white.

“You can’t afford for the majority not to know or understand the minority,” says Marcus Ryder, visiting professor at the Lenny Henry Centre for Diversity and a media executive. “The mass media informs the majority – and in a democracy who they have an advantage over democratically.

In 2016, The Sun and Daily Mail newspapers were accused of “fuelling prejudice” in a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI).

The year before, at the height of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, the UN refugee agency commissioned research from Cardiff University which showed that British press coverage was “uniquely aggressive in its campaigns against refugees and migrants”.

Coupled with increasingly hostile and racist reporting within some elements of the mainstream media, and alongside the proliferation of far-right politics, Trumpism, and the increase in incidents of hate crime, the last decade has also seen a simultaneous flourishing of independent platforms created by and catering for Black Britons.

Since the first Covid lockdown last year, a number of Black-led online talk shows have been launched from the comfort of people’s home that amplify perspectives often overlooked by television platforms, largely due to lack of diversity.

Thousands of viewers have been watching these programmes as the weeks have progressed; particularly poignant given the virus outbreak’s disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities.

Established in 2015 and 2014 respectively, titles such as Gal-Dem and Black Ballad have amassed tens of thousands of followers who have long felt let down at worst, and at best ignored, by parts of the UK mainstream media.

These are now firmly established on the British media landscape, and newer start ups appear to be emerging all the time, such as Aurelia magazineFrow Magazine and Broccoli Productions – all led by people of colour.

Smaller platforms were created around 2008 but continue to endure, such as GRM Daily, Linkup TV, Ben TV and Colourful Radio. These have been popular digital fixtures over the past decade, specialising in Black music and culture.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of online users regularly flock to grassroots media on Instagram and Twitter – such as The Shade Borough and UK Gossip TV – for daily doses of news, entertainment and lifestyle content.

“It’s pretty refreshing, to be honest,” says David Sule, an entrepreneur from London, “it caters to an under-served readership.”

“I check these Instagram platforms every day because I appreciate the angles on current affairs. Their coverage of Harry and Meghan’s interview was good.

“It generally provides insight into what’s going on in the UK, around the world, Black culture to youngsters and the new generation coming up where they probably wouldn’t have gotten it 10 or 15 years ago. It’s coming from a source they respect, they like, and can relate to. It’s hosted on platforms that this demographic regularly uses.”

Cocoa Girl
Cocoa Girl

Last September, Serlina Boyd – a London mother of two – launched two magazines entitled Coco Boy and Coco Girl to inspire Black children after ignoring advice that “no one would be interested”.

“I wanted to find magazines for my daughter. I don’t tend to buy a lot of magazines and I tried to find one that really had Black children in it and represented her, but there was nothing out there. So I thought let’s do our own,” she said.

Of course, The Voice newspaper and the Weekly Gleaner newspaper remain popular among minority ethnic communities, established in 1982 and 1951 respectively.

Gleaner editor, George Ruddock, says the importance of independent media platforms is to ensure that press freedom remains an important pillar of democracy.

“The main reason we have recently seen an upsurge in prejudice reporting against Meghan Markle in the national press is because there is an obvious lack of diversity in the newsrooms of those titles, not only in the reporters, but also the editors. In a society with a growing diverse population with different ethnic backgrounds, the British press remains stubbornly white,” he tells The Independent.

“A number of black publications were launched in the 1970s and 80s to bring balance to news reporting, to challenge the negative coverage and racist undertones which emanated from some sections of the national press.”

Indeed, lack of diversity continues to be an issue on and off tabloid pages and across UK newsrooms.

Black staff at the BBC have been leaving in droves, according to its own data, while the corporation recently broke its own diversity quota after removing Kamal Ahmad from its news board and leaving an all-white panel in his wake.

Evadney Campbell
Evadney Campbell

Evadney Campbell MBE runs Shiloh PR, a Black public relations company, and spent over 20 years working at the broadcasting corporation.

“As someone who runs a PR Agency and who’s a former journalist with decades in the news and mainstream media, I am constantly aware of how profoundly damaging a media sector without true diversity which includes ethnicity is for wider society,” she tells The Independent.

“We’ve all seen the shocking faux pas and gross racism in some cases, which could be directly related to the fact that most mainstream media, especially print media, news rooms are not sufficiently diverse.

“The result of this is growing division and lack of trust in the media. This leads into growing increase in non-white audiences turning to other sources for their news.”

According to research by City University, just 0.4 per cent of British journalists are Muslim, compared with almost 5 per cent of the UK population, and only 0.2 per cent are Black, compared with 3 per cent overall.

By contrast, some 94 per cent of journalists are white, compared with 86 per cent of the population, the National Council for the Training of Journalists has found.

In 2020, research by Women in Journalism revealed that of the 111 voices who were quoted on the front pages of British newspapers in a week, just one belonged to a Black person.

Of the 174 bylines on the stories featured that week, not a single one was Black, and only six were written by reporters from other ethnic minority groups.

Anna Clarence, 26, is a Black woman who relies on independent media platforms to inform her of what’s going on in the news and popular culture.

“They offer a fresh perspectives that recognises my community and still holds all power to account,” says Ms Clarence, based in Manchester. “These publications – and even the social media pages – have a tendency to call out people and organisations out for what they do, not who they are.”

“The information is a lot more honest than many mainstream outlets and relevant to our audience. It allows me to read the news without having to consider the privilege or miles-away perspectives of the author and editors,” she adds.

For Mr Ryder, the visiting professor at the Lenny Henry Centre for Diversity, this imbalance then goes on to affect the lives of black and ethnic minority people in the UK.

“The majority is deciding on immigration policies, for example. If the only information is through a non-immigrant lens, how will they be able to decide on the best policies to vote on?

“While independent platforms will never render mainstream media [completely] irrelevant, there will be times when minority-focused media is dominant and then the other way round.”

Gal-Dem Cover
Gal-Dem Cover

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, editor in chief at Gal-Dem, says that “without diversification, the mainstream press will rot”.

“You could argue it’s already rotten,” she tells The Independent. “I have faith that change will happen; but it’s going to take a lot of work and I don’t doubt we’ll be having the same repetitive conversations around diversity for many, many years to come. These narratives are cyclical and change comes incrementally.”

Gal-Dem represents the possibility for change within the media; and we have, and continue to put people of colour from working-class backgrounds in positions of editorial control.

“We stand out because we put the stories of people of colour – who are not a monolith – front and centre. And we are not afraid to take a strong stance on political issues that we deem to be damaging to the communities that we represent.”

But there are long-term challenges to running an independent media business. Funding issues make them difficult to sustain, Ms Brinkhurst-Cuff points out.

“While I’m very enthused to see the amount of new set ups, zines, etc. I worry about their longevity and essentially think there needs to be active investment into them through partnerships, memberships, donations from both the public and the established media world.”

This is something that Tobi Oredein, founder of Europe’s leading lifestyle and membership platform for Black women, Black Ballad, knows well, though she remains optimistic about start-up platforms.

Listening to Harry and Meghan speak to Oprah about racism on Monday, the entrepreneur tells The Independent she nodded along, knowingly.

“The media industry is racist, in every fact, from the way it portrays Black people to the newsrooms,” she said.

Her own brand was born out of “passionate frustration” in 2014, the entrepreneur said. Ms Oredein was freelancing in a lot of newsrooms but couldn’t land a permanent job because she didn’t fit in what a staff writer at a women’s magazine looked like at that time.

In order to both stand the test of time and expand, she relaunched Black Ballad with a subscription model in 2016.

“I decided to start Black Ballad because I wanted to give myself a job. I thought, if no one’s going to take a chance on me, I might as well take a chance on myself,” she said.

Black Ballad provides an alternative outlet for Black women, underserved audiences who are seeking better representation, and Ms Oredein said the mainstream sphere should be concerned about its inability to successfully appeal to diverse communities.

“As society becomes multicultural, people will look for a press that reflects their lived experiences and what will happen is people will become disillusioned with mainstream media that has racism at its core,” Ms Oredein explained.

“When we stop consuming news from certain outlets, they die, they fade, and that means there are fewer places for journalists to work, fewer publications to hold power to account – and that’s not a good thing.”

Though there are financial considerations around growth and long-term sustainability, it’s easy enough to start your own platform in the interim, and so mainstream titles should be worried, Oredein adds.

“The barriers to entry into journalism are much lower when you create your own platform. Some 20 years ago, to start a publication you would’ve probably have to go down a print road.

“Now, all you need is a social media channel for distribution, WordPress and you’ve got yourself a publication. Mainstream press need to be quite concerned about the publications that are gonna crop up, people are creating great content on very little money [to begin with, that has real impact].”

Mainstream media stands to lose out on a generation of readers from diverse backgrounds, one broadcaster agrees.

Marverine Cole
Marverine Cole

Marverine Cole, also a director of undergraduate journalism at Birmingham City University, says tutoring her cohorts of ethnically diverse students in the profession feels like “sending lambs to the slaughter”.

Last week, Ms Cole delivered a Black Lives Matter lecture to her students, explaining Britain and race relations through the ages and confesses to feeling like a “hypocrite” for promoting career prospects in the industry.

“I told my journalism students that the industry wants them and values inclusion. But in plain sight, certain publications, programmes and presenters are playing bully boy tactics,” she tells The Independent. “It makes me ashamed to be a member of this profession – and also makes me feel like a total and utter hypocrite.

“I do everything in my job to equip the journalists of the future about how to prepare for this industry. However, my work alone is simply not enough. Unless the industry is willing to pull its socks up, listen to and appreciate the lived experiences of the many communities who call Britain their home, these publications and channels will die off and become irrelevant amongst those young people.

“Until this country includes journalists from a range of backgrounds, and realises that language matters and that representation has an impact, they will never change. The vitriol that jumps out from these pages – not just at Black people of all ages, race, class and wealth – is toxic. I feel it, my journalism students feel it too.”

Such a diagnosis was at first rejected by the Society of Editors, who decided to condemn Harry and Meghan’s characterisation of the problem within British media.

“The UK media is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account following the attack on the press by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex,” the executive director, Ian Murray, said in a statement.

But over 160 Black and ethnic minority journalists disagreed, and in a joint letter criticised the society’s position as “laughable”. And newspapers and news websites including The Independent admitted that the lack of diversity in newsrooms is a serious issue.

The Society of Editors have now issued a clarification, saying that the initial statement did not reflect reality and “that there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion”.

And if mainstream media and traditional outlets don’t seek to understand the reality in front of them, they will only do themselves harm in the long run, believes Sinai Fleary, who founded Jus’ Jah Magazine – a title which caters to Rastafarian communities.

“Black people and other ethnic minorities will tap out sooner or later,” Ms Fleary tells The Independent. “We will disengage and go where we are appreciated and represented fairly. Why would we continue to watch, listen and read from platforms that have no regard for you and your identity?

Jus Jah Magazine, latest
Jus Jah Magazine, latest

Sinai Fleary founded Jus’ Jah Magazine in 2011. It’s a quarterly publication, and its most recent cover features Barbara Blake-Hannah, Britain’s first Black news anchor who recently had a Press Gazette Award named after her.

“Black people and other ethnic minorities will tap out sooner or later,” Ms Fleary tells The Independent. “We will disengage and go where we are appreciated and represented fairly. Why would we continue to watch, listen and read from platforms that have no regard for you and your identity?

Sinai Fleary
Sinai Fleary

“The mainstream media is in denial. They will print racist headlines and they say it’s not racist. The media doesn’t get to decide what is racist to Black people and what isn’t. There is denial in the media, in education, in policing and other areas of society. But it is time to face up to the facts and listen to Black communities.”

“I established Jus’ Jah because there wasn’t a dedicated publication or media organisation to the Rastafari community, and whenever stories would emerge in the media about our community, they would be loaded with harmful stereotypes, racist connotations and real disrespect,” she adds.

“The media fails to acknowledge racism, and this might be because of the lack of diversity within UK media. It is predominantly white  and that is problematic in itself.

“The problem with the media is they think because they are not printing the N word, everything else is not racist. We would never dismiss a woman’s experience of sexism and ask her to explain why it was sexist, so why do we constantly allow the media to dictate to us what we should and shouldn’t be deemed as racist?”

GUARDIAN

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Written by The Editor

warrior dedicated to the cause of fighting the takeover of our culture.

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