By Amit Roy
TWO senior journalists, Shekhar Bhatia and Vivek Chaudhary, have done a signal service in writing an open letter to the Society of Editors to make the case for greater diversity in Britain’s newsrooms, saying it’s “time for change”.
It is a persuasive letter written by Shekhar and Vivek, who have appealed for support from BAME journalists, among whom there are many familiar names, including Anita Anand, Rajeev Syal, Anushka Asthana, Mishal Husain, Clive Myrie, Ashish Joshi, Ayesha Hazarika, Reeta Chakrabarti, George Alagiah, Martin Bashir, Anita Rani, Sangita Myska and Sathnam Sanghera.
Being stuck in the past, I still like to refer to national newspapers collectively as Fleet Street which retains its magic and mystery. There is a plaque to Edgar Wallace at one end of the street which reads: “Of his talents he gave lavishly to authorship – but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”
At a time of declining circulations, it is in the interest of newspapers to broaden their appeal. It is not enough to recruit more black and Asian journalists because some devote their energies to digging up dirt on their own communities, believing these are the stories that will get in.
What we really need are people in positions of authority, as heads of departments, as editors in charge of, say, features, the leader page, comment, letters, obits and the like, because newspapers do shape public perception of the big issues of the day.
On The Sunday Times, the managing editor, the late Tony Bambridge, dismissed one of my ideas: “It’s a minority story, old boy.”
Luckily, the editor, Andrew Neil, decided to do a four-page pull out, especially after the BBC led with Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
Bambridge won, of course, for he put me firmly in my place: “Ok, just put down everything you have got on Rushdie – I will get someone to knock your copy into shape.”
On another occasion, I failed to convince the sports editor about an interview I had done at the Bandra sports club during my travels in Bombay: “Listen, we are a national newspaper – we don’t carry stories about schoolboys.”
But then Sachin Tendulkar went on to get his first Test century against England and make a little bit of a name for himself as a batsman.
My colleagues were wonderful and agreeable people, but sometimes they needed persuading. After I put together the first tentative Asian Rich List, Bambridge expressed exasperation: “Who are all these people – Hindujas, Swraj Paul – never heard of any of them. Won’t mean a thing to our readers.”
In their letter, Shekhar and Vivek make the point: “A diverse editorial team helps reflect a wider cross-section of opinion and cover stories that are not just race-related in an expansive and balanced way, giving the views of BAME communities on a range of matters that have traditionally not been aired; from Brexit to education to the state of the economy, we too are affected by the same issues that impact our fellow Britons.
“There is more to our communities than just ‘race matters’ and we believe that by having a greater cross-section of journalists from across the UK’s diverse communities will only help to enrich coverage, provide more eclectic views and deliver more insight into those that make up the Britain of today.”
They say: “A good start would be regular reviews of diversity in newsrooms and for an initial assessment and publication of current BAME representations in news organisations.
“We call upon the Society of Editors to urge its members to use this period of reflection to re-evaluate and reform past practices and move forward with a totally skilled workforce with appropriate BAME representation.”
Shekhar and Vivek conclude with a call to “get the whole story”