Media Diversified: An Interview with Samantha Asumadu By Alice Bell

25 November 2013 — New Left Project

We talked to Samantha Asumadu, a documentary filmmaker, former journalist and campaigner about her project Media Diversified, which tackles the lack of diversity in UK media and the ubiquity of whiteness it both reflects and perpetuates.

Just to start off, what is Media Diversified?

Media Diversified is a publishing platform for talented writers from diverse backgrounds to write on a wide range of subjects from film and literature to economics and sport.

It is also an advocacy body for getting more people from ethic minorities seen, heard and read in the UK mainstream press. BAME people are under-represented in the media industry by a magnitude of over 300%. We meet and correspond with editors about subjects they may want to cover in their papers and on radio.

What initially prompted you to set it up? Was there a particular incident that made you decide ‘enough is enough’?a

I was prompted to set up Media Diversified after reading an article called ‘The Evening Standard of Whiteness’ in the Voice newspaper. The writer, Rodney Sealy had done a simple analysis of pictures in one edition of The Evening Standard, after completion he decided to boycott the paper. ‘‘Does London’s only paper reflect the reality of London life in 2013? Sadly, no. That 40 per cent of ethnic Londoners are crudely white washed out of its view of our city is a terrible indictment. People of colour did not feature on any page as fully formed characters as often as we should but, in fact, if we all packed up and left, London would grind to a juddering halt. We are integral to this city’s smooth functioning.’

This article combined with Amol Rjan taking the helm at The Independent spurred me on. The ascension of Rajan was hailed as a milestone, the first person non-white editor of a national paper. It was big news and it shouldn’t have been, it’s 2013. In 2011 the Guardian’s list of 100 most influential people in media had only one non- white person (it wasn’t much better in 2012.) That same year 3 newspapers didn’t have a single person of colour on the comment pages and only 5 non-white writers had a regular weekly fixed column in the British broadsheet press. The 2012 Creative Skillset Employment Census reports that representation of BAME people has declined further since the last Census. Almost 2,000 BAME people have left the industries since 2009 reducing the representation to just 5.4% of the total workforce. With less than 7% of journalists and editors coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to the Professional Publishers Association (PPA), Media Diversified aims to combat the lack of ethnic minority representation within the industry and the pages themselves.

As Sathnam Sanghera said on the day “Amol Rajan’s appointment important day for diversity, but press remains one of most monoracial industries in the land” and referred to the New Statesman’s research from 2011.

We work to bring prominence to the breadth of written talent which has often been ignored due to the continued obstacles faced by writers and journalists from ethnic minorities in the UK and worldwide.

Those statistics are quite appalling. How do UK media outlets account for these? What do you make of the justifications or excuses that they offer? (Or don’t they even try?)

I’ve heard all sorts of excuses “we do publish writers from minority ethnic backgrounds” yes, very rarely. “If people don’t submit articles to us, there’s nothing we can do about it” actually there is, search them out. It’s not hard, there’s many out there either publishing on their own blogs or writing for small outlets. However i must note these things are structural. There is no one editor at any paper to blame. Firstly though not explicit in most cases, papers have some sort of editorial stance, may it be an anti-immigrant one at the Daily express or an anti-union one at The telegraph. Assumptions are made that most people of colour are left wing, that isn’t always the case, nevertheless it should be up to the paper to supply a broad range of views. The media in any country should be a reflection of its society and has a responsibility to cater to its readers. Secondly as this study shows even ‘equal opportunities’ employers give identical CVs with ‘white’ names more replies than ones with ‘black’ names.

What sort of challenges do you think BAME people face when it comes to trying to build a career in the media? When I’ve tried to address this in bits of the media I work in, I’ve been told it’s all just class. How do you respond to arguments like that?

There are many interconnected reasons that can prevent a person of colour from progressing or even breaking into the media, not least because these jobs are often secured by having done ‘unpaid’ internships, or through knowing someone, who knows someone. If you haven’t been to the same schools and universities, you’ll find that hard whatever colour you may be.

Aside from simply missing out on large numbers of talented workers, do you think this lack of diversity negatively impacts on the content of our media?

Recently a UCLA Study found a link between TV diversity and higher ratings. The same would happen to ratings on radio and sales of newspapers. I don’t buy the Evening Standard, it has no relevance to me and I’ve stopped picking up Stylist outside the tube station. 3 weeks ago BBC Woman’s hour had a debate on colourism, the buzz on twitter from people of colour was palpable, finally the mainstream were addressing something we’d been aware of as a detrimental reality in our communities for years. Last month we did a week’s partnership with the New Statesman. I think it likely that some of the traffic driven to their site because of it had never been seen before (or possibly since). By ignoring the stories and talent that BAME people have to offer they are not only doing society a disservice but their own pockets.

That is really interesting about the UCLA study! I was also thinking about how particular issues might have been missed. Do you think there are news stories that might have been covered more effectively (or at all) if more BAME perspectives were involved in shaping media content?

Yes definitely. Take for example the recent grooming cases, in early October this year one of our writers, Yasin Bangee did a comparison of the way the two cases were covered in the UK. Media agenda; race and child abuse ‘The North Yorkshire Child Abuse Case ’involved Ten men being jailed after a 13-year-old girl from North Yorkshire was sexually exploited by 30 different attackers. The second story was about and a ring of men in Oxford involved in sexual grooming of young girls. The Oxford Grooming case made national newspapers; there was a constant reference to attackers as of Pakistani and East African origin. Their images were released, and the name and addresses of all those involved was provided. In contrast, the North Yorkshire case was covered with less fanfare and no national set of images was released it wasn’t for a while that we found that all of them were ‘white men’ with British names. When editing I tried to find a photo from the North Yorkshire case that was equivalent to the photo Yasin sent me of the mugshots of the men in the Oxford case. There was no such photo so I had to get the single pictures of each of the men and do in photoshop.. To this day if you google the case ours is the only image of the 10 white men all together, whilst hundreds exist of the non-white men. As concluded by our writer ‘By focusing on the ethnicity of attackers rather than their sense of entitlement which allows them to behave in such a deplorable way the media shapes public opinion that non-white = dangerous.’ Equally, cases of missing or killed Black and Asian children and women often go unreported in the mainstream press as our writer Joy explained in her article ‘Why are Black women victims seemingly invisible? In the UK, if asked about cases of missing children, most will be aware only of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, despite a child being reported missing every 3 minutes. While her disappearance is no doubt a huge tragedy, we have to wonder why it is Madeleine McCann, a pretty white girl, who has captured the sympathy of the public, and not girls with names like Aamina Khan, Elizabeth Ogungbayibi, or Folawiyo Oladejo, all of whom are listed on Missing Kids UK.

I’ve been really interested by your #AllWhiteFrontPages campaign and also the Shukla Test for race in film, can you tell us more about them?

The #AllWhiteFrontPages was the catalyst for Media Diversified. I wrote this about it Media Diversity – A tale of everyday lack of diversity #AllWhiteFrontPages http://wp.me/p3HucV-4 and it became very popular on storify and was the first article on our website, which I believe got the Guardian to get in contact with me. It was an attempt to show how people of colour are whitewashed from the media, from the stories, the pictures and advertising, both on the front and inside the pages. Nick Sutton a producer at BBC, tweets the front pages of newspapers every night, making it easy to add the hashtag, soon people other than just me were doing it for newspapers and magazines! It really took off when an economist did a probability statistical analysis of the front pages and found my hypothesis was correct. There was a striking imbalance, whether deliberate or not it was of concern.

I can’t remember if Nikesh found me or I found him, twitter is funny like that, but he joined our writing collective and sent over the Shukla Test, which takes it’s ethos from the Bechedel Test, which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The Shukla Test does the same but for people of colour. As he puts it ‘It’s not often that Ranjit is at the pub having a universal experience with Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul. While Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul have their universal experience, Ranjit is off somewhere worrying about his parents.’

Nikesh as a writer of fiction has come across unique obstacles that most of us as journalists or comment writers don’t face; editors who think having a person of colour as a major or minor part is tokenistic or unrealistic. I believe that spurred him to write the Shukla Test, which I personally hope is read by every scriptwriter, director and producer working in Hollywood and beyond. Recently USA Today, described a film that had a predominately black cast as ‘race themed’ The film was a romantic comedy, with black professionals falling in and out of love. How is that ‘race themed? As someone put it on twitter ‘Depicting blacks as professionals, in love, happy& living worthwhile HUMAN lives is #racethemed’ Until we stamp out such ignorance then we need something such as the Shukla test to show us the way as the Bechedel test has done before it, I hope it catches on.

Do you have any advice to readers who want to diversify their media consumption? (Aside from your website, twitter and facebook accounts) And if our readers are new to your site, are their any articles you’d like to suggest they have a look at as a first step to get stuck into the content there?

Readers wanting to diversify their reading consumption will have a hard job finding material in the UK, but it is out there, projects such as The Body Narratives, No bounds (I am hip hop) and Black Feminists are great and then hailing from the US you have Racialicious, Colorlines, Slate, the Nation or thinkprogress. (Yes, the US are far and away ahead of us in diverse media outlets).

What’s most important to me as an editor of the website is the quality of writing we publish so If you’re a new reader to our site I’d suggest getting stuck in to our categories, for language you havethis great essay on multiculturism and how language has evolved and why politicians et al have to catch up.

Our themed week on Africa produced a great article, Charity, Philanthropy and Media Stereotypes: Africa’s new colonialists? Drugs and the Aggravating Circumstance of Being Black highlights the discrepancy in stop and search stats and who they target, showing the war on drugs continues to be a war on black men. Or the Symbolic Use of Women is an important exploration of media, Islamophobia and how it impacts on Muslim women.

If you’re interested in knowing about colourism, i.e skin tone prejudice, a destructive marker of white supremacy, “You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl” this is a high water mark and my go to piece to explain exotification is this one I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower.

Our TV and film section is great if you want to get reviews and analysis with added historical perspectives and links to supporting materials. This one is a particular favourite of mine; Why Art Matters. Re-imagining The Great Gatsby.

The Oxbridge mafia, on media representation and the hollow promise ofequal opportunities was one of our first articles to go viral. I’d suggest reading anything by Huma Munshi, who’s written about honour crime, Palestine, mental health and more for us, she’s really one to watch.

Lastly our new experimental academic space has produced some wonderful essays, that will stand the test of time. That’s probably loads to be going on with!

Finally, what are your plans for the future of Media Diversified? You’ve got an interesting collaboration with Arts Emergency and the New Statesman partnership seemed to go well. Any other collaborations, or new threads to your core site?

Our two main plans are to build an online interactive directory full of writers, experts and journalists of colour which media outlets such as Newsnight and the Today programme can subscribe to and quite honestly need to subscribe to. The end we hope of all white TV, radio panels and a chance for papers to pick up new writing talent. We are raising funds for that at the moment, please contributeas it’s not easy!

We also plan to become a charity. That we think will help us provide more services such as writing workshops, be able to do more video content and develop and produce documentaries and dramas that we can submit for broadcast, because it’s not just newspapers that need to diversify!

Re collaborations, we’ve been approached to do an anthology book of our work, which I’m very excited about, but hard to know which essays to pick! We’ll be doing a literary festival next year, which Nikesh will lead, you’ll see more combined projects with Arts Emergency and hopefully yourselves! There’s more but I don’t want to spoil the surprises!

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