Inclusion Insight

Decolonising the News: Why and How?

I was recently invited to speak to students on Birmingham City University’s media programs about why we need to decolonise the news and how we might go about doing that.

The session was structured as a Q&A with Rachel-Ann Charles, and the following is a summary of that discussion. Thinking about the lecture, alongside other developments in the industry recently, has brought me round to the view that the existing journalism industry simply isn’t willing or able to make the change we need. Instead, those of us that see the urgent imperative for change need to build something better of our own.

What do we mean when we talk about Decolonising the News, why is it so important?

The first thing to say is that I don’t care about journalism for journalism’s sake. In many ways it’s a crappy industry full of crappy people, with crappy attitudes. I care deeply about journalism though, because of its crucial role in driving the debates we have in society. Put really simply, the discussions we have around things like immigration, crime, education – pretty much everything – would be COMPLETELY different if journalism was more representative.

This industry – for many reasons – is deeply problematic. Racism is just one of those problems. Journalism hasn’t just reflected racism in wider society, it’s played a big part in sustaining and amplifying racism and that is simply not good enough.

I think the root of the problem is that journalism is fundamentally conservative with a small ‘c’. It largely upholds dominant narratives, and that doesn’t give any other perspectives – for example around the history of empire – any space.

The second problem is that none of that is going to change if the makeup of the industry remains predominantly white, male, middle-class and metropolitan. To give you a horrifying example, I’ve had a colleague say to me, in the Sky News newsroom, “You don’t get racism any more do you.” – not as a question, but as a statement. 

That’s distressing and inexplicable on many levels, but the most important concern for me is that this was a person who gets to decide what’s actually on the news. How do we think they’re going to respond to a story that is explicitly about racism, when fundamentally they don’t think it exists.

Is it enough to be “non-racist”, or do our newsrooms have to be explicitly anti-racist??

This is, frankly, a question that most newsrooms feel profoundly uncomfortable with, but it’s clear that me that there’s a HUGE difference between being “non-racist” and being explicitly anti-racist.

I think the difference is best put by Martin Reynolds from the Maynard Institute in the US. He puts it like this – “Are we going to be sustainers, creators, deniers, facilitators or dismantlers of systemic racism?”. The only “correct” answer is that we have to be dismantlers. If we’re not doing that then we are sustainers, creators, deniers, and facilitators. That’s a heavy burden, sure, but either we believe in equality (and I’m not just talking about race here) or we don’t. Martin’s point is, we have to make that choice and act on our decision.

The reason that newsrooms find this distinction uncomfortable is because they draw all their legitimacy and credibility from a weird notion of “objectivity”. They say, “we report objectively on the facts, and that should be enough – people can make their own minds up.”

I’m telling you, right here, right now (after spending 25 years in this industry) that those notions of objectivity are utter NONSENSE. Look, for example, at how white terrorists are reported on – compared to the treatment of brown terrorists. That’s just one simple example, but it’s at the root of WHY we have to decolonise the news.

These narratives develop out of deep-seated, persistent structural attitudes that place white people above people of colour. It’s a hard thing to hear, but consciously and unconsciously it’s there, and it’s a stain on our industry.

So – I think we have to completely re-evaluate those notions of objectivity, and our attitudes to questions like this. If we think racism’s a bad thing, (and I really hope we all do) then we need to be explicitly anti-racist, not just nonsense non-racist.

What concrete steps need to be taken by the news industry?

The first thing is, we can’t rely on white journalists to do this anti-racist work. Sure, there will be good allies, but unfortunately not everyone will be an ally in this work. Secondly, as a white person it’s clearly impossible to understand all the ways in which racism impacts on your colleagues.

On that, the reason that not all white journalists are allies is that if there were genuine equality, that might materially disadvantage THEM – not in absolute terms, but in relative terms compared to the power and influence they currently have. To use the phrase which sums it up best, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. We see this embodied very clearly in the way “woke” has been weaponised as part of the “culture war” discourse.

So, one answer might be to simply have more people of colour working in the industry. I want to emphasise here that I’m not glossing over gender, disability, sexuality etc. when I make these points, but as we’re specifically talking about race here, I’m just focussing on that for now.

That is NOT just a matter of having “diversity internships” though – that idea is problematic to me for a number of reasons. Frankly, they’re too easy for organisations – they can SAY they’re doing something about inclusion, without having to change anything, give up any power or make any changes to the way they look at their editorial output. I don’t want to fill you with horror stories, but I’ve seen a national TV newsroom use a diversity apprenticeship as a way to do stories on gangs and knife crime, because apparently all black people “have contacts”. 

It does need the people holding the power to truly commit to being anti-racist and that has to spread across pretty much every interaction in newsrooms. I endured 20+ years of eye-rolls and casual dismissals if I mentioned a story about, or from, Wales – and that’s before you get on to deeper issues of systemic racism.

To me, journalism should be about looking BEYOND our own direct experience, and reflecting the experiences of EVERYONE in society, but it very rarely does that. I call it the Ealing problem, because a disproportionate number of the people who make TV news live in Ealing, and so news is largely made BY the people of Ealing FOR the people of Ealing, and that is NOT helpful to most of us.

In an ideal world, the industry would be more genuinely open to people with different backgrounds, not just people who look like the journalists who already exist and think like the journalists that already exist. That means being genuinely interested in what those different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives bring. 

I’ll level with you here – because my parents are Indian, I largely grew up in rural west Wales and media literacy just isn’t taught at school, I was 20 years old, studying a degree in politics at Oxford University, before I realised that newspapers have distinct political agendas. Now most people would think that’s embarrassing to admit as a journalist, but if that was my experience, isn’t it likely LOTS of people’s experience – many millions of people? Don’t we need to start making news for citizens, rather than other journalists?

That speaks to another thing the industry could do, and that’s to help with what I call the “pipeline problem”. Sure, there’s a racism problem in the industry, but there are also cultural issues which mean that, for example, there aren’t loads of Indian people wanting to be journalists. My parents were slightly horrified when I expressed an interest in journalism because, to them, it’s not seen as a secure, prestigious or even that professional a career path.

I mean, they may well be RIGHT in lots of that, but if we want to reconfigure our industry then we need to solve that pipeline problem and that might be by working with schools, pupils AND parents at an earlier age – perhaps 12 or 13 – to help people from backgrounds not well represented in journalism to see that it can be a career of value. I truly believe it is.

Finally, I’ll say that journalism organisations need to remember that they already have journalists of colour working for them, many of whom are treated pretty badly and ignored or dismissed. Organisations could make an instant, impactful difference by changing how they treat the journalists that already work for them.

That is all ideal world stuff though, and if I’m honest, I’m coming to the view that the journalism industry as it’s currently constituted simply isn’t capable of doing this work and making this change. Even after Black Lives Matter and the reckoning which followed, there is a huge disconnect between what news organisations are saying and what they are actually doing

I don’t see enough genuine will in the industry, and I don’t see enough action, so it may well be that we have to look beyond the structures which already exist and instead work to build our own, more reflective and more representative journalism.That’s simultaneously depressing and exciting to me. I wish the industry cared more about being better, but I see fascinating and invigorating potential to do things differently. That’s where I’ll be focussing my attention from now on, and I hope that you and others can be part of that change.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.