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No 'quick fix' or 'token Asians' as regional press seeks newsroom balance

Raring to join the press pack but can’t wedge a toe in the regional newsroom door? Asha Mehta asks why – if you are a budding black or Asian reporter – those doors appear to be slamming harder and that prising them open makes compelling ethical, as well as commercial sense.

Even though former BBC director general Greg Dyke declared the corporation had become “hideously white”, a glance at television screens today shows UK broadcasters are light years ahead of their counterparts in the regional press at addressing diversity.

The findings of a major report by the Society of Editors last year prompted much soul-searching from those at the helm of several leading regional titles, the breeding ground for most national newshounds.

One striking statistic revealed that it was not uncommon to find just one non-white reporter amongst the editorial staff of a newspaper, in an area where the population may be 20 per cent minority ethnic.

To help level the playing field, October last year saw the launch of the Journalism Diversity Fund, which aims to attract aspiring young reporters from ethnically and socially diverse backgrounds into a profession long considered the preserve of white, middle-class males.

But will this prove to be a pointless exercise in box ticking by an out-of-touch industry and are accusations of tokenism justified?

Ben Wilkinson, a journalist posting on the HTFP’s bulletin board dismissed the fund as just another example of positive discrimination, asking: “Does this mean because I am not from an ethnic minority, I am somehow incapable of reporting on events that affect those communities?

“Does each newsroom need an elderly reporter to write about pensioners or a committed Christian to cover church fetes?” he ventured.

Kim Fletcher, chairman of the National Council for the Training of Journalists – the body which is running the scheme – recognises that a good reporter should be able to cover any story, but is adamant that recruiting journalists from diverse backgrounds will lead to more authoritative coverage, imbue the paper with a fresh perspective and attract new readers.

He says: “Papers ought to reflect the whole of society. If we draw our reporters from only one sector, we begin to lose track of whole areas.

“We are certainly not suggesting that you assign reporters to the society from which they come, but you do bring into the paper a greater understanding of what’s going on and you encourage people to feel that the press properly represents their interests if it is being staffed partly by people in their midst.”

Nevertheless, an all-too-familiar scenario that unfolds for many fledgling reporters from ethnic minority backgrounds slipping behind the desks of their first local weekly, is finding themselves shunted to the editorial backwaters by being handed stereotypical “bling and Bollywood” stories. And even this rests on whether they have succeeded in landing that elusive initial break.

Asians in Media magazine editor Sunny Hundal says many promising journalists end up scurrying into the welcoming bosom of the ethnic press. But he urges a note of caution to those contemplating embarking on this route, yet who have their long-term sights firmly set on making the leap into mainstream hard news.

“Locals are great hunting grounds for the national papers. Whenever they look to get someone to increase their ethnic quota, they’ll first look at locals, not at the ethnic papers,” he adds, citing the showbiz-centric and inward-looking tendencies of many Asian titles as prime factors.

David Rowell, group editorial development executive from Johnston Press, welcomes the new fund but, pointing to the low take-up of editorial posts, believes the community itself should also be willing to face up to its own prejudices.

Explaining the objective of the scheme, he stresses: “We are not looking for a quick fix or token Asians just covering ethnic minority stories – we are looking for balance.

“Red top tabloids have given journalism a bad name for many Asians, and we are keen to say that regional papers are not like this.”

Although tackling diversity is beginning to be taken seriously by those at the top, the consensus is that changing the complexion of the country’s newsrooms has no miracle solution.

Commentators also agree that failing to recruit cub reporters from diverse backgrounds and therefore denying a voice to vast chunks of society, flies in the face of everything journalism stands for.

Suggestions to emerge from the report include learning lessons from the broadcasting success story, offering more work experience opportunities, empowering champions within the industry to push the cause forward, as well as taking action at the grass roots by encouraging colleges and universities providing vocational journalism courses to examine their recruitment strategies.

Rallying the newspaper industry to stir from its self-imposed slumber, Sunny Hundal issues a grim wake-up call: “Any local newspaper that does not reflect the community it serves is in danger of dying out.”