Racism in journalism: “Until society finally accepts it has a problem, there's only so far we can go”
In this special In Conversation With interview, PressPad ambassador Jasmine Lee-Zogbessou catches up with two black female journalists spanning both four to forty years in the media. How much have times changed?
When I sit down over Zoom to speak to Vanessa Kirkpatrick, one of the UK’s first black newsreaders, and Ayomide Alli, a recent black journalism graduate, about our experiences in the media industry, I already have an idea what to expect. With journalism being a predominantly white, male-oriented environment, it’s not easy for us to navigate throughout our careers.
Kirkpatrick is sincere when she speaks, detailing her journey into journalism and 18 years as a researcher and presenter, starting in the 1980s. Coming from an academic background, she studied politics at Leeds University and worked as a consultant to a Yorkshire TV schools series that picked up a Times Education Award.
It was then she decided to take a chance on a job ad in The Guardian, surpassing a “phenomenal” number of applications and getting through two boards for a researcher role at Granada.
Alli also decided to give journalism a chance, through university, uncertain about what she wanted to pursue career-wise from a young age. Now 21, she has a degree and an NCTJ qualification under her belt, but securing an entry level role has been difficult. “The struggle is real”, she says. We can all relate.
Our conversation felt bittersweet – incredibly disheartening discussing our experiences and thoughts during our one-and-a-half-hour conversation about race and racism in journalism. But therapeutic having an open space to do so amongst black women who won’t dismiss your feelings, coming together to galvanise those who can change the industry.
Jasmine Lee-Zogbessou: Vanessa, what was it like working in the journalism industry during the 80s?
Vanessa Kirkpatrick: I certainly wasn’t naïve after some years of legitimate anti-racist political activity but I admit I wasn’t prepared for what happened in the first week that I started. It was after the first or second morning news conference, in this totally white newsroom, and a senior journalist wheeled herself frenziedly along to my desk and said, “You do know that you’re only here because you’re black.” I’m thinking, well hang on a minute. I’ve got my credentials; I’ve also worked on a project that was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. How dare she? I felt very uncomfortable. But, it’s not just the newsroom, it’s the whole production team.
I went out on a story, and the crew, again all white, were really agitated about immigration. I’m sitting in the back of the car and they’re saying things like, “send these bloody immigrants back home”. I’ve got a story that I’ve got to cover, take back and get edited, so I thought I would just ride this one out and deal with it when I’ve finished, because I always deal with things. I made a complaint to the producer afterwards. She called me into the office and said, “It’s okay, Vanessa, you won’t have to work with them again.” It didn’t address how audacious they were about making those comments in front of me and being racist and unprofessional. Their attitude had not been addressed or not conveyed to me.
JLZ: That creates such an isolated environment. You’re going to work every single day, facing people that you know don’t want you there or are hostile towards you.
VK: It was clear, in the short time that I’d been there, that the colour of my skin was an issue. There’s no such thing to me as casual racism. I was even told by a colleague, that I should stop bringing ‘black stories’ to the morning news conference.
JLZ: What’s a black story?!
VK: Precisely. I was absolutely nonplussed. Does a black story, whatever that means, not have any journalistic integrity? I was absolutely furious. By that time, I was getting pretty tired. I was a rookie, I had an awful lot to learn and you have to choose which battles to fight, so I let that one go, because she’s the same person who I complained to about the crew.
JLZ: I find it interesting that they complained about ‘black stories’ but nowadays, editors are looking for ‘black stories’. I’ve pitched an article about something really general and slightly mentioned how the topic might affect me differently due to my race, and editors will jump on that and change the angle to centre my race or search for black journalists to write an article about race, but they won’t hire them full-time.
Ayomide Alli: Every industry has its struggle with race but especially if you’re in the media, in this age of social media. On the recent ITV special, ‘Has Britain changed?’, a lot of the black panellists we’re getting so much criticism and racial hatred on social media. It is very scary when you hear stories of what’s happened in the past and what’s also still happening.
VK: When I went onscreen it was announced internally. At that time, we had something that was pre-social media, it was anonymous, almost like a social media post, where journalists could post any aggravations they had against management policy. The only people who knew I was going to go onscreen were my colleagues. The moment it was announced, I got the most awful, racial abuse. You’re working with people and they’re saying things like, “get her off, she’s only there because she’s black”, “she’s taking jobs away from blonde, blue-eyed girls”, and I had to put up with that. I complained and was asked, “What would you like us to do about it?”
AA: It’s difficult wanting to pursue journalism because all the people that are doing it are facing challenges and in my short year of being out there, I’ve faced challenges that are emotionally and mentally damaging. During one of my roles it was like diversity was tedious. They would make comments like, “diversity doesn’t sell tickets” [in regards to their events]. I felt like my existence was painful for some people.
VK: I went through exactly the same thing 40 years ago. Clearly diversity is laborious, inclusion is laborious. They don’t want to do it, but they’re falling over themselves now. ITV, Channel 4, BBC, all of them are investing millions into diversity schemes and programmes and positive action. How long does it need to get it?
JLZ: That is my question!
VK: We have to do something. It’s tough, and it’s risky, but we have to do something. But you know what? I’m also fed up that we are having to take the toll of all of this. It’s always up to us to try and resolve these problems. That is absolute nonsense. We’re also being asked to do it for free.
There are white and black eminent talent; directors, scriptwriters, actors. They are commissioned by the broadcasters to deliver top storylines for them, to get them ratings and to bring in the cash. Why don’t they support the argument for black recruitment and promotion, equality of opportunity and demand, “We want to have a look at what your diversity is like at all levels of production and if it’s not good enough, you can’t hire me. You’re not using my name to ramp up your ratings.”
AA: I think the term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethic) makes the work that people do ten times harder. Racism affects people differently, especially as black women, our experiences with racism will be different. People who are black and LGBTQ+, their experiences will be different. The whole issue with BAME is that it’s an escape route for broadcasters to show that they’re diverse. For example, BBC Two recently did a documentary about Black Lives Matter, headed by an Asian man. That makes absolutely no sense.
VK: On Black Lives Matter, I don’t want what’s going on in our industry to be seen through the prism of the movement. Systemic racism in the media has been going on for decades and Black Lives Matter is almost media pornography. The number of times they kept showing the picture of George Floyd with a knee on his neck… How many times do we need to see that? There was a voyeurism about it and white people talking about it, then bringing black people on to explain racism.
JLZ: Black Lives Matter has also fuelled a race for more diversity. There was a journalist from the BBC, who I think was very genuine, but she was offering mentorship opportunities for black journalists and calling for them to get in touch with her. This led to loads of journalists doing the same and while it’s a nice incentive, it’s a bit too little too late. Why all of a sudden do you have an interest in helping black journalists? We’ve needed help for a very long time now, so it’s hard to know who actually cares about our lives, both on a personal and professional level.
AA: My main issues with race happened when I was vox popping (a series of interviews usually in the street where reporters ask the opinions of the public), like verbal abuse, asking me, “Why are you here? What are you doing here? Where are your parents from?” I would literally have panic attacks before I would do a vox pop. I tweeted about my experience and I remember someone saying, “Ayo, wow. I can’t believe you went through that.” And was thinking, but I told you.
VK: I’ve had enough. I now choose my own projects. I don’t even take them to commissioners. I’m actually working as a producer on a documentary at the moment, based in the States with director, Paul Sapin. We’re making a film, ‘A Few Nagging Questions’, about a miscarriage of justice against an African-American activist in 1968 in the USA for film release.
We’re going after our own funding. I also work with community groups and young people to help them into the industry and discover hidden stories that make them feel better about themselves and give them confidence.
JLZ: Is part of the answer then taking control of the content that we produce and creating our own media publications? Or, is it a case of trying to infiltrate mainstream media and actually increase representation within the media industry? Or, maybe it’s a bit of both.
AA: I agree. I think there are lot of things that can be done. But until British society finally accepts it has a problem, there’s only so far we can go. I think there can be surface level change, but until there is proper in-depth change from individuals and institutions, then I don’t see a point in these journalism schemes or getting young people into the industry, because of the attitudes of other people.
JLZ: It’s also important to create allies. We should definitely stick together and help to uplift each other.
VK: If you’ve got a relative or a friend who even works on the studio floor as an engineer or as a lighting mechanic, they’re going to be able to manoeuvre an introduction for you. How many black people work at all those levels throughout the production landscape? How many can say, “I’ll get you in”? We know that’s how it happens! We don’t have those opportunities. There are not those people who can open the door for us in an informal way. I’ve tried to open the door for other people because they’re just so few of us there. That’s how we get in.
But it also depends on who’s there. In my day, I had private conversations with high profile black personalities in the media about racism and our isolation in the industry. They agreed but wouldn’t go public with me, which was a major disappointment.
I just want you to prosper and to do well, I think you’re fantastic, the two of you.
AA: Thank you.
JLZ: Thank you. I would definitely love to keep in contact with both of you. It’s important to form relationships for our own self-care and to have each other’s backs.
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