We need equal opportunities not photo opportunities for BAME groups if we want a fair press
Gary Younge believes we need more Black journalists to ensure a fair press. But this, he says, can't happen before there's a "deeply embedded" societal change.
"The press has an influence on how people think about things, and how people think about things has an influence on what the press will do," the journalist explains.
The statistics are certainly sobering. Per a recent Guardian study, of the 111 people who were quoted on the front pages of British newspapers last summer, just one belonged to a Black person. And in 2016, a survey conducted by City University London, found that the industry is 94 per cent white, 86 per cent university-educated, and 55 per cent male.
Somewhat of a change
Gary Younge joined The Guardian in 1993, where he served as the publication's editor-at-large and long-time US correspondent. "There are a lot more black journalists at The Guardian now than there were back then," he concedes of the press in 2021.
For his part, Younge was granted a bursary from the newspaper to study journalism at City University - a scheme, he says, that was specifically for Black and Asian journalists.
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"But more broadly speaking across the media, I don't see huge changes," he continues. "You see front-of-house staff – more columnists, for example, in more prominent places. You don't see a huge increase in non-white photographers. Or editors – who are integral to the decision-making. It hasn't been thoroughgoing or widespread. There's a tendency towards photo opportunities rather than equal opportunities."
The 52-year-old, who is a professor of sociology at Manchester University, is naturally wary about the semantics. When I ask him if he thinks this is "tokenistic", he is quick to clarify" "The people who have these jobs are good. Otherwise, every Black person who gets a high-profile job would be understood as a token, and I think that's wrong."
The class issue
Still, Younge highlights that Black people are still "overwhelmingly" working class. "I think that when we talk about a lack of Black people in the British media, we need to combine that with the class deficiency as well."
For his part, Younge had free school meals, and comes from a legacy of people whose parents were "bus drivers, train drivers, nurses, and taxi drivers." This has informed the journalism he has done throughout his career. Specifically, his focus on profiling people on the fringes of society.
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Younge tells me of the night of Barack Obama's election. Instead of going to Grant Park, where the former president delivered his victory speech, he travelled to a bar on the South Side. "I wanted to see how these moments were experienced by ordinary, working people. And I want to tell stories that would otherwise not be told, because the people are too poor, too dark, or too marginal."
One story that has repeatedly been told in the press, however, is that of Meghan Markle.
Last year, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced their decision to step back from the royal family after Prince Harry said that the constant media coverage was damaging his "mental health". According to their supporters, the couple were driven to America because of toxic coverage, which often veered into racial harassment.
Indeed, Markle has been criticised for as little as opting to eat avocado on toast for breakfast. Meanwhile, her counterpart, Kate Middleton, rarely has her decisions – sartorial or otherwise – dissected in the same manner.
Touching on the coverage of Markle, Younge stresses that "[Black people] have a plurality of views within our race", and that simply appointing a Black editor won't be able to solve the problem until there is a broader cultural shift.
"That one editor in themselves cannot change the culture of an entire organization," he continues. "If you're the only person in the room, it's not tenable to expect you to speak for and about everything to do with Black people. You have to do your job, as well as fight that fight.
''The more Black people you have in the room, the more likely you are to have a fuller conversation that is less fearful, fretful and skewed. It's more likely that the culture will change. But having the right people in the room is the start. It's not the end."
Black Lives Matter across the pond
Like many conversations surrounding race relations, we inevitably turn to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here, Younge makes a broader point. "Episodically, [the media] discovers race a bit like teenagers discover sex. Urgent, kind of desperate, and not particularly well thought out.
"Black Lives Matter was helped by the fact that the precipitating cause is in America. Therefore, the UK could say, 'Isn't that terrible what happens over there?' We could deal with race as being something foreign."
He cites the backlash to Bristol's Edward Colston statue being toppled. "As soon as the question came close to home, people claimed it was creating a mob and erasing history.
"They gorged themselves on it. And then they got sick".
*Black History Month – to fully understand the present, we must educate ourselves on the past.