Tufayel Ahmed, former senior editor at Newsweek, is the latest voice calling for UK publishers to commit to improving diversity in the media industry.
This week, Ahmed published an open letter pointing out the (still) overwhelmingly white and posh makeup of our newsrooms. Journalism.co.uk caught up with him to better understand the problem and what can we do about it. The interview was done via email and was lightly edited for brevity.
What prompted you to start the campaign?
The stark racial disparities in journalism have always followed me in my career. Everything in the letter—being a solitary figure, paid less, excluded from certain roles—has happened to me, simply because of the colour of my skin. A few things that have happened in the last year made me really want to stand up and fight for change: losing my senior role in a major newsroom in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic—the only editor to do so and the only editor of colour in the newsroom at the time—and then finding it difficult to bounce back into another role despite years of experience and track record.
Secondly, there was, of course, the necessary reckoning in many industries about the historic lack of diversity following the George Floyd killing. Yet there was not really a similar reckoning in our business, while as the letter says, we were "happy to report on, and steer public opinion of, other industries’ historic lack of diversity".
Thirdly, I had my own brief dabble in the publishing world—going through the whole process of writing a manuscript, landing a brilliant agent, going out on submission and then the rejections from mostly white, middle-class women book editors who could not "connect" with the story. It was about a brown, queer character.
It just seemed so problematic. These editors shape the literature available to us for consumption and they cannot look past their own limited lived experiences. Being new to the publishing world, the entrenched systemic whiteness was so glaringly obvious that it made me sit back and think, okay, well, what about my industry? It can be hard to take a step back and objectively see the issues we have, so having that experience in publishing really helped define it more clearly.
What are the major obstacles to making UK newsrooms more diverse?
It starts from the top down. Some 80 of major editors are privately educated and most of them are white, according to the 2016 Sutton Trust survey. Like attracts like. Diversification has to start at the top with those with hiring power, and trickle down through every newsroom function to interns and casual staff. The loftier my career ambitions have been, the whiter I have found those senior management meetings. And those people are the ones with hiring power.
Will the pandemic help or hinder the efforts to diversify the industry?
This one is tough, because, like most industries, we have seen major cuts in our newsrooms. If you are a journalist from a working class background and cannot rely on mum and dad, a trust fund or whatever else, losing your job could literally put you on the breadline. Some of those people probably cannot wait a year to land another job, so might have to settle for other lines of work. If BAME journalists are more likely to come from working class backgrounds, then they more likely to be lost from our industry for good.
On the other hand, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests can push us to be a little more introspective, since most people are stuck at home and life has slowed down somewhat, and challenge issues that we might not have otherwise.
What is the main message of your open letter?
That this burden cannot just be for journalists of colour to tackle. Our white newsroom colleagues, particularly those with clout, need to step up and be allies. We all believe in the good that journalism can do in society. So, our newsrooms should and must reflect broader society if we are to be the authoritative voice we aim to be.
How can journalists get involved?
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