Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Minority Report: The Stephen Lawrence Verdict Was Followed by Waves of Self-Congratulation from the Media. but Can Journalists -- Starting with the Lobby -- Hold Forth on the Politics of Race When Their Ranks Remain So "Hideously White"?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Minority Report: The Stephen Lawrence Verdict Was Followed by Waves of Self-Congratulation from the Media. but Can Journalists -- Starting with the Lobby -- Hold Forth on the Politics of Race When Their Ranks Remain So "Hideously White"?

Article excerpt

After some newsworthy fixtures in parliament, it is customary for the press to huddle. This is a semi-formal process that involves reporters gathering around an official spokesman, who tells them, in his own words, what they have just seen. They then ask questions to undermine the spokesman's account of what was witnessed; the official rejects this version, sticking to his original spin. The preferred tone for these exchanges is languid-laconic, a professional drawl that is meant to express a veteran's immunity to being surprised. Back and forth sail the responses, like a half-hearted game of lawn badminton where the object is to keep the rally going until everyone is bored.

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At the end, the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn't said.

During one such gathering at the end of last year, a civil service press officer, standing with me at the periphery of the pack, said quietly and with acid sarcasm: "It's a diverse bunch, the lobby, isn't it?" By the lobby, he meant the small group of journalists accredited to attend daily briefings with the Prime Minister's official spokesman and who hold passes that allow privileged access to the corridors of parliament. By diverse, he meant almost exclusively white, fortysomething men.

Imagine dividing the rectangular chamber of the House of Commons into four segments. The long southern side hosts the government benches, facing which are the opposition seats. In the galleries above, at the western end, behind a glass security screen, sits the visiting public. Opposite the visitors, also in a first-floor gallery but spared the indignity of a transparent barrier, by virtue of their prior security vetting, are the journalists. Of the four groups-coalition MPs, Labour MPs, ordinary punters, hacks -- the last is the most homogeneous in terms of race and sex. Political reporting, even more than politics itself, is an old boys' club.

Why is that the case? Does it matter? It is easier to answer the second question. The media play a function in a democracy, holding power to account. That involves probing the actions of powerful individuals and exposing them where they are corrupt, incompetent or dishonest. It also involves exercising instinctive suspicion of the powerful elite and complacent establishment cliques that largely prefer to conduct their affairs without scrutiny. That accountability mechanism looks dysfunctional when the press pack appears even more socially and culturally exclusive than the cadre whose vanity it is meant to be pricking.

Fleet Street's overwhelming monochrome majority goes unnoticed most of the time, not least because there isn't much incentive for newspapers to report their own failure to represent, in demographic composition, the society they aspire to inform. That failure might also make the media less than tenacious in demanding greater representation for minorities in politics.

By contrast, newspapers are very keen to report the decline of racism in British society. The happy banishment of unpleasant, antiquated prejudice was a dominant theme in newspaper commentary after, on 3 January, a guilty verdict was declared in the retrial of two men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager stabbed in London nearly 19 years ago. The press collectively declared a demon expiated.

Tricky argument

It might be true that indiscriminate violent race attacks are mercifully rare -- although who will say there is a tolerable number higher than none? Still, there was something mildly ridiculous about a bunch of white men sitting in all-white newsrooms, asking white journalists on their staff if they knew any black people who might want to write about how racism is no longer such an issue. …

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