Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sent a thundering charge through the British media last week with direct accusations of racist coverage, dividing the industry and putting a spotlight on its lack of diversity. Now, journalists want to know: will anything change?
What began as a public rebuke of the tabloids by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in their bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey has turned into a media reckoning with far-reaching consequences. By the end of the week, the executive director of the Society of Editors had resigned after his denial of racism in the industry sparked a furious backlash.
Many close observers are dubious that the dramatic fallout will lead to significant changes in an industry where some publications are frequently accused of fueling prejudice against minorities and immigrants. Even outlets with better reputations have poor track records on diversity.
Recognizing that racism exists is a “necessary but not sufficient condition for doing something to address it,” said Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “Talk does not always lead to action,” he added. “UK news media will be judged on what they do more than on what they say they will do.”
A reckoning on racism
In the interview with Oprah, Harry said that racism had played a role in how the British press covered his wife, Meghan, and that tabloid coverage was a major factor in the couple’s decision to leave the country.
The tabloids were “inciting” racism, Meghan said. “It wasn’t just catty gossip, it was bringing out a part of people that was racist,” she added.
Despite evidence to support these claims — including a 2016 Mail Online headline that declared Meghan was “(almost) straight outta Compton” and a Daily Star headline that asked whether Harry would “marry into gangster royalty?” — the couple’s comments drew a rebuke from the Society of Editors.
Executive director Ian Murray said in a statement on Monday that it was “untrue” that sections of the UK press were bigoted or racist, and scolded Harry and Meghan for making such claims “without providing any supporting evidence.”
The Society of Editors has 400 members, mostly working journalists, and runs the Press Awards, the premier annual awards event in British journalism. Murray’s comments were quickly disputed by Black journalists and the top editors at the Guardian and Financial Times newspapers, who said that the media must do more to challenge racism and examine how it treats people of color.
Murray resigned two days later after the Society published what it called a “clarification,” saying it will “reflect on the reaction our statement prompted.”
The industry group’s denial of racism in the British press was “inherently wrong,” said Joseph Harker, the deputy opinion editor at the Guardian.
“If the Society of Editors had come out and said we don’t believe the coverage [of Meghan] has been racist, I would’ve disagreed but that’s a difference of opinion,” he told CNN Business.
But to deny that racism exists altogether fails to address the fact that parts of the UK press, particularly its tabloid newspapers, “spread racism almost daily in subtle and not so subtle ways that reinforce racial divides,” he added. “It exhibits itself every single day, not just in the coverage of Meghan.”
Harker is one of 160 journalists of color who signed a letter posted online calling on the Society of Editors to withdraw its “denial of the racism which exists in our industry” and explain what action it will take to address it.
The journalists added that the Press Awards have “consistently failed to recognise the talent and achievements of journalists of colour,” and that the event would be a good place for reforms to start. ITV journalist Charlene White on Wednesday quit as host of this year’s awards, which were due to be held at the end of this month. Some nominated journalists and news organizations have since pulled out of certain categories and the Guardian reports that the event will be postponed.
Earlier in the week, many of the same journalists wrote a letter to the organization urging it to address bigotry and racism, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. “The blanket refusal to accept there is any bigotry in the British press is laughable, does a disservice to journalists of colour and shows an institution and an industry in denial,” the journalists wrote.
They cited a range of evidence to support their claims, including a 2016 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance which found that hate speech among traditional UK media, particularly tabloid newspapers, “continues to be a serious problem” and fuels prejudice.
The Society of Editors, which held a special board meeting on Thursday, has yet to issue another statement and declined to respond to questions from CNN Business.
Vic Motune, news editor of The Voice newspaper and one of only two Society of Editors board members who don’t identify as White, has expressed “deep disappointment” over Murray’s comments.
The Voice, which launched in 1982, is widely regarded as the first publication to cater to Black Britons. It has long covered systemic racism in the country.
Motune said that he and other board members were not consulted before the original statement was published. “My big fear now is that the initiatives to address diversity which the board has been working on for the past year, and which I joined the Society of Editors to support, have been dealt a serious blow,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
“We now need to urgently rebuild trust with this group,” he added.
Too little change
In 2004, a report from the Society of Editors noted that “changing the complexion of the newsroom is a fundamental challenge that will require commitment and a structured approach, driven consistently from the top.”
The 42-page report examined diversity at local, regional and national newspapers and broadcasters. “To say that there is room for improvement would be an understatement,” it concluded, but pointed to evidence that this issue is “now being taken more seriously than ever before at the highest levels of the major [publishing] groups.”
Yet 17 years later, there has been little change. The British press remains overwhelmingly White compared to the overall racial and ethnic makeup of the United Kingdom.
Black journalists who are employed within news organizations are mostly in junior positions, according to Harker. Decisions about what stories are published and which angles to take are mostly taken by wealthier White men and those discussions do not include people of color, he said. “We are talked about, we are not really talked to.”
A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2016 found that just 6% of journalists across UK newsrooms don’t identify as White, compared with about 13% of the general population. The same study found that while Black Britons make up 3% of the population, they account for just 0.2% of journalists.
And according to a report last July from the Reuters Institute, none of Britain’s top 10 print, digital or broadcast outlets have a Black editor in chief.
There are signs that some of the recommendations made by the Society of Editors nearly two decades ago have been taken seriously.
For example, the major UK tabloids, including the Daily Mail and The Sun’s publisher News UK, have put in place scholarships and training programs for journalists who don’t identify as White. News UK and Reach Plc, which publishes the Mirror and the Express, have also created new roles to spearhead newsroom diversity and inclusion efforts, a step also taken at the Financial Times and the Guardian.
But many of these changes have only taken place in the past few years, and there’s a long way to go. “Progress will not be made until senior management and editors make minority ethnic recruitment to editorial one of their top priorities and keep it there,” the Society of Editors report said. “Publishers should routinely collect data on minority ethnic recruitment into editorial, and make it widely available,” it added.
There is no evidence that this practice is widespread. According to Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, data collection is “uneven” and there is limited transparency around diversity in newsrooms.
“Change in how minorities are covered and appear in the news and increased diversity, especially at the senior levels, in what remain overwhelmingly White UK newsrooms would be more tangible indicators than pronouncements,” Nielsen said.
Marverine Duffy, director of undergraduate journalism at Birmingham City University and a member of the editorial board of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, believes that fundamental change will not happen until there are more Black people in senior positions with editorial decision making power.
“There’s an illusion of inclusion,” she told CNN Business this week. The industry wants journalists from diverse backgrounds in order to tick a box, but their voices are ignored, she said.