My contribution to ‘Then, Now and Beyond’, a Media Diversity Institute publication to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Being brought up in a monoculture does wonders for your concept of diversity.
I was born in a rural English town about 25 kilometers southwest of London, into an Irish Catholic family. Our social circle was further limited because my dad was a policeman. In those days, the police and their families lived in social housing provided by the municipality. Few of our working-class neighbours wanted much to do with us. Besides that, we moved frequently. Before I left home I had lived in six different council houses in different parts of a very white, post-war suburban area.
These factors limited the building of friendships outside the home. However, with five sisters and two brothers, I used to say that we did not feel the need for friends. Within the family there were so many competing personalities and social groupings to contend with. I was part of the ‘top two’ with my elder sister. We felt hard done-by because we were given household chores long before the others, whose domestic servitude was diluted by the sheer weight of numbers.
My next sister down and I could resent our elder sister together and were thought of as ‘terrible twins’. My next bond was with my first brother; we shared a bed. The eldest four were ‘the Big Ones’; a threeyear gap separated us from the ‘Little’uns’ – three more girls and a boy. A gender divide was inevitable, and there were times when individuals or groups were in or out of favour with each other or with our strict parents.
I suppose a crude sense of social justice developed through the solidarity brought on whenever trouble threatened. I got my first taste of this when I was barely six years old at a Catholic primary school in what was then a military town. My older sister and I faced taunts and even stone-throwing from the non-Catholics at the state school. Once, after we’d had to take shelter behind a wall, my mother instructed me to always protect my sister.
When a fire broke out in the school, we were directed to a church hall for lunch. Teachers with croaky voices insisted that we eat in silence. My sister and I were caught whispering and were instructed to stand on our benches in different parts of the hall. When the meal was over, the teacher in charge administered a sharp smack across my sister’s palm with a ruler.
He then strode around to me in the hushed hall and I got the same punishment. Fighting back tears I landed a punch in his face: “That’s for hitting my sister!” I declared.
Surprised if not shocked, he lifted me up and carried me out through the fire exit to an alleyway where a wagon wheel was leaning up against the wall. Everyone else was back at school by the time he took me back. Rumour had spread that he had tied me to the wheel and whipped me. It was not true – but I had become a folk hero nonetheless. I remember being sat down on a window ledge in the playground and made a fuss over by the girls.
In the even tighter monoculture of a junior seminary I attended as a teenager, my sense of right and wrong was enhanced when we were suddenly banned from reading or even seeing newspapers. They were reporting in prurient detail a court case about a sex scandal involving the defence minister, who had apparently shared a lover with a Russian intelligence officer. Outraged at this censorship, I got the papers smuggled in through workmen before abandoning plans to become a priest.
In those days, compulsory testing at age 11 filtered children with more academic potential for free attendance at a grammar school until age 18. As one of only two local boys who passed the exam, our choice was limited to the nearest Catholic one. We found ourselves at the bottom of the pile, looked down upon by those whose parents paid fees, and especially by those who were boarding at the school. The discovery that you lived in a council house pushed you even further down the social scale.
Yet in our crowded home we provided support for those in need, and even took in Yoruba and Ibo exiles during the Biafra War in 1969. My father’s links to police forces from Africa and Asia also helped open our eyes to the wider world. I volunteered with the St Vincent de Paul Society, which comforts those in need, and learned that even in respectable middle-class areas life could be tough if you were disabled, old and lonely, or suffered mental ill-health.
I progressed to a more egalitarian technical college before going on to university. These changes brought me into contact not only with girls who were not my sisters’ friends from convent school or church, but even with people who did not share my Catholic faith. I discovered that, contrary to our bizarre notion that they were weird for going to church voluntarily, they could be fun to hang out with. (For Catholics, going to church was an obligation.)
I gradually emerged from my shell, without entirely discarding it, at Sussex University during the years of student revolt from 1966 to 1969, but I still had a sense of being an outsider in the big bad world. For the first time I met rich people and discovered that even the most upstanding and well-heeled English harboured deep-seated prejudices. The wealthy parents of my girlfriend disapproved as much of my Irish-Catholic heritage as my leftwing views.
My first job was teaching religious education and creative writing in a Buckinghamshire village secondary school. I experienced the hypocrisy of other respectable folk, from teachers to church-going country folk. They did not like my replacement of Bible studies with comparative religion, nor my efforts to explain to curious children the religious and political strife which had caused British troops to be sent into Northern Ireland. The out-of-school social justice activities I organised for the children also upset some in the village. Advertisements were placed in the local paper saying I was selling off items from the cottage I rented, drug detritus was planted in my kitchen, and a taxi was sent to take me to the airport at dawn. These were messages that I was no longer wanted in the village. Some people prefer their monoculture undisturbed.
It was much the same at my next job in respectable Tunbridge Wells in Kent, where the Catholic priests had upset the locals by allowing the basement of their presbytery to become a shelter for the homeless. The site had quickly descended into a drug den and I was invited in to sort things out. Initially, it was too dangerous to live there, so I earned a bed by working the night and early morning shifts at a nearby Cheshire Home, one of many set up by war hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire to care for the disabled. I was immersed in the types of social conditions that society found difficult to cope with.
Gradually I won the confidence of the inhabitants of the basement and set it up as a Cyrenian project, named after Simon of Cyrene who helped carry Christ’s cross; we called it The Well. I lived there with as many as 27 ex-servicemen, alcoholics, young offenders, drug addicts and rejects from psychiatric hospitals at any one time. They were vilified by many locals as the mad, the sad and the dangerous to know, and by identifying with them I branded myself as an outsider. With advice from two other outsiders, the secretary of the local Communist Party, who had only one arm and was married to a Vietnamese exile, and a gentle vegan anarchist who ran a cutlers shop, I learned how to engage with the media to challenge and change people’s attitudes.
It was a skill I also applied in my next job as a youth and community worker in the East End of London, where whole communities were being abandoned as the river docks closed down and developers moved in. The racism that had once been directed against Gypsies, Huguenots, the Irish and the Jews was now being turned against Black people and the Muslim Bangladeshi community.
I tasted my own share of prejudice during my relationship with a Black single mother of three during the early 1970s. She was spat at by other young Black women for going with a White guy. Nor did our white neighbours approve and they reported me to my employers.
In 1974, when Irish republicans bombed taverns in Guildford and Birmingham, there was downright hostility to Irish communities – not least in East London, where many of the leading community and trades union activists were of Irish descent. As an act of solidarity I decided to assert my identity and take up Irish citizenship. I quickly discovered that just carrying a green passport qualified me to be stopped and questioned every time I left or re-entered the country. Yet I was the same person who had previously travelled on a British passport, which the authorities had required me to relinquish.
Ignorance was at the core of so many negative attitudes towards ‘the other’ – making people prey to those who would manipulate them for their own purposes. I also learned how easy it was for well-meaning liberals and leftists to respond with knee-jerk reactions to those who did not fit into their orthodoxies. Information and education would be essential to changing minds and attitudes and providing motivations for this change.
Having fed plenty of good stories to the local newspaper, I was eventually hired by them in 1977. I soon discovered that editors do not always uphold the ethical codes to which they pay lip service. As a reporter I saw how revolting and complex racism can be. When I asked my editor why, in one of London’s most multicultural areas, we had no Black reporters, he replied “You don’t know whose side they are on.” And when my reports of racist attacks became too frequent he stopped running them on the front page, saying they were too depressing and upset the advertisers.
In the early 1980s, I helped set up and edit a rival local newspaper. At the East End News co-operative we championed as wide a range of talents as we could, launching the careers of numerous Black and Asian journalists and photographers who went on to do well in the mainstream media. To counteract their lack of representation in conventional local papers, we featured a weekly Black Voices page with contributions from local activists. It was to form the basis of Britain’s most successful Black newspaper The Voice, launched by members of our co-operative.
Women members ran their own What’s On column but also tried to ensure gender equality throughout the paper, especially in the sports section: We were the first local paper to have women covering football.
In the early 1990s, I was invited to contribute to media courses at a polytechnic in the West of England. I observed that many of the Black students felt marginalised. I organised a session in which all the White students were to sit silently on one side, and all the Black students on another, free to speak about their experiences of life, if they wished.
One Jewish student asked where he should sit. I told him that was a matter for him to decide. He chose to sit with the Whites. A Lebanese student asked where he should sit. “I look White,” he said. “But when people hear my name they assume I am Black.” Again I said it was his choice. He chose to sit with the Blacks.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a while, and then some of the Black students began to talk about their lives. One spoke very powerfully about her anxieties from the moment she got up and left the house. She described the looks and treatment she received in shops and on the buses.
Afterwards the Black students were positive about the session. I was struck by the fact that they spoke about feeling “grateful for being given permission to speak”. Their language said it all. Meanwhile some White students, shocked by what they had heard, accused me of trying to break up friendships. I asked them why they did not know about the racism their friends had experienced.
All that had gone before helped to inform my later career as Director of the journalism ethics charity PressWise, now The MediaWise Trust. It was set up by people whose lives had been damaged by inaccurate or intrusive coverage by the mainstream media. Many of these victims of media abuse were women or the most vulnerable members of society. It put me in good stead to work with the Media Diversity Institute as a trainer, seeking to challenge, and to change, entrenched and often unconscious prejudice among media professionals.
We all like to think that we are well aware of the world and all its wiles, and secure from the weaknesses of our fellow citizens. In the mid 1990s, at a conference in Greece on The Media and the State, I recall remonstrating with a French member of the European Parliament who had blamed the media for the 1993 suicide of French Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy. To the amusement of the assembled journalists, I declared that “The only difference between politicians and journalists is that politicians think they know all the answers, and journalists know that they know all the answers.”
People tend to have a certain intransigence in our view of ourselves. Maybe we need that level of confidence to cope with all the things that we see and hear, not least the bullshit of so many politicians, and the excuses of so many public figures and public servants when things go wrong.
Our industry is a little better. Corporate media lawyers in the UK have warned us not to admit to errors for fear it may cost the company dearly. No wonder members of the public feel helpless and alone when we report about their lives and get things wrong, or rely upon easy stereotypes to get messages across, with little thought about how that might affect the lives of those involved. Our task should be to challenge and not simply amplify the intemperate or inaccurate language used by politicians to play on people’s prejudices. We are supposed to offer verifiable information – not reinforce ignorance.
So how do you implant new ideas among colleagues who are reluctant to admit that they don’t know things? It was a problem we had to face when introducing the idea that children’s rights are a potential source of stories during trainings sponsored by UNICEF in the former Soviet Union.
We wanted participants to acknowledge their ignorance and to realise the importance of filling in the gaps in their knowledge. We also wanted them to appreciate that such knowledge could add depth to their stories and authority to questions they might ask of experts.
Since most journalists are both inquisitive and competitive, and enjoy a bit of fun, we adopted the format of the television game show as a learning method.
Participants were divided into teams. One by one, each person picked a number linked to questions devised from information needed to report authoritatively on a wide range of issues affecting children – the law as it related to adoption, for example, or the age of consent for sex, or aspects of the criminal justice system. They could choose to answer alone, or with help from their team mates for a reduced number of points. Other teams could win points with a challenge. Soon, in the battle to win a box of chocolates, they forgot they were displaying their ignorance. In the end, the full list of questions were shared and friendly rivalries resolved as they researched the correct answers.
We adopted a similar interactive-learning approach when introducing the concept of diversity. Using the ‘pet hates’ prevalent in the particular society, we would overload a ‘life boat’ – often a couple of tables pushed together that would barely hold all the participants – with a range of characters whose ‘problematic’ identities were leavened by a redeeming feature or skills. We’d have a gay doctor, for example, or a Roma carpenter. Cast adrift from a sinking liner, the boat would only be able to stay afloat and reach the safety of the nearest island if some of those on board were thrown into the shark infested waters.
Each person would plead for their lives before a vote was taken. Prejudices quickly came to the fore, whether or not participants remained in character. We added a fresh dimension to this scenario. All those thrown overboard were taken to another room – ‘rescued’ by another craft with a crew who knew where the nearest island was and had room for a limited number of extra passengers. Those once rejected now had to chance to vote for which of their persecutors could join them on the rescue craft. Now, prejudices aside, it was people’s practical skills that mattered most.
This telling exercise generated much discussion, and some trauma. Seasoned journalists were surprised at how quickly their own prejudices had surfaced, and gave them all pause for thought. In Azerbaijan, constantly in conflict with neighbouring Armenia, participants expressed remorse about having instantly rejected a pregnant Armenian. They also realised that a doctor’s sexuality should be less of an issue than their abilities.
In a booklet for Europe’s SOS Racisme movement, “All The Voices/Todas As Vozes”, Portuguese journalist Ana Cristina Pereira and I shared our views on diversity and the media. In the opening paragraphs I attempted to illustrate what happens when people are denied a voice in the public sphere.
‘You are sitting outside a cafe among a mixed social group discussing the latest big issue. Everyone has an opinion, and ‘facts’ to back up their convictions, but there are constant challenges from others who think their views and anecdotes offer a better analysis and solution. The topic may be gay marriage, economic downturn, unemployment, immigration, the latest war, global warming – something that affects us all. The debate is spirited; everyone seems to be enjoying the wrangle so much they do not notice their coffee has gone cold.
‘And they do not seem to notice you.
‘You have your own version of events, and an opinion to match. And this time it is based on personal experience rather than high theory. But no one wants to hear it. Every time you try to intervene, someone else butts in. This is worse than frustrating. The more you try to be heard the more annoying it becomes. It is as if you are invisible. It is as if they do not want to hear what you have to say.’
In circumstances like these frustration quickly turns to resentment, then anger. And when you are still ignored, violent retaliation is almost inevitable.
A female colleague and I tried to illustrate this with a version of my Black and White college experiment in some of our MDI trainings. Having carefully primed a couple of women participants, we would suddenly cancel a scheduled session on the grounds that some women had expressed some concerns about treatment they were receiving. The men were instructed to sit on their hands –literally – and not speak during the session. The women would be invited to come forward and speak freely about their treatment by men. And they did. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes painfully intimate. It always made the men extremely uncomfortable. Few could contain their frustration and would angrily demand the right to reply. At the end, we pointed out that the purpose of the exercise was to help them understand what it feels like to be forbidden a voice. The women needed no such lesson.
Promoting the message that everybody has a right to be heard is often an ongoing struggle. When people feel threatened there is a tendency to revert to an atavistic nationalism. As journalists we must strive to keep the door open to everyone, to confront ignorance and encourage understanding.
That is especially difficult to do when newsrooms themselves are a monoculture, rarely reflecting the audiences they serve. And it is especially difficult when powerful forces in society object to being held to account by the Fourth Estate. Our essential task is to provide citizens with the information they need to make well-informed decisions about their lives and the way they are governed. It gets tougher by the day when we are attacked for presenting unpalatable truths.
But these are not just professional matters. We need diversity in all our lives. It adds a richness and a sense of belonging to know that you are part of a human chain that stretches around the globe. There are vast gaps in the knowledge we were taught at school and our ignorance is a liability which diminishes respect for those who do not share the world view we inherited.
My children have godparents from Armenia, France, Germany, South Africa, Tanzania and Trinidad, as a constant reminder that they are part of a far wider network of cultures than those on their doorstep. And on my 70th birthday, my house and garden were filled with guests from at least 21 countries alongside family and friends closer to home – so very different from the monocultural world in which I was brought up.
In a poem I wrote in 2000, which seeks to honour diversity, I tried to sum up how journalists can cope with the realisation that their culturally specific view of the world is not all that there is.
The objective ‘I’? (The eye of the journalist)
When we report the world we describe a kaleidoscope.
The essential elements may always be the same but each person has a different view.
Each time each person looks, the pattern changes, as do the circumstances of the viewing and the language each chooses to interpret what we see.
Only one thing is certain: there is no one, simple, accurate description.
The best we can offer is an honest account of the impression we gained from our tunnel vision, and let others have their say.
Perspective comes when we acknowledge that those without access to the kaleidoscope have a different tale to tell.