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Diversity: more than just a numbers game

Making UK media more diverse is not simply a question of employing more people from different backgrounds. The jobs you give them and the way you treat them, says Joseph Harker, is equally important.

By Joseph Harker

Diversity: more than just a numbers game
“If people come in with a different background then you have to listen to their stories, and their ideas.”

What exactly is ‘diversity’? We all tend to be in favour of it, but it has its limitations. There’s a great quote that legendary US campaigner Angela Davis gave to my former Guardian colleague, Gary Younge: “There's a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change,” she told him.

She was referring to those who believe diversity is purely about numbers: that as long as an institution improves its proportion of underrepresented groups, then diversity will be achieved, and everything will be fine.

As experience shows, this is far from the case: true equality is more than a numbers game.

Even if an institution has a representative number of minorities on its payroll, it depends where these people are; how much stake in the organisation they have; how valued they feel; and how much they are listened to. These are issues of inclusion, not diversity.

An example of this flawed thinking is in the Metropolitan Police, which, stung by the finding, in 1999, that it was institutionally racist, set out to recruit Black, Asian and ethnic minority officers in order to become more representative. Progress was measured in terms of the numbers recruited. Targets were set. Yet, two decades on, the force is still embroiled in accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia; its commissioner was forced to stand down; and her replacement has now admitted that the problems are far deeper than a few “bad apples”.

That’s because what was required was a root-and-branch overhaul of the culture of the police: yet while media coverage of the Met often focused on officer numbers, and reported progress in these basic terms, the vital structural changes were not happening.

The last two years, since the death of George Floyd and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement that followed, have been for me the most energising time to be in the UK press, but also the most depressing.

Energising because it has sparked new conversations about ongoing racial disparities, an acceptance that something should be done, and real meaningful action in some parts of the media. Depressing because, for all this new awareness, it feels like we’ve all been here before.

That 1999 inquiry – into the mishandling of the police investigation into the killing of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence – was led by William Macpherson, who defined institutional racism as: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

How UK media reacted to Macpherson

The Macpherson report led to a wide-ranging discussion about discrimination and inequality across British society, including in the UK media. Schemes were set up. A handful of high-profile appointments were made. Yet, for the most part, there was little structural change. A few people of colour were recruited. They entered the media’s white-dominated enclaves, which showed little interest in their own backgrounds or experiences. Their role was to serve the agenda handed down from on high. So, for the most part, these young and mostly inexperienced journalists were faced with a choice: do I ditch my background and try to assimilate into the workplace culture, in the hope that I might achieve some reward for service in the long term; or do I stay true to myself, in the knowledge it probably means I will be saying goodbye to my career prospects? Both these choices are miserable: one way or another, failure is the only option.

In practice, this meant that, despite the initial surge of interest in racial diversity, minorities who were recruited would become disillusioned, stagnate, and leave the business. Editors would throw up their arms and say, “we can’t find anyone”; or, worse, “we tried that and it didn’t work”. Diversity would be filed in the “too hard” box, and forgotten – with no minorities at a senior level who would be making the case for change.

Hence, two decades after Macpherson, I’ve been hearing those same conversations starting again: how do we find Black reporters? Why are they so hard to reach? Do we have to go into schools to persuade them to get into the media?

The above examples relate to race, of course, but the lessons of this action / inaction go wider, and speak to the underrepresentation of many other groups: religious minorities, women, LGBTQ+ people, those with disabilities, working mothers, the working-class, and those living beyond the media’s base in London and the south-east. All are outsiders, trying to cope in a media that’s not set up for them, and who are unsure whether to speak out and push for change, or stay quiet and tell themselves not to rock the boat.

Underrepresentation in the media has, of course, been widely reported. A 2016 survey found that the British journalism sector is 94% white and 55% male, with women paid significantly less than men.

In 2020, a Women in Journalism survey of newspaper front pages revealed a shocking lack of ethnic-minority reporters, or of minorities being quoted.

And there is still precious little research on the representation of people with disabilities within the print media.

So, how can organisations make a change – so that the goodwill of the past two years can turn into embedded long-term action, and for all underrepresented groups?

I’d suggest the following six steps, for editors and organisation leaders to consider.

  1. Realise why you want it. What exactly are you aiming for: is diversity one of those “world peace” wishlist kind of things? Are you doing it because you want to be seen to be doing something nice, as a charitable favour to all the excluded people? Is it the kind of thing you’ll only get around to once your current organisational priorities are sorted? If any of these, then please save your time and money, and stop the pretence of showing you “care”.
  2. But if you think diversity is a core part of your organisation’s mission and purpose, then read on.

    Because more and more, it’s becoming clear that things can’t go on as they are: from Brexit to the “red wall”, from Windrush to Black Lives Matter, the people running Britain’s media need to better understand its people, the challenges they face, and the issues that affect their lives.

    It doesn’t matter how clever an editor or columnist is. If they all come from a narrow background – typically London and the home counties, male, public school, Oxbridge – and surround themselves with similar people, their overall vision will be just a fraction of the full spectrum.

  3. Decide if you want real change. Do you want your organisation merely to look different: a few women, or brown faces, or people with disabilities, dotted around the workplace? Or do you actually want it to change how it does business?
  4. Because if it’s all about appearances then you’ll just be storing up problems. If people come in with a different background then you have to listen to their stories, and their ideas. If their only chance of promotion is to ape the bosses’ thinking, then your efforts will fail.

  5. Get the person at the top on board. There’s little more frustrating than having to argue for change while every decision-maker thinks the big chief doesn’t care.
  6. Diversity has to come from the top, otherwise it’s all more wasted effort. The diversity / inclusion champion has to have the clear backing of the organisation head, and be seen to be acting on his / her behalf. The head will need to send out regular reminders of this, given that the default position of most media organisations is homogeneity, not diversity.

  7. Don’t expect quick results… Some diversity issues are easier to make progress on than others. Almost every social group / network or family has women, who can be potentially targeted. However, finding ethnic minorities, or people with disabilities, or LGBTQ+ people for example, can be more difficult. This means making new networks, and putting in a bit of time and effort to contact new groups, or target different communities. It’s not impossible – they do exist. They’re just not on your radar, so it needs to be reset.
  8. …but things can happen quickly. Access schemes are good for long-term impact. I run the Guardian’s positive action work-placement scheme, which targets aspiring ethnic-minority journalists, and those with disabilities – some of whom have later gone on to work for us.
  9. But targeting schools, universities, etc, for your workforce of the distant future is only a small part of what you can do. Some of the right people will be within your organisation already, but may not be seen as having potential for more senior positions because they don’t conform to the typical person in that role. Think again about those you employ from non-traditional backgrounds, and the hidden potential they have: could that sub-editor or researcher be a potential columnist, or interviewer, or section editor? Maybe then you can start making instant, and impactful, changes.

  10. Put in the resources. Given the effort required, you cannot expect all this to be done without any extra resources. Certainly, communicating and monitoring a new policy need not require a massive amount of personpower; but given most organisations are already stretched, it could be too much for this all to be absorbed into existing jobs. So, work out what your organisation needs to achieve, and then which of these goals are realistically achievable within a set timeframe. Then allocate the resources to ensure they are done well.
  11. And then monitor regularly how the plan is progressing – including how the new diversity practices have affected your editorial output.

I have a new role, as the Guardian’s senior editor for diversity and development, in which I aim to embed diversity and inclusion across all parts of the editorial department, and at all levels.

New diversity roles have been created elsewhere in the media too – which, despite the inaction of the past two decades, keeps me overall on the optimistic side. And there will continue to be a strong push from social media, which didn’t happen in 1999. Working with others, I feel there’s a chance to ensure that, this time, we see real change becoming embedded across the UK media. If not, we’ll all be the losers.

Further reading

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.