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The Colour Of Ink Is White

Asian faces on the BBC is fine, but Fleet Street is still a 'subtly racist' fortress—out of bounds

The Colour Of Ink Is White
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

THE quantity of newsprint that London consumes in a single day, Indian dailies would take 10 days to eat up. But the formidable array of grammar and ads hitting London newsstands has very little on and for the subcontinental Asian. And it's not for the lack of a potential market. In London, for instance, the non-white population is over 20 per cent and slated to hit 25 per cent by the turn of the century. But, as Chris Myant, senior information officer at the Commission for Racial Equality in London, says: "Unless you have a staff composition that reflects in some measure what exists on the streets such anomalies are going to be difficult to root out."

 Figures from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) show that of the 6,000 journalists registered with them there are just 283 non-whites; of these just 97 are listed as Black Asians—that is Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Says Tim Gopsill, editor of Journalist, an NUJ publication: "It's really very sad statistics. When their contract comes up for renewal they are all nervous."

The Indians have been around for a while. In fact, in a survey conducted by the Commission for Racial Equality last year, researchers monitored five English broadsheet papers—The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent,and the Financial Times—for Asian bylines. Two months of research yielded just two names and one of them, Yasmin Ali Bhai, is a freelance feature writer. Things are not really as pathetic as that, for the researchers missed a few names because of their unfamiliarity and some were on leave. The fact is that regular print journalists of Indian origin in British mainstream media just about make it to the double digits. Says Vivek Chaudhari, a reporter at The Guardian: "The problem with the national papers is that they are run like a gentlemen's club. Jobs are not advertised. Lots of networking takes place." With nearly all the papers governed by the Oxbridge mentality, Indians score zero for networking. As Chaudhari says: "I have had job interviews with editors where the first question asked is, 'where did you go to school to?' It's very intimidating."

There's also the problem of what-you-are-going-to-do once you get in with this whole concept of gentlemen and players. Says Mihir Bose, a columnist with The Sunday Telegraph: "They would never make me cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times though I was there for 20 years. There's a glass ceiling beyond which you cannot go." And Bose has written 18 books on cricket with his last—A History of Indian Cricket—winning the Cricket Society Award. Says Bose: "Part of the problem for British Indians aspiring to be journalists here is the lack of a platform like the Jewish Chronicle. Young Jews hone their skills there. The two Gujarati papers which have half their contents in English are very shoddily produced."

In the absence of such a launch platform the Indians have basically two ways to make the grade. Go to Oxbridge, from where certain broadsheets and the BBC still take direct recruits, or play the popular way—start in a magazine or local paper somewhere doing weddings and funerals and slowly work your way up. Shekhar Bhatia, 38, is one such journalist. Now with the Daily Express, he started his career in east London at the Waltham Forest Guardian at the age of 17. Later he moved to the London Evening Standard where he worked for 10 years. Says he: "Because of my colour I had to work that extra hard. Newspaper managements are not aware that we can do the job. My colleagues were wary when I first moved to Fleet street."

 In fact, almost all British Indian journalists talk about the practise of 'subtle racism'. And sometimes the not so subtle. Says Bhatia: "One of my assistant editors at my last job commented at a party, in my presence, about how good this country was before the wogs came in. I walked off from the party. It harmed my career." But for Bhatia things changed when, in his words, they discovered "I was as good as them". Last year, he says, he had the best summer of his life covering Euro '96, Wimbledon and the Olympics.

Some like Amit Roy, a senior journalist at The Telegraph, however, feel that things are getting tougher because the profession is becoming more glamorous and attracting youth from the 'privileged end'. Says Roy: "We still don't have that pedigree." But he is hardly complaining about his own career graph: "Maybe there is a glass ceiling but on numerous occasions I've been given the top jobs. Beirut, Falklands, Poland, Surat...I have done them all. If you have to be a successful journalist in the UK you have to understand English psychology." Agrees Farrukh Dhondy, commissioning editor at Channel 4 television: "The British can look at the absurdity of themselves. The Indians here, on the other hand, have inculcated an exaggerated sense of nationalism. The Indians have to learn to be able to laugh at themselves. They have to be mercilessly critical."

In contrast, while spotting minorities in print journalism is tough, TV and radio have a far better record of actively promoting the recruitment of an ethnic workforce. BBC had set itself a target of 8 per cent for the year 2000. Last year, they were up at 11.9 per cent. Channel 4 also has 9 per cent. Says Myant: "Broadcasting has always been publicly regulated. It's accountable to the nation. The print media because of its history resents the idea of anybody telling it what to do."

As a result of minority training programmes in TV and radio, there are many names slipping through. There's Aniya Sitaram at ITN and Rita Chakravarty at the BBC. Aniya was one of the 12 selected out of 6,000 applicants. Says she: "They probably chose me before the interview." Seven and a half years with the ITN, Sitaram's covered the Hubble space repair from Houston and been to the Arctic to do a piece on global warming.

BUT while mainstream papers like The Guard -ian have training programmes, they have never been used to increase ethnic presence. Says Chaudhari: "They have one running for women but not one on race." Myant is concerned that this attitude of the national papers might see them lose their readership in the long run. Says he: "You wouldn't know about diversity if you yourself don't reflect that. It will erode your moral authority to poke fingers at others."

Adds Bhatia: "India doesn't get enough coverage. If newspapers had an Indian section even once a week, I am sure it would catch on tremendously." The one paper which caters to a South Asian audience, The Asian Age, has failed to live up to expectations. Chaudhari also laments the fact that the few Indian journalists around harbour a suspicion that editors are ghettoising them by making them do Asian stories. "You run into a kind of blind alley. Papers don't do Asian stuff well because they don't have the people and the right people don't want to do it."

 Dhondy has a different take on the poor numbers: "The reason for not many Indians being in print is that you have to write grammatical and stylish English. You cannot become the editor of The Times anyway as just a representative of a minority community." About Indians in the broadcast medium Dhondy is as severe: "There are too many Indians in British TV. They are mostly worthless researchers and people who boast about Asian culture without being able to spell Devnagiri or Urdu. It's a confidence trick they have learnt to get into these precarious but lucrative jobs."

 While Dhondy's comments have to be taken with a pinch of salt, some of the blame for the poor numbers has to be put on the community as well. Says Randeep Ramesh, transport correspondent at The Independent: "Parents haven't encouraged so-called artistic pursuits." Ramesh himself has a degree in petroleum engineering and was a music writer at The Sunday Times for three years. There's also the complaint that while numbers may slowly increase, they will never be in the crucial positions. Says Ramesh: "Print is a lot like TV in this respect. You might have a Nisha Pillai or Mathew Amoriwala presenting news at the BBC but there aren't any behind the camera. They don't trust us with the agenda."

 Aroon Kumar, a news producer with Breakfast News at the BBC in 1993, talks about an incident which he thinks typifies British racial attitudes: "A black activist was stabbed to death by racists in southeast London in 1993. No one mentioned it in the news conference. When I and another Indian complained, we were told that it was a local story. What they carried instead was a story about some loco stabbing horses in the countryside. No work came my way after that hoo-haa. You see things are not going to change unless the ethnics reach positions where they can control the images going out."

But, interjects H.O. Nazareth, owner of Penumbra Productions Ltd and maker of over 30 documentary films: "When some Indians talk of prejudice here it might sometimes be another word for middle-class ambitions." And it's not as if the Indians haven't tasted some measure of success in recent times. More in TV than print. There was Martin Basheer's coup on Lady Diana, Pillai's and Amoriwala's expose of Robert Maxwell, the publishing tycoon, celebrity actress Mira Sayal in BBC's comedy TV series Goodness Gracious Me and East Enders which has a viewership of 20 million every night.

Says Bhatia: "Earlier, we were just bus conductors or traders. But in these programmes for the first time we are portrayed as ordinary people with the same concerns as the British." But the acid test would come when more Indians start coming through the Oxbridge route. Says Chaudhari: "They better get it right then. Then current excuses won't work. We have lesser room for a mess-up." Roy is more optimistic: "If Amartya Sen can become the Master of Trinity College I see no reason why one of these days we might not have an Indian as editor of The Times." Well, one reason could be that Rupert Murdoch would never advertise the job.

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