This tweet from Cinematographer, DoP Kelvin Richard @kelvin_dop continued: “@skytv seem to do this with regularity. If not that then send other UK black reporters. Give them a chance!”
It followed Diversity expert Marcus Ryder, a former BBC senior executive, asking how networks could better report racial stories from the US, citing South Africa coverage as an example.
Firstly, I whole heartedly agree with Kelvin. Clive is a superb reporter. I first bumped into him on a murder story on Wandsworth heath in 1994 working for Channel One cable news covering crime stories.
Clive’s trade craft is like that of a Sushi chef. Minimalism, no fuss. Words that fit snugly around images and delivered in methodical prose. I have since interviewed him about his style, which I’ll write about in a future post.
Secondly, so while there can be only one Clive Myrie, why aren’t there many more journalists who are black on the front line, literally — wars, conflicts and inside hospitals?
This conversation deserved unpacking as I play devil’s advocate and use myself as the subject. Why does any outlet need to make use of reporters who are black? Well why not? They’re under represented in the media. But isn’t it just a question about how good a reporter is and what value a journalist brings to the output? And if they’re black?
If that were the case, arguably newsrooms would have many more people of colour. In the 90s the BBC 2 current affairs programme Black Britain, edited by Pat Younge, was a trove of talent.
It boils down to, though not exclusively, the following:
We all like to believe we bring value to a job, but is that recognised by hirers? I believed I could add value when I moved to South Africa for approximately 17 months wanting to witness and report on South Africa’s transition — a country in which the majority population was black.
I had followed its politics with a passion, from Nelson Mandela’s Wembley concert to on air exchanges with South African officials. I would subsequently be invited to join Britain’s leading foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, because of my interests and reports.
In the hallways of the BBC African service circa 93, I’d regularly cross paths with Rageh Omaar. Rageh was carving out his career filing from Somalia. We’d speak about the challenges ahead. The day I saw Rageh fronting the BBC from Iraq and South Africa was a celebratory day.
My value proposition failed to get any traction with BBC News in the UK, but once in Johannesburg, a number of outlets would take my ideas. As a reporter who was black , I said, I could get myself into varying spaces. I could move about in the Townships like Soweto (listen here). In Cape Town, District Six, I was perceived as coloured because of my complexion.
To Africans I met I was African as I spoke various languages from Ghana. I lived in Ghana for 8 years and bear all the mannerisms of a Ghanaian when I feel the need to. And then as Afrikaners would say, I speak with a neutral accent; I was English. I wrote about this for Michael Eboda’s New Nation newspaper; the prospect of traversing different territories, but to journalism execs, it could elicit a “so what?”
But that “trading places” status allowed me to cover various stories, such as South Africa’s economy during the visit of US Secretary Ron Brown. Or African doctors emigrating to South Africa to work in rural practices in Gazankulu. One of the most powerful stories I did was examining the new generation of South Africans set to take over the country. It was crafted from being a journalist, a black journalist.
First Time Voters — a radio documentary produced by Joy Hatwood, played on BBC Radio 4, the World Service and on the eve of South Africa’s elections on the SABC.
And then this, nuance from a report which chillingly ended with my interviewee chuckling that had this been the 1990s, me being so close to him would have meant I was looking down the barrel of his gun.
How much I might have valued myself, it failed at the highest level to mean something to execs. Why? Well it’s a complex argument, but in its simplest terms, value is in the eye of the beholder. That doesn’t remove how I think about myself.
To heighten that quotient, recommendations help. It’s the reason why film posters show five star reviews, or linkedin encourages endorsements. The more you value someone, the more by proxy ( as a recommendation) you’ll value another.
By the end of my career, this comment by Jon Snow, and several others, was that value quotient which I know would have boosted my career.
As provenance comes in many forms, I use it here like examining a piece of art and how aficionados will set about investigating works to uncover deeper meanings and history. What’s the journalist’s background; what richness does that background yield in the British strata of social standings and history?
Of course whilst all art has a background, it’s mainly the high profile pieces that attract attention. High profile journalists more often than not possess richly varied backgrounds, but what when they’re starting off?
I grew up partly with foster parents, then was taken to Ghana. Back in the UK, I pursued a degree in Applied Chemistry. I had a deep interest in journalism writing for the school magazine and freelancing for the BBC. I grew up reading Chinua Achebe alongside, yes, Thesinger. It was not lost on me that editors hired in kind.
I once, at the direction of human resources, had a meeting with a senior news exec who combed through my CV and life for about an hour, telling me my background was impressive and that he’d like to bring me in, but nothing happened and I my calls were never answered afterwards. What happened?
It could be any number of things. I have since met with him to discuss this. But risk seemed to be a factor. There’s risk in Art, when purchasing a piece, believed to be by a well known artist. He couldn’t take the risk at that level. How might one change that? Lower the risk. I don’t believe it’s a reason to give up pursuing that top job, but consider this for a burgeoning reporter.
No one becomes a foreign correspondent from a standing start. I started my journey in local radio in Leicester for 3 years, as many others journalists have done. One way then of addressing this issue of provenance for future journalists is to expose your work to senior editors earlier.
Start offering yourself as a future potential employer and give them the chance to track you from local radio and television. I tell my students today to write that letter and follow up regularly. Your letter may go answered, but you’re increasing your provenance.
Foreign reporting gigs are seen as the crème of journalism. It’s a small club. Many might be qualified, but few will be chosen and “grand mothered” or “fathered” by a mentor.
Without any experience, you’ve no chance. So you need experience. But who’s going to give you a break? As Kelvin puts it “Give them a chance!” Otherwise recall Voila Davis’s powerful 2015 Emmy speech: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity”.
Opportunity! Some experts don’t believe in luck. It’s merely calculated opportunity. Yet it’s evident the outcome for two colleagues, one black and the other white, with equivalent experience often plays out differently.
To understand why, requires the hirer looking at one’s provenance, value, the next section and more e.g. spot talent.
Social, Cultural and Literary convention
Of journalism’s many descriptions, Professor Michael Schudson advances one of its more commonplace captured in this slide above. Journalism is a cultural construct, framed by literary and social conventions.
Those social and literary conventions are often framed within an homogenous grouping. Hence an unfamiliar surname, background, and the inability to see past biases and conventions resists any sense of fair action.
It is a construct, so, often it‘s framed by its own set of rules or guidelines that develop into conventions. Yet journalism is storytelling, and storytelling’s richness is derived from diversity. However , in practice storytellers within news tend to stick to the same stories.
Over the years, British execs have ebbed from altruism in the 80s, to equality in representative figures in the 90s, to diversity today and inclusion. The journalists of different backgrounds are there.
As a lecturer I see them; I have taught them, you’ve seen them. The question beyond the aforementioned is do you believe in fairness, equality, or that your politics as liberally minded is shaped too by correcting the status quo, that opportunities should be open to all, and that storytelling benefits from diversity, from different opinions putting their points forward, to eking out nuances and cognitive dissonances?
Does your hirer see culture as intrinsic to the job she or he is offering? Many don’t. So how can you change this? Re-education, submitting nuanced ideas, making the point again and again about the richness in story diversity.
That is not too far removed from what’s being fought for over in the US and the context for those inequalities is something reporters including black journalists can shed a light on — revealing themselves too as a Sushi chef.
All these in themselves are not the panacea per se, but help us see. To be at that top table requires a relentlessness, the use of your tribe network, a grandmother or father to help, how you might add value, and that stories aren’t often viewed as cultural. But could the latter be changing?
Since publishing this piece, I have interviewed Clive for a journal publication. I’ll post a couple of videos of that interview shortly
I specialise in Innovation and digital labs in journalism, International Journalism, AI and storytelling as a senior lecturer at Cardiff University.
I’m one of @Medium’s top 20 global writers in journalism and designated an expert in cinema journalism — recognised by several platforms and publications, such as Apple, Google, The Online Journalism Handbook; The Broadcast Journalism Handbook, The Documentary Handbook etc. You can find out more about me here.