OPINION
04/12/2019 17:29 GMT | Updated 04/12/2019 17:33 GMT

Journalism's Lack Of Diversity Poses A Serious Threat To Democracy

Award entries must seek to redress structural imbalances by demanding a representative spread of applicants, PressPad founder Olivia Crellin writes.

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Close-Up Of Microphone Against Journalists

This year’s British Journalism Awards shortlist for political journalist of the year contained more men called John than women. It was a fact that soon saw the list go viral within journalism circles prompting cries of outrage, disappointment and disbelief. 

The Press Gazette was quick to defend its shortlist, tweeting that of the 25 submitted entries for political journalism, “eight included female journalists. Two of these have been shortlisted.” While a 25% success rate alone is damning, the fact that only slightly more than 30% of the entrants were female suggests the list is symptomatic of a problem embedded much more deeply within the talent pipeline. 

I have first-hand experience of dipping into my own staff pay package to foot the entry fees for a media award. It was vindicating to be shortlisted alongside episodes produced by entire teams for Radio 4′s Women’s Hour and PM, and gratifying that my belief in myself had trumped my boss’ assertion that there was no budget for the entry. But this belief had still cost me £210 of my own money. 

It’s impossible to separate issues of gender discrimination and conversations about money because at the root of both is the subjectiveness of what is considered valuable. Take for example the equal pay case of Samira Ahmed, who had a bigger audience but smaller salary than Jeremy Vine – by a multiple of seven. “Well, that’s because Jeremy Vine has that star quality – that’s what he’s paid for,” one male journalist acquaintance put forward. “According to whom?” came my response. Conversations about what is valuable go on throughout organisations, from decisions on who to promote to what story ideas are worth commissioning and allocating resources to.

The women whose worth is not recognised are the ones not paid the salary they deserve and – perhaps in the case of these awards – not considered worth the entry fee. It’s a trend that eventually sees many women leave staff positions and go freelance. Anna Codrea-Rado, of the wildly popular Professional Freelancer newsletter, wrote back in July for Refinery29 that the pivot to freelance is a feminist issue, citing the huge increase in female freelancers of all professions as proof that the majority of work environments and systems still don’t work for women.

Many of these conversations about the worth of stories or individuals will remain invisible to most, which is why public acknowledgement of talent and good work is so vital to get right. 

Even when that happens, success seems short-lived, as joint-winner of this year’s booker prize pointed out. BBC News referred to Bernardine Evaristo, author of GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER, and the joint recipient of the prize alongside Margaret Atwood as “another author”, prompting Evaristo to tweet: “How quickly & casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks.”

If competitions don’t seek to redress structural and societal imbalances by demanding a representative spread of applicants, men, white people, the able-bodied and the privileged will continue to get a head start in the race to the top. How unfair is that? 

And it’s not just unfair, it is also dangerous for our democracy.

If competitions like this one fail to attract deserving applicants – and organisations fail to take an active role in putting forward their brightest and best – then these same prizes will soon fail to carry any relevance. Already, just 24 hours after this shortlist went viral, an alternative prize just for women has been revived.

It speaks to the diminishing relevance and trust in the press as a whole, a trend many only woke up to in June 2016, blind-sided by Brexit, but which has been hammered home by events ever since from the reporting on Grenfell to the way the BBC handled Naga Munchetty’s comments on Trump and now the current election coverage. 

As a white, middle-class journalist with a private school education and degrees from Cambridge and Columbia universities, I’ve spent the last 18 months delving into this issue in the hope to help those whose lack of privilege means they are too busy fighting the discrimination first-hand to change it. I came up with the idea of PressPad, an award-winning social enterprise, which matches young people who have work experience placements or internships with senior journalists who have a spare room and also offer mentoring. 

In my role, I’ve spoken to many of those at the top of our media institutions and I can see we are experiencing somewhat of a sea-change in the recognition of the importance of diversity. Editors know it is no longer a “nice-to-have extra”, which can be solved through tokenism or the odd diversity hire here or talent scheme there. It is a necessary business imperative if their publications are to produce content reflective of and in service to their audience, the British public. Bosses are looking for solutions, like PressPad, to convert the desire for diversity into a reality. The inclusion of a free-to-enter category for best freelancer in next year’s British Journalism Awards show that change can come quickly when pressed for. 

While I think the natural competitiveness of our industry sees us quite some way from the collaborative spirit of this year’s Turner Prize nominees, who announced today they would share the prestigious art award, it’s quickly becoming clear that diversity should not be considered a means to an end but a prize in itself from which the best work will come. 

Olivia Crellin is a BBC journalist and founder of PressPad, which is currently crowdfunding for £30,000.