The Oxbridge Mafia

by Lee Pinkerton

Reginald D. Hunter - no stranger to the 'n-word'

Reginald D. Hunter

Earlier this year the Today programme reported the story of a performance by Black comedian Reginald D. Hunter at the Professional Footballers’ Association’s annual awards dinner.  Hunter is known for using the ‘n-word’ in his comedy routines, and this night’s performance was no exception.

This was particular embarrassing for the PFA as they have been fighting the battle against racial abuse in the game for some years now, not least in their promotion of the ‘Lets Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign.  Now the use of the n-word is a contentious issue. I have previously said on my blog I feel that white people should never use the word in any circumstance, but I acknowledge that many African-Americans reserve the right to use the term in an attempt to reclaim it. But this post is not about who or when it is appropriate to use that word.  What got my back up is who the Today programme thought was qualified to discuss the issue. The best participants for the debate would have the Black PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle and Reginald Hunter himself.  But no such luck.  If they were unavailable then how about a representative from the ‘Kick it  Out’ campaign, or a Black ex-footballer like John Barnes who experienced having this term shouted at them from the terraces? No?  Well how about a Black comedian? No, to debate this sensitive issue the Today programme chose white comedian Marcus Brigstocke and white comedienne  Rhona Cameron. So on BBC Radio’s flagship news programme we have the spectacle of three white people, none of whom have ever been on the receiving end of that term, discussing in which (comedic) circumstances it is allowable to use it.  Could no-one on the production team see what was wrong with this picture? They really couldn’t find anyone more suitable – no Black comedian, no anti-racist campaigner, no one?  Did they try and fail or could they just not be bothered?

Marcus Brigstocke -surely not the best person for the job?

Marcus Brigstocke -surely not the best person for the job?

The anomaly was made all the more stark by the fact that not one but three Black comedians had featured on this same station’s airwaves just the night before!  Felix Dexter is a regular feature on the comedy series ’Down The Line’ (Wednesdays at 6pm) and both Nathan Canton and Curtis Walker appeared on the late night radio sit-com Can’t Tell Nathan Caton Nothing (Wednesdays at 11pm). Is it possible that a Black comedian can appear on Radio 4 and yet no Today programme researchers can get hold of their phone numbers?  Or maybe Black comedians don’t get up early enough to appear on Today.  (The BBC must think that all Black people keep vampire hours, as any show with/for us seems to be broadcast after 11pm!)

Let me restate, this blog-post is not about the ‘n-word’, it is about the BBC’s attitude to diversity.  It’s now over a decade since the BBC’s then Director General Greg Dyke declared that the BBC was ‘hideously white’.

Since then little has changed in terms of its employment practices.  Back in 1997 when I worked for a brief period in the Radio 1 press office, there were only two other Black men in the building – one fixed the computers and the other one was the security guard. And this was hip and trendy Radio 1. Imagine what it was like at stuffy Radios 3 and 4?  Whiter than a snow storm! And though the BBC pay lip-service to increasing the diversity of their work-force, things don’t seem to be changing.  Even the ‘institutionally racist’ Metropolitan Police are doing better, (at least they let in working-class whites) and this lack of respect on the Today programme shows why.  The producers, presenters and execs continue to recruit from their tight little circle of white, middle-class Oxbridge cronies, even when they are debating Black issues! (UpdateMishal Husain is joining the Today programme – but does it need a more radical overhaul?)

Jo Johnson and David Cameron - 'Eton Mafia', 'Old School tie', 'Jobs for the boys', call it what you want, it adds up to the same thing.

Jo Johnson and David Cameron – ‘Eton Mafia’, ‘Old School tie’, ‘Jobs for the boys’, call it what you want, it adds up to the same thing.

It is the same situation in many institutions, not least our own government. Witness in April, the appointment of Jo Johnson as the head of the Number 10 Policy Unit. Mr Johnson, like Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne, and so many in the Tory cabinet is an old Etonian, Oxbridge graduate and former member of the infamous Bullingdon drinking club.  Oh, and co-incidentally he’s also the younger brother of London Mayor Boris Johnson.  David Cameron dismissed accusations of cronyism, arguing that he’s only hiring the best brains for the job.  But can’t he see how bad it looks?  This small band of white, middle-class, public-school boys dominate our government, our judiciary and our media, and it seems no-one outside of their clique can get a look in.  They not only control our parliament, but also our airwaves. They not only make the laws, but also set the political and news agenda.  From the outside, it looks like if you’re Black and/or working class the only way you can get a full-time job at Broadcasting House or the Houses of Parliament, is if your pushing a mop or checking security passes.

In closing I would like to remind our heads of government, and those at the BBC, of the words of an old song by Billy Paul.

Somebody’s knocking on the door, somebody’s ringing the bell,/ Do me a favour, open the door, and let ‘em in.”

If you’d like to read more about the issues raised in this article, check out my new book ‘The Problem With Black Men’ available now on Amazon.

Lee Pinkerton was born in London, the child of Jamaican and Guyanese immigrants. After studying Sociology and Psychology at University he spent the 90s as a music journalist, first as a freelancer for magazines such as Mix Mag, Echoes, and Hip-Hop Connection and then as the Arts Editor for ‘Britain’s Best Black newspaper’- The Voice.
In addition to this he also wrote a book the Many Faces of Michael Jackson published in 1997.
His latest book The Problem With Black Men examines the causes of the social problems facing Black men in Britain and America today.
He can currently be heard as a regular on-air contributor to the ‘ACE show’ on BBC Radio Derby and his political polemics and cultural criticism can be read on the blog-site The Black Watch and his daily musings on Twitter @_Runawayslave.

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12 replies

  1. Brilliant article. The Oxbridge Mafia is an apt term to describe the mindset behind the BBC providing 3 white people with a platform to discuss the contemporary offensiveness of the the n-word. Why are we not surprised that the BBC saw no problem worth addressing?

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  2. Great article Lee.
    Of course you are right, the media’s lack of diversity is shocking.
    For years we’ve heard that black people simple don’t want to be journalists and that the papers have tried and failed to recruit a more diverse workforce.
    You and I both know this is just lazy.
    When an editor has space for a new writer, they ask their existing staff who they know and unsurprisingly, they get a load of new recruits who look just like their old recruits.
    We’ve talked about this before, and I’m still convinced this is more about class than race.
    I’m not sure how many working class white people get to work on papers either. Anecdotally, I don’t remember seeing many in my time on Fleet Street.
    Looking at how many excellent writers are already part of Media Diversity UK shows just what a fallacy the ‘black writers are hard to find’ argument is.
    Keep it up and I can’t wait to read your book.
    Take care

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  3. I agree with you Lee. It’s terrible they couldn’t find a black comedian/enne. Awful. Could part of the problem be that the people who should be talking don’t want to talk to what they perceive as a hostile media? We need to make the media more inclusive across the board.

    The net effect being that people wouldn’t be talking about us – we’d be talking about ourselves.

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  4. Heya Rose-Anna

    I understand where you are coming from but I think you have misunderstood me. I believe that the “n” word should not be used by anyone, black or white.

    I completely believe in equality, and if you do, then you should see that racism starts by allowing one group of people to be allowed or not allowed to do something.

    I can’t see how allowing one group of people to say a word, an admittedly volatile word, is equality in any measure.

    If I said to you that only white people could use a certain word and that if black people said it they could be punished socially and even criminally. I imagine you and most others would be outraged and fairly so.

    I understand your point that race should not be ignored and it is very good point but I believe it should not be used to justify an action that is wrong. Especially wrong for some people and not for others.

    Your reply came across a little patronising. I’m sure it is me inferring not you implying but I do strongly believe in equality for all.

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    • I don’t doubt your commitment to equality at all. Sorry for my patronising tone, but I still disagree with you. Please could we continue this conversation elsewhere to allow other people space to engage with the article? On my blog or through Facebook 🙂

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  5. I think where you say that the “n” word should only be allowed to be used by black people is completely wrong.

    What you are saying is that based on the colour of a persons skin it should dictate whether or not they can do something. Well surely that is the definition of racism.

    Although in the broader context of you post I do agree, there should definitely have been a black person on the panel.

    I also agree that while I find the use of the word in a derogatory manner vile and unacceptable I will perhaps never be able to, being white, fully understand it’s charged meaning when directed at someone.

    Though one other slight point of disagreement, if you can call it that, maybe a nuanced point is that while the voice of the media is mainly white. The real problem is money, moreover rich people influencing the media.

    There is a common tactic, I believe, by all government of divide and rule. People blame foreigners for taking jobs not bosses paying low unlivable wages. Black people for crime rather than poverty and the lack of opportunity. The middle class blame the poor for their taxes rather than politicians wasting it on wars.

    I think if everyone looked to the top and not around them on the eco-social scale things might get better.

    Sorry for rambling a bit there, I enjoyed the post on the whole

    cheers

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    • Hi Rob,

      You seem to be saying in several ways that we should ignore race. In fact, this is racist because it is ignoring the history of white supremacy, slavery and colonisation, and also the persistent structural inequalities that still exist and put people of colour at a disadvantage in ago many ways. This links to the poverty you mentioned. If you believe in equality, I think you should read about this a bit more, then you might see why the race of the person speaking really does Matter when it comes to racial slurs.

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  6. The incident described at the beginning is so enraging. At a risk of accusations of doing a classic white feminist derail, I wonder if you know the story of the inception of The Women’s Room (platform for & database of women experts for the media) – the two founders heard 3 men discussing breast cancer on the radio, one of whom was asked to imagine he was a woman. The presenter apologised for the all-man panel and said ‘we were unable to find a female breast cancer expert’. Obviously underwhelmed, the two women decided to set up their org so that shoddy excuse would never wash again.

    This incident is much worse however, as there was apparently no awareness that it was inappropriate not to have black commentators, on a much more sensitive issue. In relation to the n-word, I recently read this brilliant comment somewhere: ‘white people ought to accept that there’s at least one thing black people can do that they can’t’. Telling black people whether or not they can use it… argh! It’s such an obvious STFU white people moment, Brigstoke & Cameron should be ashamed.

    So, it’s a great thing that Media Diversity is here, and I hope the media hears the word that white commentators on black issues is just not acceptable. Don’t even THINK about TRYING to tell us ‘we couldn’t find a Writer of Colour!’

    PS I’ve bookmarked your book – look forward to reading = )

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