Let’s Talk Diversity in Sports Journalism…

…There is none

by Amit Singh

The statistics on BAME participation in the media industry are shocking. As Lenny Henry commented, the situation has ‘deteriorated badly’  with the number of BAME people working within the UK television industry falling by 30.9% between 2006 and 2012. .

Some news outlets such as Channel 4 are trying to combat this issue. They have set a target to have 20% of their staff from BAME backgrounds by 2020 and also 6% from LGBTQ backgrounds. This at least acknowledges the problem, even if it won’t solve the structural issues that cause the problems.
There are now more schemes to try and get people from diverse backgrounds into the media industry. But, one section of the media that is lagging grossly behind is sports, football in this instance, which has a glaring diversity problem.

One only has to look as far as Sky Sports’ flagship Sunday morning show Sunday Supplement, hosted by The Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton. The premise of the show is that Ashton sits around a table (over some croissants and orange juice) with three other leading football writers to discuss the weekend’s big stories. All that is fine but the panel is almost always male and almost exclusively white.

I actually tweeted Neil Ashton to ask for his thoughts on why they so rarely have anyone who is not a white man on the show, or in this case why there are so few appearances from those who have a BAME background. Neil didn’t reply. Some of my followers did.
One tweeter eloquently and rather defensively replied:

As if my concern was meaningless and about mere tokenism. It is however a serious concern, especially when there are so often issues of race and gender effecting the game.

These same, white, male journalists sat around the table a few months ago to ponder why there were so few managers or coaches from BAME backgrounds in the game, without any sense of irony. We had a twenty minute segment of the show when four white male journalists tried to come up with solutions to this problem. As Sachin Nakrani, a sports writer of South Asian descent who works for the Guardian, commented to me, it was ‘almost hilariously ironic to see four white men discuss this; four white men from an industry severely lacking in non-white faces’.

The only prominent BAME journalist who I can recall being on the show is Darren Lewis, who is a football writer for the Mirror. The problem is that the show is clearly reflective of the football writing industry as a whole. Or at least the mainstream football writing community. If one goes on to the websites of the major publications it is very evident. Nakrani does not believe this is because of racism within the industry, though; citing his own experience, he told me:

‘I was hired by the Guardian in 2007 from hundreds of other candidates – my bosses could quite easily have hired someone else (ie a white person) with more experience, but they gave me a chance. And in the past seven-and-a-bit years I’ve been given loads of great opportunities here.’

That being said there is still a major issue with a lack of non-white football writers and sports writers generally. It is still uncomfortable when the same white journalists try to dissect issues such as the Luis Suarez race-row. The same largely male and overwhelmingly white journalists helped rehabilitate Suarez by awarding him the highly esteemed Football Writers Player of the Year Award at the end of the 2013-14 season. This was in spite of the fact that the FA charged Suarez for racially abusing former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. But a few goals and all is forgotten. Perhaps all might not have been forgotten if writers from a BAME background had a bigger voice in the football writing media.

How can we expect, white, sometimes privileged males to understand the nuances of why there are so few South Asian’s playing football in the UK? This isn’t to say they shouldn’t cover these themes. They should. But a huge part of the problem is that they are not from these communities, they have never suffered racism, so they simply cannot relate. It’s easy for a white journalist to say that Patrice Evra misinterpreted Luis Suarez, but they have never felt the hate that is associated with racist slurs, so they are simply unqualified to comment on the issue. The media have an important role in setting the narrative here and the general public are easily influenced by the way stories are told.

sunday-supplement-supplement-ashton_3153019But even aside from that when the Sunday Supplement is white and male every single week it sends out a negative message that the show is for white men and that football is for white men. It is not. We have a huge number of black footballers in the UK and an ever growing women’s game which is chronically under-represented in the mainstream. It doesn’t send out a positive message to people who are not white men, who want to get into football writing. It fails to appreciate the cultural and footballing contribution made by minority communities to football as a whole and it also serves to produce a narrative that doesn’t capture the importance or subtleties of race related issues, such as Malky Mackay’s racism, homophobia and sexism (which astonishingly he is likely to be cleared of).

‘It’s a case of encouraging people from as many backgrounds as possible to focus on a career in sports journalism and opening up the channels for those people to get into the industry. It’s far too much of a closed shop at the moment.’

In terms of changing the narrative media outlets need to recognize that this is an issue and make a more concerted effort to get more ethnic minority and female sports writers on board. They need to, as Nakrani notes, open the shop a little bit. This also helps to improve the message that they are sending out, by providing a different lens and in theory, providing a more nuanced and accurate view on issues relating to race or gender. Whilst it is important for journalists on Sunday Supplement to muse over why there are so few black coaches and managers, they should also spend more time thinking about why there are so few BAME writers on their own sports desks, because football has a major diversity problem throughout the game.

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Amit Singh is the editor and founder of Think Football and also works on a number of  human rights based projects. He occasionally dabbles in freelance journalism writing about race, politics and also football. Follow him on Twitter @asingh11189

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Categories: Amit Singh, Media, Sports

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