Trigger warning: Racism and discrimination


It’s been hard, over the last few days, to shake off the overwhelming fear and grief of war. Many of us have upped our news intake, turning to 24-hour rolling coverage for updates on an invasion that has escalated far faster than the world expected. We tune in seeking education. Facts. Perhaps even some comfort and hope from the strength of the Ukrainian resistance. Yet what we are being met with all too often instead is abject racism.


“They seem so like us,” mused The Telegraph’s Daniel Hannan. “That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”


“To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria,” explained NBC news correspondent Kelly Cobiella. “These are refugees from Ukraine. They’re Christians. They’re white. They’re very similar [to us].”


Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, told the BBC: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed”.


Image: Beata Zawrzel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


Other commentators were a little more circumspect. It was not a similarity to “us” – though we will return to this idea shortly ­– that made this conflict more shocking, more tragic, than the many others that have plagued our lifetime. Instead, it was proximity or similarity of lifestyle – the cars people drive, the clothes that they wear or the jobs that they do – that made those fleeing apparently more relatable.


“What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed,” mused Al Jazeera English’s Peter Dobbie. “These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”


“We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin,” Philippe Corbe of France’s BFM TV explained. “We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”


And then there was the clip that went viral. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades, you know?” pondered CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata. “This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”


A number of the journalists I’m quoting here have gone on to apologise for their choice of words. Their reflection is welcome. But the idea that these missteps are something new, or the result of momentary lapses of judgment amid the stress of war, is deeply offensive.


Because while the issue, on the surface, may be a clumsy choice of words, the real problem lies in the ingrained thinking behind the choice. The media is supposed to serve us all. Yet as is now abundantly clear, when those at the top of western media say “us”, they mean white people.


Racial imbalance


“After a certain time working in this field, you come to expect a full range of clumsy, offensive, rude, xenophobic and racist language,” sighs Selina Hales, founder of Scotland’s Refuweegee charity. “You know it’s going to happen. It’s predictable. It’s expected. And that’s because we’re simply not dealing with the systemic racism that exists within this country, within this nation, within Europe and across the world.”


Selina Hales and members of the Refuweegee community.
Image: Emily MacInnes


Hales says despite the huge demand for commentary on immigration issues in recent months, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a mainstream media outlet where I’ve not had to call out their narrative, by which I mean their racism, or their desire to portray people seeking asylum within their own ‘ideal’ of what a refugee should or should not be. It’s always being framed as the ‘poor refugee’, the ‘grateful refugee’ or the ‘sad and vulnerable refugee’, instead of just talking about people. And the difference we’re seeing now is that these journalists can just talk about people – because that’s how they see white European refugees.


“Now, we’re talking about forcible displacement as if it’s new. But it’s not new. We have thousands of refugees living in Scotland who have direct experience of what people in Ukraine are going through, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the way we portray them is completely different depending on where they are from. We saw it with Syria. We saw it with Afghanistan. And the impact doesn’t end with the media. The media then directs society’s narrative. It shapes the way that our communities see and speak of people from those countries.”


In short, what the media choses to cover, and who it chooses to cover it, matters.


Systemic segregation


In 2021, the Reuters Institute analysed the editorial workforce of the top twenty on- and offline news outlets in key global news media markets. Researchers found just 5% of top editors across the UK, USA, Brazil and Germany were non-white, compared to 30% of the population. Worse, broken down further, in the UK and Germany there were no non-white editors in chief at any of the outlets studied. None. The people setting our news agenda as recently as last year were entirely white.


Further, in the UK and Germany, the share of internet news users who say that they read news from at least one major outlet with a non-white top editor was 0%. Zero.


Image: Unsplash


Which makes it even more extraordinary to consider that five months after the Reuters’ research was published, the then-director of Britain’s Society of Editors, Ian Murray, claimed British media was “most certainly not racist”. The subsequent row led to Murray’s resignation and when appointed, his successor, Dawn Alford, formally retracted his claims ­– but only while still insisting that the UK media “has a proud record of calling out racism”.


“We also acknowledge the concerns of journalists of colour who have discussed with us issues they have experienced,” she added, “whether those problems are due to a lack of diversity in their workplace, career progression to senior levels, or facing hurdles in reporting stories and shaping the news agenda.”


It will be interesting to see how many journalists of colour were promoted or found it easier to shape the news agenda as a result of that row – six months on, updated figures are not yet available. It is worth noting, however, that the Reuters study reported no increase in diversity and inclusion in 2021 when compared to analysis from 2020.


Reality and responsibility


While the jury remains out on whether progress is being made in the corner offices of British newsrooms, it is comforting to see the speed and scale of the backlash against the white supremacy and western exceptionalism on display in coverage from Ukraine this week. Yet it is also important to acknowledge that it has taken the emergence of a new war in Europe to bring about this backlash, when the issue has been staring us in the face so starkly for so very long.


Yes, a direct line can be drawn between the lack of diversity at the top of Britain’s media outlets and the coverage we see today. But it could also be drawn to the lack of attention afforded to safety issues at Grenfell Tower in the months prior to 2017’s tragic fire. To discrepancies in the language we use around different forms of terrorism. To the lack of understanding of ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen, South Sudan or Myanmar. To the way racial disparities in Covid death figures and vaccine uptake have been covered in the press.


Image: James Eades/Unsplash


I say all this in the full awareness that I, too, am a white editor working in the British media – and that some will ask whether I am the person who should be writing this at all.


But while The Flock, as a rule, will always try to assign stories to those with lived experience where appropriate, now is not the time to ask our Black and brown peers to delve further into their own trauma. Compartmentalising our teams, asking non-white writers to only explore issues of race while their white colleagues are afforded the joy of variety, is not the solution either. Progress will be a lot harder and more confronting to come by than that.


Because the solution lies in recognising that this is a white people problem. It is up to white people to own their own racism and to call it out in their peers. And that starts with rethinking who we include when we use the word “us”.


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