News is ultimately subjective – if our political reporters are mostly white, then our democracy suffers
Illustration by Tracy Worrall
Although the diversity of Parliament has improved considerably in recent years, Anne Alexander remains one of a handful of BAME Lobby journalists. So why does political journalism fail to match the make-up of the very politicians it holds to account?
“Hey sister!” the MP said to me with a beaming smile, holding their hand up expectantly, ready to receive a high five. But they were left hanging, as I looked at them, quizzically, wondering if slapping hands in the air was an appropriate way for me, a journalist, to greet a Member of Parliament.
And then suddenly, the dawning on their face that I was not the person they thought I was.
And then my realisation as to who they almost certainly had mistaken me for.
Dawn Butler MP.
It was 2005, not long after the general election, and Butler was one of the new intake of Labour MPs.
We’re about the same age, same Caribbean heritage, similar size and had similar hair at the time. I have to accept it was an easy mistake to make.
Especially since there were very few women who looked like me or Butler at Parliament.
Butler had just become one of a grand total of 15 BAME MPs out of 646 members returned at that year’s general election.
And I was one of just five visibly ethnic minority journalists in the Lobby and wider Parliamentary Press Gallery, which currently has around 230 accredited journalists, based on its most up to date list.
Fifteen years on, Butler is now one of 63 BAME MPs, after the 2019 General Election delivered the most diverse House of Commons in history (not just in terms of ethnic mix, but also in terms of women and open LGBTQ representation) – four times more than in 2005.
Just under 10% of MPs are now BAME. They’re still under-represented if you consider the 14% of the population who identify as non-white, according to the 2011 census, but it is progress.
In the case of the Lobby, however, there has been no change.
I remain one of a handful of BAME Lobby journalists.
Having spoken and written about the lack of diversity in the Lobby and journalism more widely in recent months, I was struck by the fact that the political parties have managed to make more strides in terms of diverse representation in the past 20 years or so than the profession I am part of.
Black Britons…make up approximately 3% of the British population but just 0.2% of journalists
Obviously, an MP is a public figure funded by the state, and a journalist is normally a private figure, working mostly for commercial undertakings.
But both roles are an important part of our democracy.
I thought of the encounter with Butler’s colleague and wondered why political journalism continues to be left behind – and also what we are missing out on as a democracy due to this continuing lack of diversity.
Part of the problem may be that being in the Lobby is considered a senior job in journalism – and very few get to the top.
It normally takes years of hard work, covering general news before getting the chance to specialise in politics.
Then there is the competition for precious Lobby positions which don’t come up that often. And the reason why we have this effective bed blocking is because it’s an incredible privilege to be part of the Lobby, and Parliament is a very hard place to leave once you start working here.
Also, a major route into the Lobby has contracted somewhat with the Regional Lobby, which was once a huge force at Westminster, now much smaller, with some of the big regional newspapers, including my old one the Express and Star, no longer having a Westminster Lobby presence.
Apart from all of this, just getting into journalism in the first place is arguably more difficult now than it was when I first started out 25 years ago.
My local newspaper ran a trainee scheme, which meant someone like me, broke, and fresh out of university and afraid to build up any more debt, was paid to train as a journalist (the £5k fee to do a post-grad journalism training course was not something I could afford). Without this I would not have got into journalism at all.
And then we have to consider the unconscious bias that we all have, including the key people in charge of hiring and firing. Plus, the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalists in the UK report from 2016 said “Black Britons…make up approximately 3% of the British population but just 0.2% of journalists”. So there isn’t a huge base to choose from in the first place.
Political convenience may have helped boost representation amongst MPs in some circumstances (obviously MPs are not solely selected on the basis of their ethnicity – but some situations may have helped lean towards selecting people who closely resemble the makeup of their potential constituencies).
A cynic might note it was in the political interests of parties to field BAME Parliamentary candidates in certain seats with a high proportion of voters from ethnic minorities: in 2001 all three main parties put forward ethnic minority candidates in a parliamentary constituency – Bradford West – for the first time, so returning a BAME MP was guaranteed.
More generally though, many BAME politicians have been selected and won in seats which have a low proportion of ethnic minority voters, for example Adam Afriyie in Windsor.
As much as we like to think we are totally impartial as journalists, how we see and approach stories is influenced by our experiences
Particular initiatives such as David Cameron’s ‘A list’, aimed at boosting diversity generally in the party, helped return a couple of BAME MPs such as Sam Gyimah. And Labour’s more recent selection drive, in the run up to the 2019 election, helped return 41 BAME Labour MPs in total last year.
And what are we losing by this lack of diversity in the Lobby and more widely in political journalism?
Well, as much as we like to think we are totally impartial as journalists, how we see and approach stories is influenced by our experiences.
News ultimately is subjective.
My perspective on some issues and stories, as a Black woman from a working class background, will be different to that of a white man from a middleclass background.
Of course there is lots of common ground but there will be differences in focus. And also that drive to chase a story, to really dig down on an issue that you care about, will often be rooted in personal experience.
So in terms of the Lobby and diversity we have a long way to go. And as for the political parties, and getting MPs into electable seats, they’re getting there but it’s not quite worthy of a high five yet.
Anne Alexander is the senior political producer at Good Morning Britain.