Do They Mean Us? A lecture at the Three Faiths Forum about journalism

This is posted with kind permission of the Three Faiths Forum. (Links to video clips of my speech are on their website.) I spent much of February 28th at the National Liberal Club just off Embankment in London today — my first visit there since interviewing Baroness Floella Benjamin about social mobility, race and politics for The Independent last year. I was giving the annual lecture to the 3 Faiths Forum, which provides parliamentary mentoring to bright young undergraduates for a new generation of potential leaders. They asked some great questions after. I chose to entitle my talk about faith, politics and the media “Do They Mean Us?”. This is a shortened version of my talk.

In this lecture I want to talk about who news coverage excludes and why. I’ll look at how good and bad coverage works, what it means and how we can make it better.

The title comes from a TV show I enjoyed watching growing up, presented by the great Fleet Street editor Derek Jameson. (Jameson, incidently, is  a genuinely working class, self-made success, having worked his way up from a copy boy). Do They Mean Us? in the early 80s showed footage of foreign news reports about Britain for entertainment. I remember one from Iranian state TV reporting in sombre tones that Punk music was created by degenerate youths in a stable.

At the end of each show, Jameson would, in his strong accent, deliver the punchline.”Do they mean us? They surely do.”

What the programme laughed at was broadcasters’ prejudices; how they chose to ignore reality in favour of reinforcing propaganda or prejudices. I feel the question is relevant now. The question that we need to  ask ourselves in newscoverage and who and what gets covered is  who is normal? Who is main stream?

Danish embassy London protests

There has been a danger of reporting retreating to extremes, especially in pursuit of a quick and easy newsline. After 9/11 and the Danish embassy protests there was a period when Islamic radicals were getting a lot of airtime, at the expense of moderate, mainstream voices, but that’s changed. Though the recent row over Stephen Green of Christian Voice being asked to comment on Elton John’s adoption showed infotainment is still a danger.

Overall I will look at the pressure of the commissioning process a little later.

These are examples of  “Do they mean us” reporting:

A woman in a burkha jumping into a swimming pool. This is a story which was reported as fact by a number of tabloid newspapers. But it wasn’t true. The woman concerned was an American Muslim wearing a burkini swimming costume  more like a mini wetsuit. She had caused no scandal in the pool. It was only when The Guardian gave her a feature spread to tell the true story that the rather less sensational facts emerged.

A commentator on Thought for the Day talking about about food prices saying ”It comes as a surprise to us that people in India don’t just eat rice” . Well ,it depends who you mean by “us”, doesn’t it?


I saw this banner headline on a news stand. The true story was more complex. I personally wasn’t that bothered, as it seemed a parody of itself, along the lines of Freddy Starr Ate My Hamster. A pet must feature in truly special British tabloid headlines.  Interestingly, this was the story that got a senior journalist I know really annoyed. He actually sought me out to express his frustration at what he regarded as Islamophobia. But like a lot of journos, they don’t want to challenge it themselves. He actually wanted me to do it. No one wants to be labelled a minority campaigner. Because then you’re just a minority. Not a real journalist. Not One of  Us.

So where does the problem lie?

I speak broadly here across news organisations. Part it of lies in in the commissioning process. The problem is not the background of people, per se, but the refusal sometimes, to acknowledge that their relatively narrow social and gender backgrounds is not neutral. That they might need to commission and think outside their comfort zone, or or their range of experience. There is the temptation to rush out a story that other outlets seem to have and a consequent failure to independently investigate and do basic fact checking.

Now the reality is that British society is far more mixed and integrated than we realise. Everytime I go to Paris or Berlin, I come home to London and realise how much better things are. But then I know people of many different backgrounds.

I happen to be half Muslim, half Hindu, was educated in Catholic and Protestant schools, and married a man whose family are from Northern Ireland and who gladly left the religious and social divisions behind.

Dinner party commissioning was a fascinating phenomenon I first came across some years ago. It’s the result of senior journalists and senior figures in public life, or on the boards of charities or companies, knowing eachother socially and sharing stories.  And at Newsnight I got put on to follow up one such idea. It turned out to be a terrific story about the Aerobathon charity which had not been paying out to some of the smaller charities fundraising for it.  I uncovered wrongdoing and set off a Charity Commission enquiry. It was a major scoop.

But I think you can’t justify getting stories in such a way and then NOT seeking out a wider range of stories and voices from people who are not as well connected.

Diversity programmes: I remain ambivalent about these. In an interview I did for the Arte French/German culture channel about the British phenomenon of ethnic minority box ticking on forms, I expressed my concern that such forms could be a way of avoiding the real issue of promoting on genuine talent. That separate tracks, could ghettoise people from “underrepresented” backgrounds. The focus, in my view, should always be on recruiting from the widest pool of talent. As a result of that programme, which focussed on ITN, I found out that ITV news keeps very detailed data about every single voice/person who appears on the bulletins — from the presenters and interviewees, down to the vox pops in the street.

Now I think vox pops are important, but I don’t know that you necessarily need to monitor them formally. You just need to take an open approach. 2 years ago I did a film about a possible shortage in bananas, and a big price rise, because of a fungus wiping out much of the world’s crops. I went to do vox pops outside a supermarket. In inner London it’s not hard to get all races and genders. But one vox pop stuck out. I stopped a lady wearing a chador and asked her. She happened to be a white convert to Islam. And she gave a great answer which I used. It was a bit of an epiphany, when I found myself thinking, I  don’t think I’ve ever seen a veiled woman interviewed on the news except about Islam. It was I think, in hindsight, important example of how a small gesture can be part of a bigger more inclusive way of handling news and ordinary people.

More broadly there’s an interesting challenge in covering certain negative stories.

Sex trafficking is  a story which I think is hugely underreported. The facts of it are of course, harrowing. But it is happening more and more in Britain, because there are more men using prositution.

I sometimes think male journalists find it too harrowing, like a lot of violence against women, such as domestic violence or rape. But all women I know think about personal safety in a different way to men in our daily lives.

If there were to be a rail accident with a death at a level crossing, and then another a day later, I don’t think any news editor would think twice about trying to make a connection and looking for failures in the system – of inspection, of regulation, or funding. Most sexual crimes can be responsibly reported in the same way, looking at an offender’s criminal history and contact with the authorities. There is an issue about the mainstreaming of porn culture and its impact on younger and younger men, who are exposed to hardcore material very easily through the internet.

Once you start to look at news coverage for gender differences you quickly spot disconcerting inequalities. Just last week news coverage of Silvio Berlusconi being charged with corruption and sex with an underage girl saw many news organisations use pictures of the young woman in question, panning sexily up her long bare legs at a red carpet event. I could blame the Italian agency cameraman who probably shot it, but it wouldn’t have taken much thought to use a more modest and less sexy shot.

The long running row over fears about possible misuse (in the future) of the DNA  Database has been a major political row. I’ve interviewed Nick Clegg about it. The Government has just announced it’s planning to take innocent people off it.  But I remember when David Davis MP famously forced a bye-election about it, I was aware that there was a crucial perspective missing – that of  victims, especially women victims of unsolved rapes and murders; some of which were being solved years later thanks to the database. When I found out that the Ealing Vicarage rape survivor and victims’ campaigner, Jill Saward was standing against David Davis in defence of the DNA data base, I suggested we get on the News at Noon to talk about it. She made a compelling case for a universal DNA database, which left Nick Clegg stumped, when I put her idea to him at a Liberty conference.  You can watch my interview with Jill Saward on the Featured Videos page. The point is, the whole civil rights debate was in danger of being framed by a small minority of important male politicians.

There is much discussion about whether news rooms run “too much” crime, especially nasty domestic violence and murder. But I feel by connecting crimes to whether there have been failures in the criminal justice systems, or in funding of important policing units, like the one originally set up with great success to tackle sex trafficking, these stories can and should be reported in a relevant, not salacious way, with the potential to show the way to avoid such tragedies in future, not dwell on the suffering for the sake of it..

We had a programme the other night where, by a terrible coincidence, the only women on the programme apart from C4 News staff were  in reports on sex trafficking, and domestic murder, either as victims of friends and commentators. While male guests discussed the economy and the staffing of Mars Missions. This is why we need to think more carefully about representing all of “us” better and fairly.

On the day the Prime Minister was trying to relaunch the Big Society I suggested getting on the Homesstart charity – which makes invisible savings to the state everyday, as women volunteers help other vulnerable mothers cope. It was quite an interesting contrast to see the views of the charity’s volunteers and users, and then the coincidentally all male and very affluent ministers making centralised decisions about cuts.  The viewer had the opportunity to see that for themselves and draw their own conclusions.


We journalists should show more humility and less arrogance. Not assume everyone is like “us”. We should educate ourselves about major religions, cultures, disabilities and lifestyles of our fellow citizens. We should not  sacrifice judgement or journalistic impartiality, but nor should we be afraid to seek advice from people who know more than we do. We should think more honestly about whether we really hire and commission from outside our social circles and comfort zones.

We should look constantly for fresh voices, especially younger voices, despite the pressures of the news deadline.

In return what can viewers and organisations do? You can contact news organisations to complain and praise coverage. It does get noticed. You can say yes to requests when you can. But be frank about what you are comfortable doing.  Be aware that news organisations are  not there to be an uncritical advert for you. Good journalism is impartial. Do you have something relevant to offer on that story?

I found the Forced Marriage Unit operates on a great principle: Focussed on the law, on basic equality and rights of every British citizen they are focussed on getting you out of nasty situations; not on what your religion or gender or culture is.

Overall, good journalists try to integrate a range of representative voices into all kinds of stories that fully reflect British society and concerns; so there isn’t an unacknowledged them and us. On my personal wish list: We need more joined up coverage of violent crime — particularly sexual crime;  more comprehensive coverage of science, more women interviewed on science and business, more young people talking about education, not being talked about primarily in regard to chucking fire extinguishers off buildings.

And that’s why asking a Muslim woman about bananas actually was important.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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