It’s 8:45 on a Saturday night, and I’ve had a pint. Me and my friends are all talking over each other – dissecting someone’s breakup, what tattoos we want, and where we’re going to go out dancing later. Suddenly, my phone screen lights up: ‘No Caller ID.’
When I pick up, I can’t hear the voice on the other end over the roar of the pub’s neighbouring tables – so I slip out the sticky front door and into the equally rowdy smokers’ area. Yes, I can hear you now. It’s a producer at the BBC. Someone has said something racist. Do I want to come on the show?
For journalists of colour, this is a pretty common occurrence – for me, it happens at least once a week, and when Meghan Markle has said or done something ‘controversial’, up to three or four times a day. Much of my professional life is spent critiquing the media for its lack of coverage on race, so when I first started getting these calls, they felt like a godsend. An opportunity to have my voice heard and to platform the perspectives of my community on national radio or television? How could I turn them down? But as time has gone on, I’ve had a range of experiences with these platforms that have led me to become less enthusiastic.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. In the last few months, I’ve spoken to numerous people of colour who feel jaded and cynical about broadcast race ‘debates’, and momentarily freeze when they see that tell-tale ‘No Caller ID’. In my conversations with these other journalists and activists of colour, I uncovered reasons why they are feeling more and more sceptical about the effectiveness of the format.
First, there’s the topics, which can feel boring, repetitive and reductive. So often race debates follow popular or sensationalised issues, such as ‘culture wars’, ‘blunders’ or, of course, the royals. Increasingly, I and a number of pundits I spoke to have started to feel that when it comes to structural and systemic racism, eg. prisons, migration or austerity (to name just a few), these debates either aren’t being platformed or we’re not given access to them when they are. So, when there’s a story on Stormzy being accused of being ‘racist’ or a fashion brand selling golliwogs, many charities, campaigners and publications such as gal-dem (where I work) face difficult decisions about whether it’s worth weighing in. Only 12 per cent of people who work in broadcast are from ethnic minority backgrounds, so here the main issue may be that we are not being allowed to set the agenda.
Then there’s the idea of ‘debate’ being the most suitable format for a discussion on race. I’d argue that framing racism as up for debate follows a dangerous rationale – when I have found myself on BBC radio discussing Meghan Markle, it’s not usually alongside a panel of other people of colour or anti-racists. Sometimes, a panel of actively racist commentators – other times, just people who have never experienced racism. Either way, this means the odds are stacked against the person of colour being inserted into the conversation; it becomes about fighting your corner and ‘proving’ that racism exists to a sceptical panel of people with no real understanding of what racism looks like.
The potential outcomes of this can be catastrophic. ‘There is often a lot of men shouting,’ Kim McIntosh, a former broadcast panel regular, told me last year. ‘You feel mentally drained after it’s finished and then have to go back to your life or your trolls. And you probably did it for free.’ Kim’s point about pay is important – most pundits aren’t made aware that there is a fee available for their work. Meanwhile, feeling exhausted and questioning whether it was worth it is a common experience after it’s all over. A few particularly painful examples of this have done the rounds on social media recently, like when Amna Saleem was reduced to tears on BBC Scotland in a debate about Harry and Meghan’s departure. As Amna’s words catch in her throat while trying to explain racism to a panel of three white people, the takeaway feels clear: racism should not be up for debate.
There can also be issues with treatment from producers. My most recent Saturday night chat with the BBC was cordial (I declined, and the producer said that this was fine), but I have had altercations that have felt uncomfortable, pressurising and wholly exploitative. A couple of months ago, I had a BBC producer call me at 7am, shortly before a debate on Naga Munchetty, and he pushed me to go live on the spot. I told him that I was half-asleep and wouldn’t be able to, but he kept insisting anyway. If producers really cared about having a fair and respectful conversation about racism, then why would pundits – who are offering up their time and labour to talk about racial trauma to a national audience – be treated so poorly?
I decided to speak to a few producers to find out. A figure who works at the BBC told me that there often wasn’t enough thought, care or analysis on the production side of things. ‘I don’t know if this is because editors don’t care, or simply don’t understand the nuances of the story well enough,’ he said. ‘Once, I remember just being told: ‘We need someone black.’’ He revealed that the back end of the BBC’s contributor system is characterised by keyword searches and tags – ie. you can type in ‘race’, ‘left-wing’ or ‘millennial’ to pull up the contact details of someone like me. It was upsetting to hear the racialised and simplistic inner workings of the BBC’s system so candidly, but I can’t say I was surprised, given the way I had been treated by producers: as a talking head who was there to bleat out one side of a ‘debate’ – even at times when I was literally half-asleep.
Addressing deep-rooted issues found across broadcasting when it comes to race will be no easy feat. Without more people of colour working at broadcasters, issues relating to topics and framing of debates, and treatment of speakers, will not change any time soon.
People of colour who find themselves in the pundit cycle need to ask very personal questions about whether it is worth the time and energy. Some of my interviewees said they had started weighing things up more carefully when they received once-anticipated, now-dreaded calls from broadcasters, thinking about whether they would feel empowered or disillusioned after a debate, and considering the potential they had actually to change people’s minds.
I now have a list of questions I ask producers before I’ll go near a microphone, including: ‘Is there a panel?’, ‘Who is on it?’, ‘How long will I be allowed to speak?’, and, importantly, ‘Is there a fee?’. I ask these questions to decrease the likelihood that I’ll face racism on TV and radio debates. Now, it’s time for broadcasters to admit that they have some questions to ask themselves too.
The writer is opinions editor at gal-dem and writes for HuffPost, The Guardian and The Observer.