By Lianne Kolirin
Journalists and newsrooms must do more to reflect the nature and concerns of Britain’s many diverse communities, says Bristol’s Labour mayor. Marvin Rees was addressing the Creating Connections hosted by the Religion Media Centre in his city last week.
Mr Rees, who was was elected to the role in May 2016, said: “I was elected the same day as Sadiq [Khan, mayor of London]. Sadiq got in as the first Muslim mayor in Europe and I was the first mayor of black African heritage.”
He added: “You can no more talk about me without taking into account my racial identity and my ethnic heritage, than you can talk about me without bones. It’s what I am.”
The mayor calls his birthplace a “city of hope” and his aim is “building a fairer, more inclusive world”, according to Bristol city council’s official website.
“I would be wary to describe myself as a leader but at the same time I have to recognise I am,” he told the gathering at City Hall. “My job is to help to create the conditions within which good human relationships and community and justice is more possible.
“I cannot guarantee it — there are so many determinants of what happens in our lives that are outside of my control,” he said, giving as examples, the health service, the criminal justice system, migration and climate change.
Nevertheless, he recognised that he had influence and the power to help to bring about change. He said it was important to acknowledge that the lives of Bristol’s residents were impacted not only by what was going on in their city, but thousands of miles away too. Hurricanes in the Caribbean, floods in Pakistan and hunger in east Africa are not just foreign issues, he said, but impacted on Bristol citizens who had families in those areas so should be “first-order concerns”, he said.
While he and his administration were doing what they could to support the city’s diverse population, Rees argued that journalists also had a role to play. “It is a challenge for the profession because, let’s be frank about it, media is one of the most race and class elitist professions in the country,” he said. “The newsrooms do not reflect the multiculturalism of our cities, the multiple worldviews of our city.”
He added: “I think a lack of diversity, particularly at a local level, has stunted the opportunities that people would ordinarily have to get into national journalism … because often the pathway is through local press, local radio, local TV,” he said, adding that it “costs the profession”.
Recalling his own brief experience as a journalist with Radio Bristol, he said: “I was passionate about that kind of journalism — the voice of the voiceless, stories not told, new angles on stories that no one had thought about.”
Also during the day, the gathering heard from Ed Pawson, deputy chairman of the Religious Education Council, who gave a presentation about the religious landscape of Bristol and the southwest.
Meanwhile, representatives from the communities who attended had the chance throughout the afternoon to mingle and discuss their stories with journalists, as well as networking with new contacts. There were stories about a Muslim environment campaign group which promoted the installation of water fountains in mosques to cut down on the use of plastic bottles; the New Room, a Methodist museum, chapel and meeting place, which has a display of letters from the movement’s founder, John Wesley, campaigning against the slave trade; and a multifaith trail, where people visit places of worship of the many faith groups represented in Bristol.
The challenges for the media in this vibrant, diverse city, highlighted by the mayor at the start of the event, were raised again later in the day during a media panel session that included representatives from print and broadcast media.
When questioned on this issue of representation, Matt Pick, broadcast co-ordinator for BBC Bristol, said: “When you’re young and you first come into a newsroom it can be quite daunting and intimidating. I can only imagine what it’s like to walk into a newsroom when no one else looks like you or has the same life experiences as you.”
Mr Pick said that he thought that the BBC was “in a better place”, with many young people having joined from different backgrounds recently, but added: “I think there are a lot of communities across the city of Bristol that are not reflected in our newsroom at the moment.”
While the panel did their best to explain what they did and the kind of stories they were interested in covering, they were not given an easy ride of it by the assembled audience of community representatives.
They also defended themselves against allegations that they had not done enough to explore the impact of the current crisis in the Middle East on communities locally. “We have not actively stepped away from covering the conflict,” said Chris Sandys, senior content producer, communities at BBC Bristol.
He said that given the complexity of the situation it was all important that journalists had a thorough understanding of it before embarking on relaying events. Separately, he stressed that it was important to build longer-term connections, rather than just reporting on key dates in community diaries.
“We don’t just parachute in to do a one-off story about your festival or your event,” he said. “We need to have an ongoing relationship, so come and tell me when there’s something new. That’s really important.”
Mark Thomas, the ITV content editor in the region, was asked whether the media was interested in reporting someone’s faith as part of a story. He said yes if it was relevant and influenced, for example, a political choice. If that was the case, the media would reflect this as part of a broader conversation.
Mr Thomas is also the diversity and inclusion champion in the region and said regional diversity panels helped journalists to engage with communities and develop relationships away from the day-to-day news agenda, which is something about which he felt passionate.
When challenged about why local media generally did not spend more time reaching out to community representatives, the panellists all cited lack of time and resources — but admitted that much more needed to be done.
To try to change this, Mr Pick personally read out his email address to the audience. He said: “I sit here and I see 50 people and 50 stories that I don’t know. So please email me. Let’s start having a conversation. I want to understand.
“All of us are in journalism because we are intrinsically interested in people and every day I walk into that newsroom and I learn something new from someone else.”