The head of a UK media industry body has resigned after the group claimed that racism played no part in coverage of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, prompting a rebuke from more than 160 journalists of color.
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, on Wednesday said he would step down so the organization could “rebuild its reputation.”
He was responding to remarks made by Prince Harry during an interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he said that racism had played a role in how the British press covered his wife, Meghan, and that tabloid coverage was a major factor in the couple’s decision to leave the country.
In a letter posted online, journalists of color — including from The Guardian and Condé Nast — urged the Society of Editors to address bigotry and racism in UK media coverage, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
Murray’s insistence that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had provided no “supporting evidence” to support claims of racist coverage showed a “willful ignorance” of the discriminatory treatment of Meghan by the British press, as well as of other people who do not identify as White, according to the letter.
“We, the undersigned journalists of colour, working in UK media organisations, deplore and reject the statement issued by the Society of Editors, denying the existence of racism and bigotry in the UK press,” the journalists wrote.
“The blanket refusal to accept there is any bigotry in the British press is laughable, does a disservice to journalists of colour and shows an institution and an industry in denial,” they added.
The letter cited a range of evidence to support their claims, including a 2016 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance which found that hate speech among traditional UK media, particularly tabloid newspapers, “continues to be a serious problem” and fuels prejudice.
Compelling evidence can also be found in headlines run by major tabloids. One Mail Online headline declared in 2016 that Meghan was “(almost) straight outta Compton.” Around the same time, The Daily Star ran a headline asking whether Harry would “marry into gangster royalty?”
On Wednesday, before Murray resigned, the Society of Editors issued what it described as a “clarification.”
“Our statement on Meghan and Harry … did not reflect what we all know: that there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion. We will reflect on the reaction our statement prompted and work towards being part of the solution,” the body, which runs the prestigious annual Press Awards, said in a statement.
In another statement, Murray acknowledged that the organization’s initial remarks had been “heavily criticised.”
“While I do not agree that the Society’s statement was in any way intended to defend racism, I accept it could have been much clearer in its condemnation of bigotry and has clearly caused upset,” he added.
But the damage has already been done. ITV news anchor Charlene White on Wednesday quit as host of the Press Awards. In a letter first reported by HuffPost UK, White told the Society of Editors that it should “look elsewhere” for a host.
“Perhaps someone whose views align with yours: that the UK press is the one institution in the entire country who has a perfect record on race,” she added.
The editors of The Guardian and Financial Times newspapers have also disputed the original statement from the Society of Editors.
“There is work to be done across all sectors in the UK to call out and challenge racism,” FT editor Roula Khalaf said in a statement. “The media has a critical role to play, and editors must ensure that our newsrooms and coverage reflect the societies we live in,” she added.
“Every institution in the United Kingdom is currently examining its own position on vital issues of race and the treatment of people of colour. As I have said before, the media must do the same. It must be much more representative and more self-aware,” added Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner.
Reach Plc, which publishes the Mirror, the Express and The Daily Star, declined to comment on the Society of Editors statement. CNN Business has contacted the Daily Mail and The Sun’s publisher, News UK, for comment. Harry and Meghan said last April that they would no longer engage with major tabloids and have sued some newspapers.
Tackling the lack of diversity
The British press remains overwhelmingly White compared to the overall racial and ethnic makeup of the United Kingdom.
A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2016 found that just 6% of journalists across UK newsrooms don’t identify as White, compared with about 13% of the general population. The same study found that while Black Britons make up 3% of the population, they account for just 0.2% of journalists.
And according to a report last July from the Reuters Institute, none of Britain’s top 10 print, digital or broadcast outlets have a Black editor in chief.
“The Society of Editors should have used the comments by the Sussexes to start an open and constructive discussion about the best way to prevent racist coverage in future, including through addressing lack of representation in the UK media, particularly at a senior level,” the letter from journalists of color said.
“At a time when many industries and companies are engaged in a reckoning with race in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, we believe it would be a better use of the Society of Editors’ time to reflect on the lack of diversity,” it added.
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