08/02/2011 07:57 am ET Updated Sep 26, 2011

Ethnic Voices in the British Media Pt 1

Two weeks ago I sat down with a couple of friends over coffee London, discussing the closure of the News of the World and their last edition the previous day.

None of us it seemed had bothered to buy the paper but then none of us where NoW readers. What made this conversation different than those I had with other friends, was the fact that we were not discussing the rights and wrongs of phone hacking or closing the paper but the fact that I had spent Sunday trying to spot how many ethnic minorities where in the NoW picture of the newsroom staff handed out to then as leaving gift.

I had managed to spot two ethnic minorities for sure with a possible third hidden in the background too far back to tell if it was ethnicity or just a good tan that gave him a slightly darker skin tone that those around him. The reason for this unusual Sunday pastime is that whilst following the hacking story that week I had noted how every pundit I saw and every columnist I read was white.

When I mentioned this to Samir and Theo my coffee companions, both ethnic minorities like me, they professed no surprise at this but had not noted it themselves. I was a touch surprised by their blasé attitude to this, for as I pointed out to them you do tend to see way more Black and Asian people on television now, you would expect a few to pop up as talking heads on TV or with the odd newspaper column on a story that touched so much of the body politic.

Samir's opinion of ethnic minorities on TV was that they only wanted to hear from us when it concerned us specifically, so if the story was about the Asian or the Black community then they would roll out one of the usual suspects to represent, although he had seen Keith Vaz (before he came to the fore due to the Home affairs committee hearings) being interviewed about the phone hacking scandal.

He was not sure if that was a good or bad thing, as he put it, "If the story is about scandal and the best you can send out to represent is Keith Vaz, we're in s**t". I had to admit I had missed Keith Vaz being interviewed but one interview with an ethnic minority on this subject, considering the hours spent discussing it on TV, did not negate my point.

Theo was of the belief that things had not really changed much with regards to attitudes to black people on TV. "They don't mind having us on TV as long as we are singing, dancing, running or otherwise entertaining them. They don't want to hear what we have to say, unless we are talking about those things. The only thing that has changed is that we don't have to come in by the back door anymore".

I had to disagree with Theo and Samir to a certain extent, as I said to them I do think there are more ethnic voices on TV and in print commenting on all manner of serious issues not just sport and entertainment or stories focused mainly on ethnicity.

Theo's reply was "There maybe more ethnic voices being heard on serious matters but that doesn't mean there are more Black voices, when you talk of ethnic voices really the increase is in the number of Asian voices being heard on serious matters. If you see an Asian CEO or economist being interviewed on Bloomberg, BBC or Sky News you don't blink but every time you see Trevor Williams (Chief Economist, Lloyds TSB) on Bloomberg you point him out to me. This country is vanilla, always has been, always will be."

I couldn't really argue that point as I do have a habit of always pointing Trevor Williams out when he is on Bloomberg, As he seems to be the only black economist, CEO or banker who gets TV time. Samir seemed somewhat uncomfortable at the turn of conversation as if by pointing out the difference between Asian and Black voices on TV, Theo, had changed the dynamics of the conversation to put him on a different side to us, something I will come back to in later blogs.

Trying to smooth over any discomfort Samir might feel, I said to Theo, "I'm not really sure just how true that is but if it is, we as black people need to ask ourselves the question why Asian voices are making the breakthrough on serious matters and Black voices are not?"

I walked away back to computer screen thinking that would be the end of that but I kept coming back to that conversation during the day, so I spoke to a couple of friends on Facebook to get their thoughts. After a couple of very interesting conversations, I spoke to more people over the next two weeks and I've decided to post those conversations in a series of blogs over the next few weeks.

This country might be vanilla, but it is vanilla with a sprinkling of chocolate the only question is just how strong is the taste of that chocolate.