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Claudia Jones lecture 2017: Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary

Michelle Stanistreet and Diane Abbott  -  © nuj

26 October 2017

Cambridge University’s English literature professors could replace white authors with black writers, following proposals put forward by academic staff in response to student demands to “decolonise” the curriculum.

So went the intro of a Daily Telegraph splash featuring a huge photograph of Cambridge University student union women's officer Lola Olufemi wearing a vest top.

A few days later the Telegraph published a small correction about its front-page story on page two saying that its article had “incorrectly stated” that Cambridge University would be forced to replace white authors with black writers.

“The proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the university to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so,” it said.

Watch the lecture online:

Claudia Jones Lectures 2017: Rt Hon Diane Abbott MP from Jason N.Parkinson on Vimeo.

In the meantime Lola Olufemi had been subjected to a flood of racist and sexist abuse on the basis of this story; all she and a number of others done was to publish an open letter to academics at Cambridge calling for the English Literature syllabus to include more black and ethnic writers.

The controversial story set the scene for shadow home secretary Diane Abbott’s NUJ Claudia Jones lecture, during Black History Month.

claudia jones
Diane Abbott                                         NUJ

The Labour MP and former broadcast journalist said that even today, in 2017, the sad reality is that many media stories misrepresent people of colour and peddle discriminatory story lines, such as the series of newspaper and broadcasting articles highlighting the grooming and raping of white young vulnerable girls by Asian men.

“In London a range of men are grooming and abusing girls from all backgrounds, but all we hear is that it is a crime perpetrated by Asian men against white girls,” she said. “It is the steady drumbeat of such stories in the media that inform how people view black and brown people and how black and brown people see themselves portrayed.”

She recalled that in her career as a researcher and journalist in broadcasting, she was about the only black face in the newsroom. Thirty years later, as a high-profile politician invited to be interviewed in numerous television and radio studios, not much had changed, in particular with the people in positions of influence – those who choose the stories and running order -- being overwhelmingly white.

She said: “There may be more black and brown faces on the screen these days, but those with power, the people who make all the decisions on which stories are chosen and how they are framed, are white journalists from privileged backgrounds.”

Diane, famous for her appearances squashed up on the tiny This Week sofa with former Tory minister Michael Portillo, said while she shared few opinions with the political show’s presenter, former Sunday Times editor  Andrew Neil,  they agreed that if they were starting out today in the media their modest family backgrounds would have precluded the successful careers they now enjoyed.

She said the proliferation of unpaid internships in the media world made it almost impossible for working-class young people to break into the profession. “Most media jobs are in London and if you come from a poor background you can’t live on thin air while working for free for media organisations while trying to get a break,” she said.

She said that throughout her life she had fought for social justice and if gains were to be made for a fairer and representative media:

  • Companies needed to recruit not only from Oxbridge, but from higher education institutions colleges with a diverse range of journalism students.
  • Journalists needed to organise within unions to fight for fair employment and use their networks and collective action to effect change.
  • People of colour needed to complain to broadcasting organisations and make their views heard if they are unhappy about the way they were portrayed.
  • People should use social media to put forward an alternative view to the mainstream press.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, also took questions from the audience. She said the union throughout its 100-plus year history had fought for a diverse media and had championed pioneers such as Claudia Jones. She said the Black Members’ Council, which had organised the evening's event, framed the union’s policies on the representation of BAME journalists and welcomed input and ideas from its members. The union's charity, the George Viner Foundation, provided bursaries for BAME journalism students.

In 1987 Diane Abbott made history by becoming the first black woman elected to the British Parliament. She has since built a distinguished career as a parliamentarian, broadcaster and commentator. She was elected on to the national executive of the Labour Party and, for most of the 1990s, served on the Treasury select committee. She went on to serve on the Foreign Affairs select committee as shadow public health minister. In September 2015, she appointed shadow secretary for international development. and went on to become shadow secretary for health, in June 2016.

In 2017, Diane was re-elected to her Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency with a landslide majority and is now the first black female shadow home secretary. Diane also chairs the British-Caribbean All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) and the APPG for Sickle Cell and Thalassemia.

Cladia Jones was a journalist, activist and campaigner, perhaps best known as one of the founding members of The Notting Hill Carnival and one the first black newspapers, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.

Tags: , claudia jones, equality, diane abbott, black members' council, diversity, discrimination, interns