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In Conversation with Gary Younge

27 February 2019

Cameron’s victory in 2015, the result of Scottish referendum, the Leave vote, Trump’s election and Corbyn’s rise to leader of the Labour Party all have one thing in common.

Journalists got it wrong, Guardian columnist Gary Younge told a packed room at the NUJ’s London offices. “The commentariat, they can’t call shit,” he said.

“Journalists didn’t see any of this happening. Journalists are better at describing things rather than predicting things. Journalism needs more humility. If we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, then we should spend our time looking at what is happening now. We need to be more curious. I go out and talk to people, and I listen to their answers. Too often reporters are told what the story is and are then sent out to get the quotes to stand it up.”

Gary Younge is a prize-winning writer and broadcaster, the Guardian’s editor-at-large and a columnist for the Nation magazine. He was the Guardian’s US correspondent for 12 years, working from New York and Chicago. His fifth book Another Day in the Death of America centred on a normal day in the US, 23 November 2013, when 10 people were killed by guns. He spent 18 months unearthing the stories that lay behind these young lives and their premature deaths.

When he wrote his first column it was spiked. He had decided to write about Bosnia but was told: “We don’t want you to write about that, we want you to write about black stuff.” Black journalists, he said, often find that is their only role, or they make sure they don’t write about that stuff at all. But Gary is interested in politics and race so he often writes about black stuff, but also about gay marriage, Brexit and many other subjects.

In the UK, the media industry is 94 per cent white, so Gary isn’t in a crowded field. He said: “The most important thing about diversity in the media is not having black people in high places, it is about the need to have different voices, telling different stories. In the run up to the Brexit vote we didn’t hear what the people from Redcar had to say.”

Gary said he was given a hand up when he was awarded a bursary from The Guardian to study journalism at City University and he has since been a great champion of the NUJ’s George Viner Memorial Foundation (GVMF) which funds bursaries for black and Asian journalism students. The proceeds of the evening went to the charity and union’s hardship fund, NUJ Extra.

So, it was fitting that asking him the questions was Saadeya Shamsuddin, a former George Viner scholar and now trustee of GVMF, who produces Eddie Nestor’s Drivetime on BBC Radio London.

She raised the case of Shamima Begum, the teenage Isis bride, and the Home Secretary’s decision to strip her of her British citizenship, saying Bangladesh must be responsible for her. “Was Sajid Javid betraying his race or just had a job to do?” she asked

Gary had tweeted: "Shamima Begum was 15 when she did something stupid and repressible; @sajidjavid is 49. What's his excuse?"

He elaborated, saying: “He is managing an already racist system in a racist way. It doesn’t matter what colour the hands are running the system when the system is racist.” But it was still puzzling: “Javid is a year younger than me and grew up with our immigration laws and sus laws [used by police to search black people], but that’s what Tory Home Secretaries do.”

Of Shamima Begum, he said: “She can be tried, or convicted or rehabilitated, but the notion that this young girl is a threat to the nation belittles us…Britain made her; Bangladesh didn’t make her.”

The event covered a wide range of subjects from Brexit to the Oscars, and the last questioner  from the audience asked what Gary would recommend for his book club.

Gary explained that he had been at a Guardian party and met the Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo; she told him that they shared a publisher. He had to admit that he hadn’t read her book. She didn’t take offence and it led him to set the task of reading fiction only by African women in 2018.

And his recommendations? For all those with book clubs (and the rest) why not try Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo, The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami or Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’ s Kintu.

Tags: , gary younge, guardian, george viner memorial fund, nuj extra, Saadeya Shamsuddin, Sajid Javid, Shamima Begum