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The George Viner Awards 2013

7 March 2013

"Now standing before you is a very rare sight. You might call me a lesser-spotted blackbird," said TV journalist Ann Alexander. "In fact, I am a female, working class journalist."

Anne was speaking at a ceremony to celebrate the success of four young journalist students who have been awarded George Viner Memorial Fund bursaries. The Fund is a charity set up by the NUJ which offers financial help to black and Asian students in the UK and Ireland so they can support themselves while getting the training they need to become media professionals.

She told the audience that during her career as a political journalist she has been mistaken for many other things – a social worker, a secretary and an intruder. Twenty years ago, after leaving university with no firm idea of what to do, she was told by a journalist that as she could write a bit and because she had a great name for a byline, she should become a reporter.

It was that chance remark that launched Ann on a successful career, starting her training in the regional press – at a time when they were fully staffed – working in Parliament for the BBC and now as the political producer for ITV's Daybreak.

She said:

"During that time, I have reported on everything from local council meetings to Obama's visit to the UK, the MPs' expenses scandal and interviewed all the party leaders since 2002."

She said she was honoured to be invited to the award ceremony because with only around 8 per cent of UK journalists coming from the non-white population, when the proportion in some cities such as London was 50 per cent, schemes such as the George Viner Memorial Fund were vital for bringing in talent with a different voice to represent the world journalists serve.

She said that, like it or not, personal prejudices affect the way the news is reported, such as the white reporter being sent to talk to young people on an estate following the riots of 2011 and interviewing only young black men.

She said that is why it is important that the George Viner scholars have had help to join the "exclusive – but growing – club of ethnic minority journalists". She advised them to develop as many new skills as possible and to be prepared to be flexible and work unsocial hours.

"The hard work, and often not brilliant pay, is worth it to be part of a profession which does far more good than harm."

Speaking on behalf of this year’s four scholars, Hanan Bihi, 23, from London said that without the fund she would have found it financially difficult to take up her MA in international journalism at City University. She said:

"Coming from ethnic minority groups and being the voice for so many unrepresented people means a lot to us. The George Viner Memorial Fund has allowed us to pursue our dreams."

Hanan moved to London from her home in Somalia as a refugee when she was 12. It was very difficult for the family who did not speak English when they arrived. At that time there was no established Somali community. At her south London schoolm she was the only one who, as a Muslim, wore a full headscarf and she was bullied because of it.

"I think that made me what I am," she said. "It was a real cultural shock when I first arrived. But the situation was something that we had to accept; because of the civil war we could not go home. I learned to adapt and have benefited from the experience; it has made me resilient and strong."

Hanan studied radiotherapy at City University and when she graduated she wanted a break. She volunteered for a Somali charity and that led on to paid work as a communications officer for the Somali Relief and Development Fund. It was very much about learning what to do on the job.

It was a former George Viner scholar who she has to thank for putting her on the road to becoming a journalist. She came across Hamza Mohamed via Twitter. She said: "I thought, 'Hey, a Somali journalist!'"

She got in touch and asked him hundreds of questions.

"He was so inspiring. Like me he had studied sciences and we had a lot in common. He gave me the belief to be able to push to my MA in journalism," she said.

Her ambition is to become a foreign correspondent, particularly in Africa, and she thinks her background will give her a distinct advantage. She said:

"If I went back to report on Somalia, I would have a greater understanding as a reporter. I would be able to win the trust of the people there. A white English reporter could find it more difficult. There is a tribal aspect which I understand and would be able to interpret and analyse. I would have an insight into the radicalisation among Muslims and the people there would be more prepared to talk to me about it. I am lucky. I have the advantage of being a part of the British culture, but I am also African."

Tomas Jivanda, 23, aims to be a features editor on a national paper. He believes that his background could be an advantage. He said:

"I’m half English and half Indian. I was born here, but I am also influenced by Indian culture. There seem to be so few feature writers from ethnic minority backgrounds and I believe that I would be able to bring in fresh and new ideas and provide an alternative perspective."

Tomas is from Kent and is studying an MA in journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. He said:

"Not having the worry of paying the full tuition fee means that I have been able to fully concentrate on my studies. It also means that the debt hanging over me when I graduate will be far less and for that I am extremely thankful."

Nia Nguyen, 25, from London is studying an MA in television journalism at City University and said:

"The bursary has been the saviour in helping me to achieve my dream to become a broadcast journalist. Now, I wake up every morning, looking forward to what new skills the day will bring and, since starting the course, have gained invaluable experience at the BBC and Sky News."

Batseba Tesfaye, 26, is from Eritrea and is studying an NCTJ diploma in photojournalism at Norton College, Sheffield. She said:

"I am honoured to be chosen to be one of this year's scholars. As a photojournalist I hope to tell stories about people and events that make a difference. Taking the NCTJ course has enabled me to learn the skills I need to be successful in both journalism and news photography. I have learned everything from practical news gathering and reporting to UK media law. It is both an exciting and challenging program and thanks to the George Viner Trust I was able to have the resources to do the course."

The event was opened by Lionel Morrison, chair of the trustees of the charity which has funded more than 150 students. Former George Viner scholars now work as staff and freelance journalists and photographers in all parts of the media, from broadcasting, magazines and newspapers, to public relations, book publishing and online.

He said:

"The support that the NUJ has given is so important. We have no corporate sponsors to fund this vital work of campaigning for the quality, representative journalism that is vital for democracy. It is essential that the media reflect the community which it serves."

Tags: , george viner memorial fund, students, equality, black members