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"The golden key to our dreams": George Viner 2014

28 February 2014

Spotting an advert for an internship as a crime reporter on the Malaysian New Straits Times, Monika Plaha decided that it would be a true test of her ambition to become a journalist.

After a successful interview via Skype, she joined the staff during the summer break when she was studying media and communications at Leicester University. She said:

"I knew that if I wanted to be a successful journalist, I would need to be fearless. It was completely insane: I was dealing with death, drugs, Somali pirates and scandals on a daily basis."

It was this attitude that marked Monika out from the many applications for the George Viner Memorial Fund. The fund, established in 1986, has contributed to the costs of journalism training of 180 Black and ethnic minority students.

The aim of the National Union of Journalists charity is to encourage the diversity of journalists working in the British and Irish media. The Fund was proud to assist one of this year’s scholars though funds raised in memory of Felix Dearden, a promising journalist and NUJ member, who died in the 1987 Kings Cross fire.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, introduced the evening event, celebrating the awards to the six George Viner scholars: Anishka Sharma, Haseeb Malik, Lara Owen, Symeon Brown, Celestina Olulode and Monika Plaha. She said:

"As a trustee of the charity, this is always one of my favourite NUJ events. This year we had a huge number of applications, which is a testament to the talent of the six here who won the awards. It is also good to see some of our former George Viner scholars here tonight who have gone on to have exciting careers in journalism."

The night's speakers were Alok Jha, the Guardian's science correspondent. In addition to writing news and comment, he presents the Science Weekly podcast and is author of The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World and How to Live Forever and 34 Other Really Interesting Uses for Science. He was joined by Damien Gayle, a news reporter for Mail Online.

The audience was told that a glass ceiling still exists in newspaper newsrooms and that black journalists can be thin on the ground in national press and broadcasting. But, Damien, said:

"Like many journalists, I do my job because I have a keen sense of justice and because I want to see those in power held to account. As black journalists, we are outsiders to the prevailing status quo and that is why it is important that we stick at it and take part in the struggle to change the status quo if we want to change the world."

Alok Jha said it was not being Indian that set him apart in the newsroom, it was being a science graduate. It was his mathematical ability that got him noticed among the English and PPE graduates on the newsdesk: he was able to help them work out percentages. He believes that having something different and special is an advantage for a journalist. He said:

"Science has now become mainstream in newspapers – stories about climate change, health, stem cell technology, the floods – are all important political and human-interest stories. My message to the George Viner students is that, if you have good ideas, you will move forward. Today's media offers more opportunities for nuanced ideas and the filters – the people who managed and controlled the news – no longer have the same power."

Monika Plaha George Viner 2014
Monika Plaha with Alok Jha (left) and Damien Gayle

As traditional on George Viner award night, one of the scholars spoke on behalf of all of them. Monika Plaha, 22, now studying a masters degree in television journalism at City University, London, said:

"The scheme has been completely life-changing. It's changed all our lives for the better. Half a year ago, when we had our George Viner interview, we were not the people we are today. We have grown as individuals and we have grown as journalists. I started with many ideas and a hunger and passion to make a difference and to give the voiceless their say.
"I still have all of those ideals, but it is the journalism courses that the bursaries contributed towards that have provided us, and continue to provide us, with the knowledge of how to use these ideas to create news packages, articles, documentaries and radio reports.
"I am now one step closer to obtaining my ultimate goal of becoming a female, Asian journalist who is proud of her working-class background."

She said that she, and the other George Viner scholars, had benefited from work at the BBC, ITV and Sky.

"During my BBC placement, I found myself interviewing Kiera Knightly and hung out with Naomi Campbell outside her dressing room at the national TV awards. We are taking part in things that we had once only dreamed about.
"Coming from ethnic minority groups, to be the voice for those who are unrepresented in society means the world to us. This memorial had given us the golden key to our dreams and we will go all the way."

George Viner 2014 Anishka Sharma Anishka Sharma, 23, from Middlesex is studying an MA in broadcast journalism at City University, London. She was interested in journalism from an early age and did work experience on the Watford Observer when she was 16. Her hero is the BBC's Jo Whiley. She said she admired the way she was able to let her interviewees open up. After taking up a number of placements at the BBC and Sky News, her ambition is to work for the BBC's Newsbeat. She said: "The work experience placement at Radio 1's Newsbeat was the most eye-opening experience that I have had in journalism to date, none of which would have been possible without GVMF's support."

Lara Owen-George Viner 2014Lara Owen, 24, from Birmingham is studying an MA in broadcast journalism at City University, London, and graduated from Leeds in Chinese and English. During a year out, she worked in China as a teacher and one of her pupils got her work at China National Radio. She said: "I loved the culture and buzz of China. Working in journalism was a bit different.Here we have Ofcom; in China each media organisation has its own propaganda department." She has since done work experience at the BBC's Chinese Service and was on a shift on the Newsday the day Nelson Mandela died. Lara says she could see herself as a foreign correspondent and believes that one of her great strengths as a journalist is that she listens to people."

Symeon Brown-Geroge Viner 2014Symeon Brown, 25, from Essex is studying an MA in broadcast journalism at City University, London. He worked with Paul Lewis on the Guardian on a 10-month project looking at the causes of the Tottenham riots and continues to do work for the Guardian. He said: "At their best journalists provide the most important civic currency - to inform populations and offer a critique of power. The quality of debate is determined by having as diverse a range of experiences and ideas as possible. Having a plurality of voices and experiences in a newsroom or investigative unit adds real value, whether it is by accessing voices others cannot or asking the questions others did not think of."

Celestina Olulode- George Viner 2014Celestina Olulode, 26, from London is studying an MA in broadcast journalism at City University, London. It was Boris Johnston who gave her her first break into journalism. She went to the London mayor's question time and asked him a tongue-in-cheek question about David Cameron. She impressed him enough into agreeing to do an interview the following day. Her mission as a journalist is to present news stories to the man and women on the street, on subjects close to their lives. She thinks she will succeed by being true to herself and putting ethics first. "I want to do stories explaining why people need to use foodbanks and why so many children need super-size school uniforms," she said.

Haseeb MalikHaseeb Malik, 28, is from East Yorkshire and studied a multi-media foundation course in journalism at the Press Association, London. He now works as a reporter for the Grimsby Telegraph. It was after the birth of his daughter that he decided that his job as an actor was too precarious and, thanks to the George Viner bursary, he had a "lifeline" which enabled him to switch career. He said: "I will always be grateful to the GVMF for the role they have played in my development as a journalist."


All photographs by Mark Thomas

Tags: , training, mentors, bme, students, black members, george viner memorial fund, charities