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Does independent media hold the solution to our cohesion challenge?
In this article, former Leicester Mercury editor Nick Carter charts his 30-year journey into and through the challenges of media responsibility, particularly regarding issues of diversity, faith and community cohesion.
I approach this article in a spirit of optimism for the future – not the easiest of attitudes to maintain in a country where the traditional moderating voice of regional and local media has been substantially lost, leaving the field clear for the discriminatory and often malign influence of most of our mainstream media and the explosion in social media, providing a ready platform from which to amplify the voices of extremism, discrimination and ignorance.
My experience of diversity was predominantly through the lens of regional newspapers in the UK. I ended up as the editor of a large title facing the challenge of serving a city – Leicester – that was being held up as an example of the new diversity of the country. Could we make it work? Could we support that diversity while still running a profitable business?
It was obvious to me from an early stage that as a journalist, whether a reporter or editor-in-chief, I had a clear responsibility for the consequences of what I wrote or published. That was at the heart of my decision-making. Strangely, while other journalists also seemed to accept that responsibility, it appeared to be difficult for some of them to apply it to their everyday work.
I think one of the most important achievements during my journey was to develop an approach that would help any editor engage effectively with the communities they served, act proactively in support of the cohesion of those communities, encourage discussion and debate in order to foster even better community relations and hold up a mirror to society, warts and all, without indulging in knee-jerk, negative journalism. Perhaps even more importantly, we managed to develop a strong business case for doing this, one that did not rely on drama, controversy and exaggeration to generate sales revenue.
The actions we identified were the 'what' in our proposition. The 'how' was a 100,000-plus daily newspaper sale, Monday-Saturday, with around 250,000 people seeing each copy and some 400,000 seeing at least one copy a week. The delivery of that carefully curated package of content, guided by our approach, to a large audience, on a regular basis, gave us a very good chance of making a positive change. Thirty years on, the 'what' remains sound in principle – the ‘how’ has vanished. We still have the message, but the collapse of regional hard-copy sales means we lack that medium to deliver it.
I arrived in Leicester at the start of 1993 to take over the editor's chair of the Leicester Mercury, the largest title in the Northcliffe Newspapers group and one of the top six best-selling regional newspapers in the UK. I had spent the previous six years as editor of the South Wales Evening Post in Swansea, southwest Wales.
Swansea was a city with a strong sense of identity. It was, however, a city split between the more deprived areas and other neighbourhoods where citizens were generally better off. I wanted to get much more local news into the Post, following the principle that a good newspaper should be holding up a mirror to its communities. To do that and to get different tones of voice into its pages, we recruited a squad of interested locals who each contributed a weekly column on things happening in their neighbourhood.
It seemed to me that people from the different parts of the city might develop an interest wider than just their neighbourhood. And our research confirmed a significant number of people were reading at least three or four columns in addition to their neighbourhood piece. Even in this small way, we had helped develop a wider sense of a Swansea community.
Attention to local news and a range of voices helped us win two national awards for increased sales during what were difficult days for the industry. It also strengthened my belief that good local journalism had to start with an understanding of the communities in which we were trying to sell.
Leicester, however, was a more complex challenge that would turn out to require an altogether more sophisticated approach.
The Mercury sold across the city of Leicester and the counties of Leicestershire and Rutland – a region with a total population of around one million. Around a third lived in the city, which sits in the middle of the surrounding county. The whole area was predominantly white, until the population changes of the second half of the last century, and was proud to call itself "the heart of rural England".
When I arrived in 1993, the city was already around 35% non-white, following the arrival of a large number of Ugandan Asians, mostly of Gujarati origin and Hindu, displaced by Idi Amin. They arrived during the 1970s and replaced a pre-existing African Caribbean community as the largest non-white group. At that time, the Muslim community was comparatively small. It grew during my tenure at the newspaper and now represents the largest single religious grouping.
While other cities with similar histories had experienced varying degrees of tension, Leicester appeared much more harmonious. This was attributed to a number of factors – the new arrivals had been placed in council housing in two main areas of the city, Belgrave and Highfields, and there was comparatively little interaction with other, mainly white, areas. Also, the arriving communities tended to be commercially savvy and very entrepreneurial. Since the 1970s there had been an explosion of small businesses, corner shops and convenience stores. There was thus little evidence that 'locals' had been displaced from work or economically disadvantaged.
Moreover, many of the new arrivals, as they themselves noted, had generational memories of previous displacements that provided a sort of handbook on how to settle into new surroundings. The Church of England also deserves credit for its quick action to set up a Council of Faiths, which provided space for representatives of the different communities to voice concerns and allowed messages of reassurances to be relayed through churches, temples and mosques.
That is not to say there were no tensions at all. In 1972, before the arrivals from East Africa, the city council, worried about how it would cope, advertised in the Ugandan Argus newspaper, warning against coming to Leicester. The aftertaste of that unfortunate action still lingered for many people, even after 20 years. And, of course, the ad campaign had little effect anyway. When people did arrive, there were racist incidents, bricks thrown through windows, and insults in the streets – the usual nastiness generated by sudden change and the arrival of 'different' people in any community. In 1993, while these incidents were remembered and featured in many of my early conversations with the Asian community and its leaders, there was an appreciation that the situation had very much settled down and Leicester was comparatively harmonious. However, its various communities were in many respects leading separate lives.
But the Mercury had a serious problem – despite high sales, its readers were still mainly white. The Asian community, which was the fastest-growing in the area, did not seem that interested. That was my challenge when asked to take over – without attracting many more Asian readers the Mercury would struggle to find a prosperous future.
This was not a new problem. It had been coming since the 70s and 80s as the demographic makeup of the city evolved. My predecessor as editor had launched an Asia Edition, published Monday-Friday, which replaced up to seven pages from the main city edition, was clearly signposted on the front page, and was available only from selected outlets in those part of the city where the Asian community was concentrated.
I had visited Leicester soon after this edition was launched, as it seemed to represent an even more targeted way of delivering local news than what we were doing at the time in Swansea. I was surprised to find that, far from having a team of journalists producing a significant amount of Asian community news, it was run by just two journalists and much of the content was feature material bought in from the sub-continent. I had my doubts.
During my first couple of years in Leicester we used research to better understand our demographics. The newspaper I took over was beautifully designed and highly profitable – with significant revenue from advertising. But I had misgivings about the amount and mix of local news. As my understanding of our communities grew, I realised the different communities of the city had much more in common than the existence of a separate Asia edition would suggest.
I remember the first big piece of research that changed our thinking. We had brought together elders from the different communities and got them talking about their lives, their experience of Leicester and what interested them. Perhaps we should not have been surprised. There was virtually unanimous agreement that the bus services were poor, the roads needed mending, the city council should be doing more to help them, they were worried about the NHS and about their children – and in particular that their sons-in-law and daughters-in-law were uncaring and disrespectful!
It became clear the way ahead was to produce one newspaper for one city – filled with local news that mattered to the everyday lives of its citizens. A newspaper that would help the cohesion of our communities.
This also signalled the end for the Asia Edition, which had been selling a mere 2,000-odd copies a day. While nervous about losing any sales, we were confident that a more inclusive newspaper would immediately pick up the slack and, with coverage of broader local interest, boost Asian readership. The final straw was a conversation with a successful businessman from the Asian community. He had phoned the Mercury main newsdesk wanting to tell readers about an order won by his firm. He was transferred to the Asia desk. While we were failing to spread good news across the whole city, how could we make progress?
In addition, it had become clear that the five-to-seven pages of local news that were being replaced by content brought in from outside the UK were depriving the Asian community of local news that we knew interested them. By the same token, and this was a key factor for the cohesion of the city, any news of Asian community contributions to the life of Leicester was being denied to the white population because it was effectively 'ghettoised' in a different publication.
We shut the edition. Sales in Asian areas picked up.
Did any of this actually work?
In chronicling past events, there is a danger that everything can look and sound too easy, too planned, or too clever. That was certainly not the case! My journey with diversity and media was more a matter of growing awareness of the extent of the challenges and complexities and, with the help of my team and many valuable outside contacts in the city, starting to find a way forward. It took at least four years to form a coherent policy aimed at helping the cohesion of Leicester's communities through its newspaper and certainly into the new century before we started seeing results both in readership patterns and acknowledgement from its citizens that Leicester benefitted from its diversity. And, in due course, towards the end of that period we started attracting first national and then international attention for what was seen as an innovative approach to media responsibility.
Sorting out the edition structure was just one step forward. We also needed to review our approach to news content. If we were committed to acknowledging the diversity of the city, we needed to make sure our news-gathering reflected that. Recruitment of ethnic minority journalists had been a challenge for regional media for decades. Journalism just was not seen as an attractive career choice. Of course, things have changed dramatically since and what is left of our regional media is more reflective of our diversity. While always striving to find good recruits from minorities, we also made sure our existing staff were knowledgeable about our communities, their faiths and customs.
Our hard news coverage was good. Little was missed. But the softer news from lunch groups, charities, fund-raising rallies and so forth, the very warp and weft of community life, had trouble getting the attention of a hard-worked, hard-nosed newsdesk. We created a community newsdesk, staffed by a veteran reporter and a non-journalist community activist, that maintained contact with a wide range of groups from all communities and had guaranteed space in the newspaper.
The diversity of the city also needed to be reflected in personal comment, so we introduced the daily First Person column, written by individuals from different communities giving their take on current events. Their perspectives provided an extra dimension for readers on issues involving faith, inequality, and cohesion.
So, did any of this work? It certainly made a difference to selling the Mercury. Our performance year-on-year was consistently the best of the top five or six regional titles over most of my editorship. We even managed to overtake the Birmingham Mail in copies sold – the evening title for Britain's second city.
But had I been able to drive up the proportion of the Asian community reading the Mercury? By 2002, nine years after taking over, and several years after the changes were started, research showed more than 70% of the Asian communities were reading us. We had lost some white readership in that period, particularly in the county areas, and in some part because of the different 'complexion' of the Mercury. I reckoned that was a fair trade for helping to secure at least some of the future.
More than just changing a newspaper
So far, I have talked about the changes we made to the newspaper after gaining greater understanding of our communities and what interested them. But that was just part, albeit a very important part, of what we were doing.
During 2000, Leicester came under a national and international spotlight after some statistical analyses predicted we would have a minority white population by 2011. As we had come to expect, this was presented as a problem in some national media. We simply reported it as a fact and I wrote a leader column pointing out that it was just numbers and what mattered was our communities, our city, and how we continued to live and work together in harmony.
But the external negativity did spark some more thinking about our role, and in particular how we could become more proactive in assisting community relations and, in what was becoming the buzzword of the period, cohesion.
In the run-up to the 2001 General Election it seemed clear to me that the race card might be played nationally. I invited representatives of various bodies and communities to create an informal and independent discussion group that could provide advice to all local media, and, in anticipation of external events, could also provide a united front for the city. Twenty people attended a meeting on 14 March 2001. They included the leader and chief executive of Leicester City Council, the chief executive of Leicester Racial Equality Council, representatives of the police, Leicester Council of Faiths, academics, school principals and governors as well as editors from local BBC and commercial radio and Asian TV in the city.
Their purpose was captured in the minutes of the first meeting: To "discuss threats to the continuing development of a truly multicultural society in Leicester presented by the possible misuse or misrepresentation of race and related issues in any forthcoming General Election campaign," and "to identify what measures, if any, could be taken to counter or lessen the impact of such threats, both in the short and long term".
The first meeting was immediately faced with how to advise the city council on a request from the National Front (NF) for a St George's Day march through Leicester. Discussing whether the city council should seek to ban the NF march, which it eventually successfully did, advisory group members felt it was right to take a stand.
The General Election passed without incident, but the group realised it was a unique body and could provide a valuable service to community relations in Leicester – and indeed outside the city. Both the police and city council were keen for it to continue – particularly as a sounding board. One of its most important benefits was that the participation of local media showed we were prepared to be accountable for what we published and broadcast, in a way that was not happening nationally or, indeed, in many regional centres. It was one of the aspects of our approach that raised most discussion with fellow editors in the UK and, later, abroad, whenever I presented the Mercury journey.
One initiative suggested at the group's first meeting – a Leicester Declaration supporting harmonious diversity – was resurrected for the May 2003 local government elections. Leaders of the three main political parties signed a compact based on Commission for Racial Equality guidelines, pledging themselves and their parties to promoting good community relations and to responsible campaigning. The compact was applied several times since 2003 – including at local government elections, when pledges were sought from the political parties on behalf of all their candidates. The Mercury reported all this in detail and our leader columns gave vigorous support.
During 2010, a year after I had left the Mercury, the group developed the concept of a Community Cohesion Charter for the city and county. This committed its signatories to work together for the development of the area as a "thriving and cohesive society of many communities, cultures, faiths, and beliefs". City and county councils carried out formal signing events, followed by other key organisations. Young people developed a youth version.
Sadly, most of the regular discussion groups and formal and informal contacts between communities have fallen into disrepair since the decline of the Mercury, along with the rest of regional media. The recent outbreak of violence in 2022 between sections of the Hindu and Muslims communities came as a real surprise, leaving the city's elected mayor "baffled".
Had those old networks still been functioning, we might not have been quite so caught out.
The next steps in my journey
In the early 2000s, I was asked to join the Home Office Community Cohesion Practitioner Group, set up in the wake of disturbances in some northern towns, which were believed to have had a racist element. The group produced a series of recommendations for best practice on how media should report on issues affecting diversity. It also generated an advisory booklet – "Reporting Diversity – How journalists can contribute to community cohesion" – written by the Society of Editors and the Media Trust and funded by the Home Office. It still has relevance, but I would be surprised to find it being used in any regional or national newsroom!
There was also work with the newly created Institute for Community Cohesion, set up by the Home Office and headed by Ted Cantle, a former local government chief executive, who is now chair of a national charity – the Belong Network – championing cohesion work.
In 2004, I had a call from Milica Pesic, who was running the Media Diversity Institute (MDI). It was not a body I knew about, but a few minutes with Milica put me straight! The approach we had developed in Leicester seemed a perfect fit with the messages that MDI wanted to spread to emerging media in eastern Europe and the Magreb.
I later spoke at an MDI conference in London and presented what I felt were the key principles media needed to follow. They are still entirely relevant today:
- Get involved with their different communities to make sure they fully understand the issues and concerns affecting them.
- Establish effective working relationships and regular contact with key organisations working with and in those communities.
- Play a more proactive role in helping communities move towards a better future.
- Seek to understand to the fullest extent how the content and reporting style of their newspaper, television or radio station impacts on individuals, communities and the overall climate of feeling in their communities.
- Understand it will be tougher for their business, or any business, to make progress in communities where the component groups are fragmented, frightened and apprehensive, than it would be when people share a common desire for a better future and are therefore actively interested and involved in what is happening around them.
- With that understanding, it is also about us getting better at being more proactive in finding opportunities to make a positive difference.
Easy to say, but a real challenge to much of traditional media thinking in the UK at the time – in particular, the fear of losing impartiality and thus credibility by getting too involved in supporting communities. Maintaining this balance will always be a challenge, but I believed then, and still believe now, that it just needs a commitment to take a more sophisticated approach and put in the work to maintain credibility, without which no publisher or broadcaster can succeed, while at the same time being proactive in support of our society.
Milica and her team were on a mission and I became an enthusiastic recruit, supporting the work of MDI at conferences across Europe and in North Africa, where the most senior journalists were brought together in the hope they, too, would be proactive in supporting diversity and equality, not just in media but also in how media addressed those issues. I also worked on an MDI project providing advice on running successful media campaigns to emerging civil society groups in Egypt, after the Arab Spring. This was a new experience for me. Our little team, supported by MDI's Egypt office, travelled the country from south to north, meeting bright, brave young people determined to forge a better future and eager to learn any techniques that would help. Whether it was tackling child marriage, gun control, recycling, or domestic abuse, we helped them put together coordinated and practical campaigns to get their message across. Sadly, things changed in Egypt, and I suspect some of their work has been lost.
I was privileged to have been a lecturer at the University of Westminster on a Reporting Faith course, which was part of a Masters degree offered in a ground-breaking partnership between the university and MDI. I think Milica would agree the partnership has been a huge success and the successive years of students offer real hope for the future of responsible and informed journalism. This has to be an important way forward.
I wrote at the start that I approached this task in a spirit of optimism, and there are indeed some reasons to be cheerful. But for anyone working to encourage media responsibility towards diversity, faith and equality, the challenges are coming thick and fast.
I was lucky enough to work in regional newspapers when they provided a moderating alternative to national media. We were more trusted and more widely read. We felt a commitment to our communities and the Mercury was showing how we could be more proactive in support of their diversity.
All that has changed. Sales of regional newspapers have collapsed. They still have an online presence but the number of people buying a carefully curated package of accurate, balanced news and comment is tiny. As Ted Cantle states in his 2022 report, "Cohesion Coming of Age at 21 Years", the significant decline of local newspapers has had negative consequences for cohesion in democratic society – with a 2020 report for the Department of Culture Media and Sport finding a causal relationship between closures and polarised political behaviour.
We now live in a world where audiences have been fragmented and information (and its evil alter ego – disinformation) comes from a multitude of sources, many of them unreliable and with particular agendas and many of them from outside our own society. The person we might have moved away from when they started sounding off in the local pub is now inescapable whenever we venture into social media – an environment where the most extreme views seem to find it easiest to win the largest following.
How can we move forward?
Are there green shoots? Regional media is declining, but its reporters are much more representative of our diverse society, as are graduates from university journalism courses. New, independent, 'de-centred' media projects are emerging. What they lack in funding, many makeup for in enthusiasm to inform their neighbourhoods and networks. But voices of moderation and balance are isolated and weak in the face of unrestrained social media malice.
This challenge is being recognised in the United States, where groups like the civic media company Courier Newsroom are networking to provide credible, fact-based journalism. As one of its publishers, Tara McGowen, said this year: "The most effective counter to the … disinformation media ecosystem today will be a diverse, distributed network of pro-democracy media platforms + news outlets".
Cantle's update on cohesion highlights the malign impact of social media. The report calls for government investment in cohesion-boosting projects across education, housing and public service providers; wider awareness of responsibility from political parties, and particular attention to social media to ensure anti-democratic narratives can be countered.
Perhaps our hope for the future is to develop the synergy that could exist between cohesion-boosting projects and social media initiatives. That would involve bringing media and cohesion work together again, just like we managed to achieve in Leicester.
- This article is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute's 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers. It has been lightly edited to enhance readability and to match style.
"The Gazette's co-operative, not-for-profit model is breaking new ground and working to fill the gap left by the decline of traditional media" – Nick Carter, ex-Leicester Mercury editor