A little bit of history was created this week with Britain getting its first non-white editor of a national newspaper – but what does it say about the state of minorities in Britain, asks former British Asian newspaper editor Sailesh Ram.
Amol Rajan, who is just 29, was appointed the editor of The Independent by the paper’s tycoon owner, Evgeny Lebedev on June 17.
Rajan was born in Kolkata and grew up in Tooting, a relatively unglamorous London suburb (lifted or undermined by its wonderfully eclectic Asian high street, depending on your viewpoint), went to school locally (Graveney) and attended Cambridge University where he read English.
He worked for The London Evening Standard and Channel 5 for a while, before settling into a number of different positions at The Independent, where he started out as a news reporter.He was elevated from his last position as comment editor at the same newspaper to the top job and thanked Mr Lebedev for the promotion and said that he was immensely proud to be leading “the most fantastic team of journalists in Fleet Street”.
Fleet Street as a physical entity no longer exists, with many newspapers now spread right across the capital, but figuratively, the expression still equates to all Britain’s national newspapers.
Not everyone would agree with Mr Rajan’s last statement and certainly, The Independent is the smallest (in circulation and staff) of all the serious, broadsheet papers Britain has. While the appointment has created ripples in metropolitan media land, it has hardly been noted elsewhere.
No real surprise there, the vast majority of folks would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “So what?”. Indeed, simply having a non-white editor, means little in itself – but Rajan was state educated and is under 30, and alongside his ethnicity, these things are symbolically important. Roll on meritocracy, please…
Many of the country’s newspapers (including the tabloids) remain largely stuffed with journalists from an immediately recognisable elite: male, white, privately educated (often public school), and Oxbridge. Privilege and position are thus not always the product of hard work, toil or journalistic flair, as we know or expect.So, it is good to see someone of Mr Rajan’s undoubted intelligence and energy get the top job, ahead of a far more stereotypically Fleet Street trope. Credit should go to The Independent management there.
On the two brief social occasions we have met, Mr Rajan seemed a thoroughly likeable and approachable chap. We need a greater range of stories across titles and journalists, who are more plugged into their respective communities. Too much news and comment remains centred around London and fails to engage a diverse audience – in fact, any audience, the way newspaper circulations have been going. It is not an easy proposition for Mr Rajan, and there are dangers in trying to attempt to widen readership, you may alienate those who like the paper just as it is.
But as Mr Lebedev indicated, it is a move towards a 21st century news operation and it is a sign that the tycoon understands some of the challenges of business such as his, and is looking to meet them with imagination and courage. He said: “Our goal is to develop a pioneering and integrated newsroom for the 21st century, providing print, digital and television output 24/7.”
While the move is symbolically welcome and will encourage others to aspire to such notable positions, there is still a question for Mr Lebedev. The London Evening Standard (which is free and insulated from some market considerations), does not in my opinion reflect the great diversity of our capital and could do more to engage a broader audience. Let’s hope Mr Lebedev doesn’t miss that trick with London Live TV, which is set to launch in the spring.
Sailesh Ram was editor of Eastern Eye, the best-known Asian weekly in Britain, between 2009-2012.