I’m a big fan of Channel 4 news. Each evening at 7pm I sit down to watch it accompanied by my lap-top, ready to tweet about any story that catches my attention. The show’s main anchor Jon Snow, has a privileged position in my house. Like Sir David Attenborough, he has the persona of one of those wise old men, in whom you believe everything they say.
Another reason I’m a fan of the show is that they have so many Black and Asian journalists, like co-anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy, their Economics Editor Faisal Islam, and sports correspondent Keme Nzerem amongst others. But on the evening of 10th October I feel that they let themselves down badly (as did many others, judging by the comments on my Twitter time-line).
The incident in question was around a feature they ran on the new Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips. The film portrays the true life story of a ship captured by Somali pirates, but as is Hollywood’s way, tells the story from the view point of the heroic white ship’s captain of the film’s title. (As we are all know by now, even if a story is set in Africa, it must be seen through a white hero’s eyes.)
Before commencing an interview with the director and star, Channel 4’s Somali-born correspondent Jamal Osman gave a critique of the film, arguing that it misrepresents both how Somali pirates are recruited and how they operate. After this short piece Jon Snow sat down with Osman and the film’s director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks, and I settled down for a good debate about how complex African politics are often mis-represented on film. But that’s not what we got. Instead, Osman’s criticism were quickly dismissed by Greengrass, and Snow spent the rest of the interview fawning over the director and star, whilst Osman sat there ignored like a pork pie at a Jewish wedding. It was embarrassing.
Of the four men sat around that table, Jamal Osman is the most knowledgeable about the situation in Somalia. Not only was he born there, but as a journalist he has reported often on the pirates, and interviewed them in person. But despite this, his voice was the one we heard the least. For those not familiar with the players involved, the situation may seem strange, but if we look at the power-dynamic of those around that table, it all becomes very clear.
Despite his expertise on the matter, Osman is lowest on the totem pole. Jon Snow is a well-established, well respected journalist, Paul Greengrass is an A-List Hollywood director, and Tom Hanks is an Oscar winning movie star. Osman is just a struggling Black journalist trying to get his feet under the table at Channel 4, thus his opinion (even when it is an expert one) holds less weight.
Ironically, at the same time that these events were unfolding on Channel 4, over on African cable channel Oh TV, Trish Adudu on her topical chat show Real Talk, was discussing the recent re-branding of Black music radio station Choice FM, into ‘urban’ music station Capital Xtra. Former DJ’s Daddy Ernie (who was live in the studio), and Geoff Schumann and George Kay (who phoned in) complained that the white executives who were making all the decisions at the station, had no knowledge of the Black music and culture that they were supposed to be championing. And according to Daddy Ernie not only didn’t they know, but neither did they care. As veteran DJ’s were sacked, and the long established, well-loved station was re-named and re-positioned, the views of the specialist DJs at the station were not asked for, because they were not valued.
Back over at Channel 4 news I can fully understand if the staff there were excited to have Hollywood royalty in the studio. But if they wanted to focus all their attention on Hanks and Greengrass, why invite Osman to the table to sit there like a lemon?
Some people who watched the show may have seen things differently, or they may not have even noticed. But judging from comments on twitter and facebook, the whole situation resonated loudly with Black viewers. Many of us have been in the same situation in meetings at work. We may be the sole Black voice in the room, and though we are invited to the table, our opinions are often ignored and side-lined. And then we face the same dilemma that Osman did. We can either accept the ‘diss’, and sit quietly there like the unwelcomed visitor at a family meal, or we can push our viewpoint more forcefully, and risk being accused of being a trouble maker, or an angry Black man/woman ‘with a chip on our shoulder’.
I don’t blame Osman for choosing the first option. I felt sorry for him. Like so many of us, he’s just trying to keep his job. He’s just getting established on Channel 4 News and probably doesn’t want to rock the boat and harm his own advancement. I personally find it more difficult to hold my tongue, which is probably why I’ve made so little progress in the white corporate world. But when even the right-on, racially inclusive Channel 4 News can be guilty of such side-lining, then we know what we’re up against.
So to Channel 4, Capital Xtra, and those predominately white board-rooms up and down the country – its not enough to just give us a seat at the table, you also have to listen to what we have to say. Try it, you might learn something!!