openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Where are the black, female and working class people at the government press conferences?

Those most affected by the COVID-19 crisis have been woefully under-represented at the daily briefings, and it's contributed to the government's failure to address the needs of BAME people, women and the working class.

Holly Beattie
22 July 2020
Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance at the daily briefing on 1 July 2020
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Simon Dawson/PA Wire/PA Image

Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals are up to three times as likely as their white counterparts to die from COVID-19 yet were the most unrepresented in the media and government during the daily coronavirus briefings.

BAME journalists represented just 4.8% of those given the opportunity to ask a question at the COVID-19 briefings, a new detailed analysis of the daily briefings for openDemocracy has found. Of the 30 BAME journalists, only three journalists present over the past three months have been Black males, the group most at risk of dying from COVID-19.

The Public Health England report Understanding the impact on BAME communities found that the disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups ranges between 10% and 50%. Despite these findings, concerns about which were raised within the first month of the coronavirus pandemic, only 30 questions have been asked at the daily briefings by BAME journalists compared with 595 by White journalists.

Shailesh Solanki, Executive Editor at Asian Media Group, attended a daily briefing to ask about the steps government had taken to protect South Asian key workers and their families. Solanki was only invited to ask a question at the daily briefings on May 9 2020, almost eight weeks after they began.

“The Government was very slow to understand that more people from Black and Asian communities were dying as a result of becoming infected,” Solanki said.

“What we saw for the first four or five weeks [was that] the ethnic press were largely ignored by the Government, we weren’t invited to press conferences.”

The latest data from the Census 2011 showed that 14.5% of the English population were from BAME backgrounds, though this is likely to have increased. BAME individuals represented 11.7% of Government and public body officials at the daily briefings.

“The Government should represent all sections of society and if we don’t have a voice and a seat at the table then you’re ignored,” Solanki said.

“The experts were also saying that you need to have culturally sensitive messaging, so the penny dropped quite late into the pandemic, but when it did drop they did understand that the ethnic press had a very important role to play in this.

Having culturally sensitive messaging is also very important now you’re seeing the pandemic spreading in Leicester, in Blackburn there’s questions of a lockdown, a lot of those areas are South Asian communities.”

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minority communities as well as the Black Lives Matter movement has re-ignited the conversation about the importance of BAME representation. Last month, 50 ethnic minority journalists signed a letter urging the Society of Editors to take action on the lack of diversity in newsrooms.

Freelance journalist, Henry Bonsu, said he signed the letter as media editors had “largely failed to deliver” namely on “making sure their newsrooms reflect the ethnic diversity of modern Britain”.

After starting his career with the BBC in 1991, Bonsu decided to go freelance because “the alternative was a descent into despair” after facing challenges from “obvious racism to subtle hostility which is hard to pin down”.

Bonsu was also critical of the lack of representation at the daily briefings.

“I think that if there was better representation from these groups they would have raised questions much earlier and more directly with ministers,” he said

“There was some awful groupthink during the early days of those media briefings as they were dominated by a narrow ‘Westminster Village’ gotcha agenda. Mainstream organisations have worked hard to catch up in recent weeks, but they've still under-reported the possible link between high deaths of BAME medical staff and racism among hospital management.”

Women have also been less represented within the media and government at the daily briefings despite being disproportionately impacted by the financial implications of COVID-19.

The majority of frontline workers are female, accounting for 77%, women make up 69% of low paid workers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers are 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit since COVID-19 and are 14% more likely to have been furloughed.

Despite this, our analysis found that women represented only 31% of journalist questions and 21% of government or public body officials at the daily briefings.

Director of Women’s Budget Group, Mary-Ann Stephenson said:

“Men are more likely to die from Coronavirus, but women have faced more severe social and economic impacts.

Representation at the daily briefings is symbolic of who is seen as having an important part to play in tackling this crisis. We can see that lack of representation playing out in policy – for example the complete failure to address the crisis in childcare.”

Representation of the working classes and the impact of COVID-19 on low income households has also been lacking throughout the crisis, raising concerns over the direction of government policy.

Fawcett Society Chief Executive, Sam Smethers said:

“Working class women are going to be particularly affected by the lack of additional support during this crisis for families - we've called for increases to Child Benefit to help tackle the pressures they face.”

Office of National Statistics (ONS) data shows that COVID-19 has hit individuals from low income householders harder. Between March 1 and May 31 2020, ONS figures show that the mortality rate in the most deprived areas of England and Wales was more than double that of the least deprived areas.

“When people taking decisions aren't diverse, there is a risk of group-think, with too much agreement and too little challenge,” Smethers said.

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