Some board members ‘deeply angry’ about claim racism was not a factor in coverage of Duchess of Sussex
The media industry body the Society of Editors was in turmoil on Tuesday night with some members of its board said to be “deeply angry” over a statement it put out claiming that racism was never a factor in coverage of the Duchess of Sussex.
More than 160 journalists of colour and the editors of the Guardian, Financial Times and HuffPost have objected to the statement, written by the SoE’s executive director, Ian Murray, which argued that Meghan’s claims that parts of the media were racist were “not acceptable”.
Following the backlash, discussions were under way over the publication of a new statement intended to address the concerns. But the Guardian understands the SoE’s board was split over the wording of that statement, with a dispute over the phrasing of a possible apology and some urgently demanding a clear change in tone.
There were calls for an emergency meeting to address the decision to release the statement, which one member said was “deeply unfortunate”.
The SoE draws members from nearly 400 national and regional outlets and says that while its members “are as different as … the communities and audiences they serve”, they “share the values that matter”.
The board split came after 168 journalists, writers and broadcasters of colour from across the British media wrote an open letter describing the SoE’s initial statement as “laughable” proof of “an institution and an industry in denial”.
In the interview, Meghan summarised the couple’s view of much of the British media by saying: “From the beginning of our relationship, they were so attacking and incited so much racism.”
Murray said on Monday that the claims were “not acceptable” and made without “supporting evidence”, insisting that the UK media “has a proud record of calling out racism”. In a piece headlined “UK media not bigoted” he said the tone of tabloid coverage was simply driven by “holding a spotlight up to those in positions of power, celebrity or influence”.
The signatories of the open letter – including staff and contributors at the Guardian, Metro, Grazia and Channel 4 – say they “deplore and reject” the SoE’s defence, which they argued “shows a wilful ignorance [of] not just the discriminatory treatment of Meghan … but that of other people from an ethnic minority background”.
The letter concluded: “The Society of Editors should have used the comments by the Sussexes to start an open and constructive discussion about the best way to prevent racist coverage in future … The blanket refusal to accept there is any bigotry in the British press is laughable, does a disservice to journalists of colour and shows an institution and an industry in denial.”
The row reflects a fierce debate over the extent of the media’s culpability in the issues raised by Harry and Meghan, with the Daily Mail most frequently cited. Articles raised as evidence of discriminatory treatment include those saying that Meghan is “(almost) straight outta Compton” and has “exotic” DNA.
Murray’s statement was immediately the subject of controversy on social media and in private. A tweet from Press Gazette linking to the statement was viewed more than 13m times, the trade publication said, with most of more than 3,000 replies disagreeing with the defence of the industry.
Earlier, the organisation’s board was divided on whether it was an appropriate reaction. “It’s incredibly frustrating because that is far from a universal view in the media,” one said. “It’s tone-deaf.”
The statement was not cleared with the board, although another member pointed out that statements were routinely issued without approval. “I don’t think there was anything out of turn about this,” they said.
The Guardian has requested an explanation for how the statement came to be published. Its editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said: “Every institution in the United Kingdom is currently examining its own position on vital issues of race and the treatment of people of colour. As I have said before, the media must do the same. It must be much more representative and more self-aware.”
Roula Khalaf, the editor of the Financial Times, also disagreed with the statement. “There is work to be done across all sectors in the UK to call out and challenge racism,” she said. “The media has a critical role to play, and editors must ensure that our newsrooms and coverage reflect the societies we live in.”
In a BBC interview on Tuesday, Murray defended the statement and reiterated that he felt negative coverage of Harry and Meghan had been balanced by earlier positive coverage. He responded to the suggestion that the “straight outta Compton” headline was an example of the problem by saying: “I’m not au fait completely with areas of … California.”
On Twitter, the HuffPost UK editor, Jess Brammar, wrote: “I’m aware I won’t make myself popular with my peers but I’m just going to stand up and say it: I don’t agree with statement from my industry body that it is ‘untrue that sections of UK press were bigoted’.” Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, the editor of gal-dem, said the SoE “simply deny there’s any issue”.
Others suggested that the statement suggested a failure to grapple with the underlying structural issues that some have identified as a factor in coverage that goes well beyond the royal couple. “Pains me to say that my industry has been in denial about its institutional racism for all the two decades I’ve been in it,” said Sathnam Sanghera, a columnist at the Times.
The Society of Editors did not respond to a request for comment.