Working at The Voice, Britain's premier Black newspaper, gave journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch essential tools to navigate the media industry.
There are things I did at The Voice newspaper as a young journalist in the 1990s of which I’m not entirely proud. A photoshoot involving a snowboard, a cheesy interview about the festival Kwanzaa. My first ever copy was essentially some PR puff about a new single from American R&B artist Faith Evans.
But then I went on to write about racism in football, anorexia in the Black community, the exclusion of pregnant schoolgirls, and the emerging culture of British hip hop. I was a Black teenage girl, writing about Black teenage girls. Before there was a language for ‘For us, by us’, The Voice was a crucial part of the media landscape in Britain that was doing just that.
Would mainstream media outlets have covered those stories at the time? If so, would they have centred on the Black experience or, instead, moulded it to fit a white gaze? Would their journalistic instincts, the clear call of public interest, have extended to include not just racism, systemic unfairness, but also - and these are perhaps the early works I’m most proud of - features about cultural innovation that are simply allowed to radiate Black joy?
I would later gain insight into the culture and content of those organisations when I became a correspondent for The Guardian, and freelanced for The Times, The Telegraph, Sky News, the BBC, CNN, Channel 4, the Financial Times, Prospect, Marie Claire, and many others. I could offer my anecdotal answer to these questions, and also cite the numerous studies conducted since the mid 1990s which reveal an abject failure by the news media to reflect the society it claims to report upon.
But the reality is that I may not have got there at all, were it not for my early experience of incubation at The Voice.
There is no way to describe the confidence that comes from feeling a sense of belonging and solidarity in a place of work. When I began writing for The Voice, the number of Black journalists working on national broadsheets and as TV broadcasters was negligible. Other than the grandees of Black British media - Trevor Phillips and Moira Stewart, and the crucial work of Darcus Howe - the idea of Black people reporting, investigating and presenting news and current affairs was a completely fantastical one to me. As is so often the case, the stories of important Black journalists who had been operating throughout the twentieth century - including Una Marson, Barbara Blake Hannah - were invisible and inaccessible to me.
And yet here was a newsroom that was fully staffed, owned and executed by Black professionals. From the editor to the secretary, the reporters and the photographers, it was an assembly of people who shared a sense of community, cultural heritage and discourse - an intellectual curiosity about the Black experience and about how to tell those stories.
It was only later, in newsrooms where I was the visible ‘other’ as one of few, or where there were no other Black journalists, that I came to appreciate how nurturing a space that was. Older, more experienced journalists took an interest in nurturing my enthusiasm for writing and reporting. It was not a perfect organisation - and had problems of leadership and financial management that, even from my inexperienced perspective, created challenges for the journalists that it hired. But the threat of feeling alienated or racially othered by microaggressions or bias - unconscious or overt - was a non-issue.
The confidence that engendered - not just in me, but in many other young Black journalists I encountered who were beginning their careers there - stayed with me when I later entered the giants of the British media. It was a confidence I would need. These spaces make you highly conscious of your difference, and reward those who attempt to assimilate into the whiteness that characterised their culture. Ironically, for a profession that is supposedly interested in uncovering truths, there has been little introspection or honest analysis of either this culture or how it impacts upon the people who must inhabit it.
Even at the time, many of the people who knew me when I worked at The Voice, questioned why we needed a Black newspaper at all. It was segregationist, they thought - it presumed a homogeneity in the Black community. There are both positive and negative elements to my response.
A negative is that, whilst the rest of the media has never overtly styled itself as ‘the white media’, that’s exactly what it has been. From the tabloids peddling racist tropes about immigration and Black criminality, to the broadsheets promoting fringe voices who appear to have internalised anti-Blackness, it’s still often hard to avoid the sense that Britain’s media organisations don’t work for, or include, Black people.
Every Black journalist knows at least one person of colour in a predominantly white newsroom who has been able to get through, and enjoy success, as a result of assimilating into the pre-existing culture and narrative, and avoiding drawing attention to either their perspective, lived experience, or their identity as a Black person. Recognition within the media is possible, but it comes at a cost.
A positive reason for celebrating a Black press - as well as all the other media outlets that speak specifically and directly to minority communities - is that it creates spaces in which we are not minorities.
This is something I have come to value more since my time at The Voice, more than two decades ago. As political and media narratives have become more polarised and polarising, my role has often been to serve as the token Black person in a discussion or debate, in which I’m required to justify both my legitimacy as a contributor, and the idea that racism exists.
Every Black commentator I know - regardless of their professional training or journalistic interest - receives dozens of requests to appear in still overwhelmingly white media spaces whenever a story about racism, or official attempts to deny its validity, becomes significant news.
For many news organisations, this is the single role of Black journalists in debating questions about race or explaining what it means. When people ask me how I personally cope with the fatiguing nature of these requests, I often think back to my entry into journalism, at The Voice, and quietly offer my thanks for the resilience it gave me, and how long it continues to last.
Afua Hirsch is a journalist, broadcaster, author, and Wallis Annenberg Chair of the University of Southern California.