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Words: Jacqueline Springer
Photography: Sabb Adams

Lecturer Jacqueline Springer explores Britain’s media landscape and explores where Black female journalists Charlene White and Nadine White fit in…

Britain acquired its first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, in 1702. Two centuries and two decades later, the UK ‘beat’ America in the technological race to become the first national broadcaster when the BBC was launched in November 1922. The desire to communicate to a nation’s populace had also been framed as an international competition. Twenty years after the BBC’s launch, Jamaican-born journalist, activist and playwright Una Marson became the first Black woman employed by the corporation to produce a radio programme, Caribbean Voices. Marson, whose career would boast work for British civil-rights organisation the League of Coloured Peoples, envisioned and executed programming that provided a global platform for Caribbean literary art tussling with the binds of then colonial rule, cultural identities, self-identification and confronting indoctrinated views of legitimising one’s art, one’s self, by way of the ‘Mother Country’.

In 1965, Eric Anthony Abrahams became the BBC’s first Black television reporter. In 1968, Barbara Blake Hannah became Thames Television’s first Black female news reporter. In 1973, Trevor McDonald became the first Black reporter at ITN (Independent Television News), going on to further this feat in 1992 when he became the first solo—and Black—anchor for News at Ten. Four years prior to that, the BBC, ITN’s forever rival, had engaged Moira Stuart as the corporation’s first Black female television newsreader.

1702. 1922. 1942. 1965. 1968. 1973. 1981. 1992.

These dates appear distinct but are, of course, linked. All tied to media—mass media—and its development and opportunity as defined, denied and eventually ‘granted’ to journalists by way of their gender, race, skills and talent. These dates, while reflecting achievement, also reflect failings because the media—that powerful, contrary beast—has always possessed the power to grant or withhold opportunity within its print and broadcast sectors. Within the media, its power resides in its gate-keeping. Of information. Of opportunity. In the granting and the withholding. That Marson, Abrahams, Hannah, McDonald and Stuart achieved what they did, when they did, and the pride many harbour about their achievements, says everything about what media opportunity and gate-keeping do to us as under-represented media consumers: makes us grateful for equalisation.

In 2014, Charlene White became the first Black woman to co-host News at Ten. In 2020, Nadine White became print media’s and The Independent’s first ever Race Correspondent. In doing so, they both made history. New ‘firsts’, if you will. They are firsts in their respective achievements because under-representation remains and every achievement over the decades reflects where all had not been permitted to go before. Charlene White and Nadine White are related. Their fathers are first cousins. Despite shared blood, ambition and industry employment, they speak individually from their respective professional positions. The Whites’ respective journeys into journalism were distinctly personal—same destination but through different, emotional, terrain.

“I’ve always enjoyed reading,” says Nadine over Zoom. “Writing more specifically. I always excelled in English, language and literature, so my relationship with writing probably goes a bit further back. I went through some difficult times during my pre-teen years; I lost my dad when I was 11.... As an 11-year-old, losing a parent, you don’t really quite know how to process that, but I found solace in diary entries and that was my way of expressing my thoughts and making sense of them in a way I couldn’t through conversations with people. When it came to thinking about a career, the prospect of journalism always seemed unattainable, not very realistic, because looking at the TV, picking up newspapers and magazines, I didn’t often see Black people’s perspectives reflected, really. A lot of the news and commentary didn’t really speak to me, so it took me a while for me to realise I had to be in it to win it.”

Did writing grant Nadine, then a child, amid her parental loss, a sense of expressive authority? “It was the first kind of major bereavement I’d experienced,” she explains. “It literally turned my world upside down and I didn’t feel as though I could speak to anyone about how I was feeling. Or not feeling... Turning to diary entries and writing down my thoughts and feelings gave me that authority. It was healing for me. My relationship with writing, before journalism, before work, had first and foremost always been really personal. Where I didn’t feel I could speak with people and have conversations, writing and writing down my thoughts helped with getting clarity and authority—finding my voice.”

For Charlene, who, like Nadine, hails from South London but its eastern division, a love of writing also came by way of family. Adults who valued her relationship with words and writing. Until they didn’t. “Like Nadine, I loved writing at school,” she says. “I absolutely loved it. I come from a family where if I wrote a poem at school and my mum and dad really liked it and they had a family friend coming around, they would make me stand in the living room and read aloud the poem or speech I’d written. They’d make me do that because they were really proud. My aunt would regularly have birthday parties at her house and as a part of her party, my job, from my mid-teens and probably even before that, was to write a speech. I’d have to write a speech for her birthday. I’d have to read this speech and perform this speech in a room full of grown-ups, but I really enjoyed it. I’d find anecdotes; I realised if I wrote a certain way, people would laugh and find it funny. So I started inserting jokes. The more I embarrassed my aunt, the funnier people found it, so I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just do that.’”

Being so young, Charlene didn’t recognise the power of writing when she would pen those speeches. “I didn’t know that journalism jobs were a thing at all until we had a careers day at school,” she says. “I didn’t know you could get paid to write! We sat down and watched Trevor [McDonald] every evening. News was always on in our house. So I thought, perhaps that’s the perfect job for me: that kind of puts those two things together and that’s why I decided to be a journalist. My parents were really against it once it had sparked that interest; they were really, really against me doing it.”

Why? “Because they’re immigrants. Their parents didn’t move them to this country for their children to not be accountants or lawyers or doctors or dentists or any of those really stable jobs. They were, I guess, fearful. I say ‘I guess’, but they were fearful. They said I’d be unemployed for the rest of my life and so I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to do it. But I fought them, and fought them hard. I remember saying to them ‘You can’t raise an independent woman that when she makes an independent decision, you tell her ‘no!’ It doesn’t work that way.’ Obviously, that didn’t go down very well.”

Charlene’s recollection jogged Nadine’s memory about a deal of sorts she struck with her mother to assuage her concerns about the perceived instability of following a journalistic career. “I thought: go to uni, read English. I’ll try my hand at journalism after that and if it doesn’t work then at least I can fall back on teaching,” she says. “That was something my mum was quite satisfied with, even though I’d always had this burning desire to venture into journalism. It’s interesting, comparing the two experiences.”

Nadine headed to Birbeck University and Charlene to the London College of Printing (now the University of Arts, London). Among the many objectives qualified journalists are expected to uphold is that they hold power to account. Political. Judicial. Religious. Monarchical. Corporate. Irrespective of where power of influence over society’s function resides, journalists must remain dogged in undertaking their jobs without fear of intimidation or interference from the power they investigate, challenge or expose. They do this because truth matters. Journalists should, journalists must, retain hold of the shield of truth as they go into professional battle. It’s all very masculinised. Idealistically violent. But mired in reality.

What news story do they recall sticking in their minds, growing up? A story that gave them pause to reconsider the world around them? That opened it up? Robbed them of a semblance of innocence? “In terms of innocence stripped of the world, via the news, it would have to be Stephen Lawrence,” offers Charlene of the 1993 murder of the 18-year-old at the hands of five white men. “I was 13. It was up the road from my house and the way my parents reacted to that was very different from what we were seeing on TV. Well Hall cinema, which doesn’t exist anymore but was right by the roundabout where he was murdered, was a cinema I would go to with my friends, with my aunt and with my mum. That was really as far as my parents wanted us to go into Eltham. They were very fearful of us even going there. When you’re 13 and you live in South London, nowhere else exists, and when this big thing happened IN South London, that really did make me very aware of the world.”

Nadine recalls the time she heard of Damilola Taylor’s murder, which had a profound impact on her. “I grew up in Brixton. Peckham’s not far from Brixton, so to know that such a horrific tragedy happened a stone’s throw from where I grew up—a child was killed, bleeding to death in a stairwell—it shook me, completely. Growing up in Brixton prior to gentrification, there was a lot of crime; it was kind of the norm. But to counter that, there were also beautiful experiences of growing up in Brixton that often didn’t get told, portrayed, in the media. But to know that something like that happened so close to home was really scary for me. It changed me.” It was not lost on us that their nominated stories both involved the deaths of young Black males. Killings that should never have happened. Killings that today exceed in frequency and similarity: random acts of fatal violence against children on their way home from school and targeted, vicious, racially-motivated, mob killings of teenagers.

In 2018, Nadine was shortlisted for The Hugh Cudlipp Award for the work she undertook working at The Voice Newspaper, the UK’s only national Afro-Caribbean weekly. Just two years later, she and her Huffington Post colleague, Emma Youle, were shortlisted for The Paul Foot Award for their wide-ranging investigation in the SPAC Nation church. While on maternity leave, Charlene came up with a programme idea she presented to her ITN bosses on her return: a children’s TV special exploring vital social issues, communicating their complexities with contributions from fellow specialists. Charlene went on to win a Royal Television Society Award for IRL with Team Charlene. It explored race, prejudice, protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. She actually doubled her RTS glassware, sharing another with fellow Loose Women panellists Kelle Bryan, Brenda Edwards and Judi Love for their daytime first: an all-Black female panel on the female-centred talk show. When asked to name the work they’re proudest of given their respective pathways, they understandably cited the SPAC Nation expose and the IRL with Team Charlene special.

It is policy for journalists to pre-submit questions to MPs. Beyond campaign/policy launches, most engagement with them in fast-moving news cycles demands approaches for comment on numerous issues. So question pre-submissions are par for the course. In January, Nadine submitted questions to the Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, enquiring about her absence from a cross-party drive to encourage the take up of the Covid vaccine among ‘ethnic minorities’ in the UK. Badenoch accused Nadine of spreading “disinformation”, of being “creepy” in enquiring about “those who didn’t participate in the video and demand they explain themselves.” Badenoch, whose absence was explained due to her taking part in a vaccine trial, uploaded Nadine’s questions to her Twitter account along with her assertions that Nadine had “sought to sow distrust by making up claims I refused to take part.” A fellow MP weighed in online in support of Badenoch. Badenoch’s online action led to Nadine locking her Twitter account since her work email and telephone number were deluged by those who’d taken Badenoch’s Twitter thread as permission to offload their feelings about Badenoch’s interpretation. They did so by threatening and abusing Nadine, a journalist holding a public servant to account.

Nadine received full public support from her then employers. This is important. Not only on the basis of holding power to account but also that the support be as highly visible and publicly official as the rabid abuse itself. “[The Huffington Post] were very upset and they had my back,” says Nadine. “Jess Brammer, who at the time was the Editor-in-Chief, went in hard; she was very, very vocal in her support of me and in condemnation of the minister’s actions, and my colleagues rallied round. It was really heartening to see the outpouring of support, not just from my HuffPost colleagues but across the entire media industry. That it was unbecoming of an elected official to behave in that way.” The Coalition for Women in Journalism issued a statement condemning the minister. Brammar went on to submit a complaint to the Cabinet Office in response to Badenoch’s conduct, which stated: “Young, female, Black journalists receive some of the worst abuse on Twitter, and to behave in this way is extremely disappointing—even before you consider that the person involved is the minister for equalities.”

Charlene is sadly no stranger to online abuse—abuse, like Nadine’s, that was in response to her doing her job. Abuse that, while related to her professional actions, was gendered and racist in its supposed response to their professional conduct. Charlene has endured annual abuse that willfully ignores her reasons for not wearing a poppy onscreen. For being on the television at all. For being female while reading the news. For being Black while reading the news. Moya Bailey, an African-American academic, explored the destructive union of the hatred of women and racism which birthed a hybrid she christened ‘misogynoir’. Misogynoir is another means of social hatred, but it is specific. A twinned attack. A dum-dum bullet of abuse, ricocheting further into those who already have to try harder to enter the sector because of—yes, sexism and racism. The very tools used against them for doing their jobs by those who believe they should not hold the jobs because they’re Black and female, are the same tools employed to abuse and degrade them for doing their jobs.

Few to none are identified, chastised or prosecuted despite holding accounts created on platforms where tackling abuse has been declared a priority. Do either feel that younger readers/viewers believe in the value of news? That they trust the media they are both still enthralled in creating? Charlene claims that “25-year-olds and younger won’t be watching me. They’ll be reading what Nadine is doing, but they won’t be watching me. The younger generation doesn’t consume TV news in the way that our generation did. It’s that age-old issue that TV has: how to galvanise a younger generation.” Nadine says she often worries “that the younger generation don’t necessarily read my stuff or articles published on The Independent, The Guardian or the BBC as much as they might engage with platforms like The Shade Borough and UK Gossip TV on Instagram, or alternative platforms. I feel like they see the content and those platforms as more relatable and trustworthy than the so-called traditional mainstream platforms like The Independent. I think there’s a big trust issue. Parts of the media are responsible for eroding trust from within marginalised communities over the years, and there’s a lot of repairing that needs to take place—a lot of trust issues.”

Charlene chimes in: “This is why Nadine is special. Younger readers/viewers might not trust in a publication, but they will trust an individual and I feel like they do with Nadine. I defy a young person to read what Nadine has written and to disbelieve it because of the name that she has for herself and the trust that people have in that name. They may not trust the media, but they will trust in you—and that’s an incredible power to have. A power that you, Nadine, have worked your arse off to get and totally deserve.” Nadine beams: “I just want to reach through the laptop and hug you!”

The damning dichotomy is that British media is old, but equal racial and gendered representation within it remains in its infancy. That two women, from the same family, working in different realms of the same sector are at the top of their game speaks to their surmounting of intentionally-placed hurdles. To be a Black journalist is to carry not just the responsibilities of one’s job—the legacies of yore, expectations of where they’re headed, presumptions that they only got their jobs because they tick diversity boxes—but also journalism’s ongoing challenge: to engage and provide oversight for us all about how those in power conduct themselves in their reign(s) over us. Charlene and Nadine are there, out on the frontlines, representing for us in more ways than one.

Posted on September 12, 2022