Samantha Asumadu is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. She worked primarily in East Africa’s Great Lakes region before relocating to London. Samantha is a prominent campaigner for more diversity in the British media and launched Media Diversity UK and its accompanying Twitter feed @WritersofColour earlier this year. Over 100,000 views later, she kindly agreed to talk to TBB about her work and commitment to media inclusion.
When and why did you decide on journalism as a career path?
I fell in to it. After Uni I became a runner for a documentary post house, left after a while and eventually got a freelance contract making 3 x 5 minute videos for Sky’s Showbiz website in 2007; interviewing such luminaries as Katy Price (aka Jordan) and Dita von Tisse. My contract ended and I went to live in Uganda with my partner at the time where I initially worked for a local production company, scriptwriting and production co-ordinating. I started to pitch to news outlets such as Agency France Presse (AFP), who I made a feature on Acid Attacks for, and Deutsche Welle, who I filmed a story on the trade chain certification (something like the Kimberley process) of blood minerals in Congo.
I started doing breaking news journalism when a tragic landslide in Eastern Uganda occurred in 2010 which killed over 300 people and displaced many more. I went there with my partner who was working for Aljazeera and on the way there pitched to CNN and others and did phone interviews for Sky and France 24. Journalism was always secondary to my goal, of being a documentary filmmaker. I prefer long form journalism where you get to know the people and their stories more intimately and then are able to give a proper account that acknowledges the complexities of life.
You are a campaigner and founder of Media Diversified, please explain why you launched this online service?
I launched Media Diversified because someone had to. There is a need and a market for news, story and debate by people from diverse backgrounds. This has been proved by the number of views we’ve had in 4 months, which is well over 200,000 now. Because of this success, we’ve had the opportunity to partner with the New Statesman for a week of articles, have had our writers published in The Telegraph, Independent, the Guardian and go onto o radio to discuss some of the issues they’ve brought up in their articles. The #AllWhiteFrontPages campaign focuses upon the British media’s need to diversify itself and not only publish work by writers of colour, but more importantly to include ethnic minorities in their stories without portraying them negatively or simply reinforcing traditional stereotypes. The media in any country should be a reflection of its society and has a responsibility to cater to its readers. I didn’t see this happening so Media Diversified was born.
Do you believe there exists a negative cycle, in which, fewer black British youngsters opt toward journalism due to disillusionment with opportunities at the apex of the industry?
Absolutely, to break that cycle myself I had to move hundreds of miles away to Uganda. Thankfully in the next couple of years I think that kind of drastic action won’t be necessary. I was struck by this paragraph in an article in The Voice, called ‘The Evening Standard of Whiteness’ –
‘Delivering a media literacy class to a group of black students at a south London secondary school, several years ago, one boy asked a brutally frank question, he said: “Sir, if all the images of black males shown to me are negative, therefore my perceptions of black males are negative, how am I supposed to succeed?” I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head and replied, “That’s entirely up to you, son.” I had lied. The odds are heavily stacked against him.’
Role models are so important and one of the few and in fact the most senior black executive at the BBC, Pat Younge leaves this year. I don’t see many coming up behind him. You do of course have Ann Mensah at Sky, Ann Alexander who is the only black woman political lobby journalist as well as a producer at ITV and a few others.
Pat Younge was quoted in the Guardian as saying that the US TV industry was much more favourable to ethnic minorities (we’re a global majority may I just add, and there are no borders on the Internet where increasingly people watch their news and drama). I got into a short but heated debate with one of the producers of Channel 4’s Youngers at a recent event at BAFTA called ‘Diversify’. He see’s it as an aspirational show bucking stereotypes, no drug dealers ‘despite’ being from a council estate.
I see it is as the continuing stereotypes that the white media push us towards. Can we not aspire to be scientists, physicians, and novelists? We need more ethnically diverse writers and producers as Pat also goes on to say ‘“The challenge we face in UK TV is can we get more black writers through the system who can create these rounded parts, that will give these actors the work they are looking for.
“One of the things black people will say is, ‘my colour is a big part of some of the stories I want to tell.’ You need writers who understand these stories who can bring them to screen.”
Lee Pinkerton wrote a great article on our site which I recommend anyone to read. It has links to orgs that do try and help young black teenagers ‘Footballers, rappers and drug dealers – the need for positive role models’.
Where do you apportion the bulk of the blame?
I find apportioning blame isn’t very useful or pragmatic. We need to identify where the problems lie and route out the rot, now rather than later. I’d suggest that TV execs get out of their chairs, walk out of their offices and go to creative writing workshops, universities and colleges and find the talent while it’s young. Put them in writing rooms, give them briefs, or don’t, but pay them to write and develop scripts. Working 12 hours at a call centre or junior office job dos not leave any young person with the time or energy to be writing dramas that we want to see. We need to develop the talent, but we also need the people commissioning to understand the talent. So while there is no need for quotas, there is a need for equity. So though a recruitment officer may just want to hire someone who looks just like them they’re just going to have to suppress their prejudice and recruit the equally as good black or brown person who interviews for the job.
Do you foresee blogging and online journalism eventually replacing traditional print journalism operations?
No. It won’t replace it, but will be and more or less already is an adjunct to it. Your average family in suburbia despite their griping won’t be abandoning their daily paper deliveries from the newsagent. Often the paper you saw your Mum or Dad reading at the breakfast table is what you go on to read as an adult. I think you may however see the weekend papers get bigger and the weekday ones bar the Financial Times get smaller. There is a beauty (and cache) to having your work published in print. I’d hate that to be lost. I just want the UK’s press to diversify. Indeed, they need to or they’ll continue to haemorrhage cash.
What is your working experience of the media in East Africa?
Mine would be an outside view despite living there. I worked for international outlets not local media. My one hope would be that the excellent Ugandan journalist I met will get wages comparable to foreign journalists as their work is just as good if not better than the foreign journalists I know. They actually understand the culture, know for example what the implications of interviewing a Buganda employee of a Banyankole or vice versa may be.
Who has inspired you in your working life so far?
Ryszard Kapuściński is a great inspiration to me. His books, which chronicle his time reporting in Africa and the Americas from the fifties onwards, are beautifully written, politically charged and illuminating. He called it ‘literary reportage’ I try to do the same in the reportage I write.
Presently I’d say Michela Wrong, she’s written three fantastic books on Africa, one on Eritrea, another on DRC and the most recent on Kenya. She was a journalist for FT, who are strangely the best outlet for foreign news reporting in my opinion.
Earlier in the year, you wrote a stinging article in the Guardian regarding the current levels of minority representation in the UK media. Has having that platform boosted support for Media Diversified a.k.a. @Writersofcolour?
Definitely, often I find the writers through recommendations or reading blog posts and via twitter and Facebook, but some of the early ones found me through the Guardian article, It’s time to boost ethnic minority representation in the media and an interview I did for BBC Derbyshire. On the website I try and publish articles that are more or less timeless. i.e. you could read them in 5 years and they will be relevant. I’m hoping however that the Guardian article won’t be relevant in 5 years other than the links to our website. We’re trying to bring change so that articles like that don’t need to be written. A recent study shows that people, including medical personnel, assume black people feel less pain than white people. They called it the ‘racial empathy gap’… This I believe leads to the discrepancy in sentencing of BAME people compared to white people, to the over representation of black people in stop and search figures and the lack of attention to stories of crime and violence against people of colour. If nobody is reporting on these crimes, then there is nobody to hold the police and institutions to account. That is the crux of why media representation and equity is imperative, it literally affects the quality of our lives and can lead to our deaths. Only by visibility, the normalisation of our voices in the mainstream press and on broadcast news and drama will we see this racial empathy gap lessening and then we may see equity throughout our institutions. I hope in my lifetime.
You are perhaps best known as a documentary filmmaker. Upon which types of issues do you invariably focus?
I love this question mainly because I hope any commissioners reading will get in touch and help fund my next two films! My first film was for Aljazeera English’s Witness strand. It’s about 3 women rally drivers in Uganda, The Super Ladies. I took a look into their lives and the patriarchal culture of rally. There are no constant issues I focus on however; it’s stories that I tell. My 2nd film, (half finished) is about the influence of a secretive neo-conservative group in the U.S on Uganda’s anti-gay bill and the increasingly febrile atmosphere towards LGBT people from Africa’s governments and the population at large and how the exploitation of this atmosphere by born again pastors & their U.S mega church funders is exacerbated by there being weak or no money laundering bills. After that I want to go back to my one true love African women and hopefully go to Eritrea to do a film about women warriors. So if I had to say what I focus on it’s women, their lives and telling their stories whatever they may be.
What qualities do you believe are needed to succeed in this area of journalism?
To succeed I believe you need persistence and contacts. You may be the most talented person out there but if you give up after the first hurdles (and there will be many) then you’ll never get anywhere. It took me a year after I filmed the taster for Super Ladies to get a broadcaster to take a chance on me and give me $30k to film it. Contacts, because again you may be the most talented person that you know but if you don’t have people to call for advice or to call to give you other names to call for advice you’ll stay in a talented vacuum and nobody will see your film apart from you, your friends and family, that’s if you can find the money to fund it yourself. Admittedly YouTube is great now for showcasing your work, but there is a certain level of satisfaction and again cache in having it broadcasted into people’s front rooms all around the world and Rageh Omaar etc. announcing your name as the director before your film is broadcast.
What are you doing once this interview is over?
Once this interview is over I have to prepare for the NUS black Students conference. I’m facilitating the media workshop which I’m very much looking forward to. Hope to get a discussion going not only about #AllWhiteFrontPages but how do we progress and proceed from here. The UK press should not be a closed shop to black and Asian people and it’s time we took the initiative to end the mono-racial culture of the press.