I think this is quite lovely, the multiple levels upon which Adua Hirsch has misunderstood her own industry, the national media. She’s complaining about how few non-pink people (she says BAME but this is what she means) appear on the covers of major magazines in the UK. The underlying reason for this can only be one of two in her mind, either the manner in which editorial staff just don’t give a toss about such race issues or, more worrisome, the racism inherent in the system.
Both are those great big hairy and dangly ones. Editorial staff obsess over who is going to be on the cover, it’s one of the most analysed parts of the production process. They don’t ignore race issues here, it’s at the centre of their work.
But first, a different conceptual error, one very common unfortunately:
This article was amended on 11 April 2018. It originally compared the percentage of BAME figures on the magazine covers we looked at with the BAME population of England and Wales. A better comparison would be with the UK as a whole, which the ONS estimated in June 2016 to be 13.7%
No, it wouldn’t be a better comparison. Instead, what we want to know is the BAME (or non-pink) percentage population in the target market of a magazine. Or in the target population of anything at all in fact. London’s mayor recently published a report bemoaning the lack of BAME in senior management positions, which is to make the same mistake. As some will have noted, large scale immigration is fairly recent in these isles. That means that the BAME percentage of the population is age dependent. Forgive me using stats just from memory but the 2011 census told us that it’s 96% pink among the over 80s, 74% so among the 4 year olds (I assume that any admixture is taken to be non-pink to gain that number). So, who do we draw the senior managers of public services from? Well, despite observable results it’s not the 4 year olds. A “fair” portion of BAME managers would be, even by the standards being used by the activists, something approximating to the 50 to 60 age group that senior managers are drawn from. Which is, given the age structure of the BAME population, different from the percentage of the population which is non-pink as a whole.
It isn’t true that the correct comparator group is the percentage of the whole population. Think of magazines for a moment, Saga is going to be appealing to a different racial mix of population than Steam Train Toys 4 Year Olds Can Make Quarterly is.
But on to the larger mistake being made here. One that could have been solved if Hirsch had gone speak to her own editorial team:
New research by the Guardian’s data team shows how little has changed. The covers of some the UK’s most popular monthlies remain overwhelmingly white.
Of 214 covers published by the 19 bestselling glossies last year, only 20 featured a person of colour. That’s only 9.3%, although 13.7% of the UK are BAME, according to the Office for National Statistics’ latest estimate, published in June 2016. The most diverse month was October, when two magazines showed a black model and one featured an Asian model on the cover. But in two months in 2017, March and May, the front covers of every single title we analysed featured images of white people exclusively. The covers of four magazines – Marie Claire, HomeStyle, Your Home and Prima – did not feature a single person of colour throughout 2017.
The question she needed to ask was, well, how are such pictures chosen?
Ever wonder why Diana appeared so often on covers? Because magazines with Diana on the cover sold more copies than magazines without. And that’s something that’s well known in magazine land, something well known to her own editorial team at The Guardian.
Perhaps this does mean racism in British society but if it does it’s among the readership, not the achingly hip and right on who make up the media production industry. Magazines are a capitalist market – they aim for profit that is. They do what is profitable. At which point we get Gary Becker’s observation, discrimination is punished in a free market by loss of that profit. So, the reason there are few BAME on magazine covers is that putting them on them makes less money. Which is a reflection of whatever you want it to be even if it’s not evidence of discrimination by the producers.
But what’s really lovely about the whining is this:
One obvious indicator of the historic failure of the biggest glossy titles to cater for black and Asian women has been the mushrooming of magazines aimed directly at them. From long-established magazines such as Pride and Black Beauty and Hair to new black platforms such as Black Ballad, Gal-Dem, Glam Africa, and Skin Deep, and Asian titles such as Asian Woman, DesiMag and Burnt Roti, women of colour have been reaching for magazines that normalise their look and the issues facing their communities.
The market, perhaps combined with that capitalist lust for profits, side of our economy has already solved this problem. Magazines aimed at that BAME population have lots of BAME people on their covers. We’ve solved the problem itself.
At which point we’ve got to ask what in buggery is the whining about?
Other than, obviously, getting paid to write a couple of thousand words for The Guardian over nothing very much at all? Which, to be fair and speaking as a freelance who has written for The Guardian myself, is a damn good gig.