The newspaper that gave Black Britain a megaphone

When clashes between residents and police erupted onto the streets of Brixton in 1981, in the heart of London’s African-Caribbean community, the British press largely told one side of the story.

The Brixton riots, as they became known, were primarily depicted as a challenge to the rule of law. The press emphasized criminal elements, characterizing young, Black male protesters as “troublemakers” during those disturbances, according to studies cited in a subsequent analysis of how the UK media covered riots in 2011.

News reports at the time failed to account for the issues that were at the heart of the riots in 1981, including unemployment, racism and oppressive policing, in particular the extensive use of stop and search. That media bias was spotted by Val McCalla, who had arrived in England aged 15 some two decades earlier.

Jamaican-born McCalla was working at local London paper East End News when the Brixton clashes happened. He saw the need for a newspaper that would address the issues that mattered to British-born African-Caribbean people who were trying to stake their claim to the only country they had ever known.

With the help of a £62,000 ($81,000) loan from Barclays, McCalla launched The Voice in August 1982 at the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street party and a proud celebration of African-Caribbean culture. From an office in Hackney, east London, McCalla and then editor Flip Fraser led a team of young journalists covering hard news, investigations and human interest stories interspersed with sports, fashion and entertainment. The offices would later move to Brixton.

“It was very exciting,” said Yvonne Thompson, who co-founded Black music radio station, Choice FM (now Capital Xtra) in 1990. The Voice was “the place to look if you wanted to find out what was actually going on in the Black community,” Thompson, who ran her own public relations firm for nearly three decades, told CNN Business.

Existing Black newspapers, such as The Caribbean Times, the West Indian Gazette and The Jamaica Gleaner, catered to mostly older immigrants who wanted to follow news from the Caribbean. The Voice, a weekly, tapped into a generation figuring out what it meant to be Black and British.

[The Voice] was the place to look if you wanted to find out what was actually going on in the Black community.”

Yvonne Thompson, business leader

While it may not hold the same sway it once did among Britain’s increasingly diverse Black community, its contribution to UK media is incontrovertible and its mission just as important today as it was 40 years ago.

A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2016 found that just 6% of journalists in UK newsrooms are non-White, compared with about 13% of the general population. Earlier this year, the Institute published research showing that none of Britain’s top 10 print, digital or broadcast outlets have a Black editor in chief.

And a recent study by Women in Journalism, a campaigning organization, found that during one week in July not a single story by a Black reporter appeared on the front pages of the 11 most widely read UK newspapers.

The lack of diversity in UK newsrooms underscores how vital The Voice’s pioneering work has been, even if too little has changed elsewhere in the media since its inception.

Campaigning for justice
“Without doubt it blazed a trail,” said Joseph Harker, deputy opinion editor at The Guardian. The Voice “spoke to that much younger, more energetic, angrier section of the population. It was the first Black newspaper aimed at Black British people,” he added.

Harker joined the paper in 1987 straight out of university and spent four years there, first as a reporter and later as news and assistant editor. He was used to reading negative stories about Black people relating to crime, poverty and unemployment. Working at The Voice, where Black excellence was celebrated and where he was surrounded by Black ambition and success, had a profound impact on him.

“It completely transformed my sense of what being Black means,” Harker told CNN Business. The mainstream media had no interest in Black people “apart from crime stories and riots,” he added. “If it was anything positive about Black people it just wouldn’t be covered.”