UK's first black TV reporter Barbara Blake-Hannah: 'Journalists are the most important people in the world' (video)

Fifty years on Barbara Blake-Hannah does not like to talk about the racism that cut short her career as the UK’s first black on-screen TV reporter for Thames Television.

Working alongside Eamonn Andrews on Today in 1968 she interviewed the likes of prime minister Harold Wilson and and actor Michael Caine. But after nine months her contract was not renewed and a colleague confided that racist post from viewers along the lines of “get that n***** of the screen” had swayed bosses.

Trevor McDonald and Moira Stewart would go on to be household names as the UK’s first non-white TV newsreaders.

That could have been Barbara, but instead she returned to her native Jamaica where she has had a successful career as a filmmaker and become a devout follower of the Rastafarian faith.

At this year’s British Journalism Awards a new award has been started in her honour to recognise the best up and coming BAME journalist.

Speaking over Zoom from Jamaica (video below) she says: “I am so glad this is happening. I have seen that an effort has been made. I see more black journalists now on television in Britain.

“When I left England in 1972 and came back in 1982 and I was surprised that in the ten years I had been away no-one had replaced me….It’s good that now finally an effort is being made to fill that gap and correct that wrong.”

Even today non-white journalists have told Press Gazette that they have felt “disenfranchised”, “alienated” and “isolated” in overwhelmingly white newsrooms.

So how was it 50 years ago?

“Fifty years ago you couldn’t overcome it,” said Blake-Hannah.

“Whatever racism you encountered you just had to accept because you were brought up to understand white people will always see you as inferior and you just had to accept that and smile about it and pretend that it doesn’t hurt because you are living with them.

“My second TV job was in ATV Birmingham and one of the reporters there said to me during a conversation about race – ‘if black people are so great why did they never paint a Mona Lisa?’ And I had no answer. I did not know of Zimbabwe, of Timbuktu, Tutankahmun… I had no history, I didn’t learn any of this until I came home to Jamaica.”

This year Press Gazette is making the British Journalism Awards free to enter for any journalists from a BAME background who do not have a news organisation to support their entry (thanks to sponsorship from Google).

All of these entrants will be entered into the Barbara Blake-Hannah award which aims to recognise a journalist who, like her, has helped to break down barriers with their work. Barbara will herself help judge this new category.

What will she look for and what advice does she have?

“A lot of journalists would be doing stories they were assigned to do. I would love to see stories journalists [who] came up with their own.

“We need to share information from side to side, that’s what’s necessary. Journalists who are committed to making that difference and to being teachers in the nicest, kindest way. That would influence my choice of a winner…

“Where we write,we broadcast or we film we communicate with the world.

“We are the vanguard and we are the front line. Every war we are out there in front. If we are not there you would not know what is happening. Journalists are the most important people in the world.”

Asked what achievement in her life she is most proud of, she talks about interviewing famous figures like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, but adds: “Perhaps being a senator in the Jamaican parliament is my greatest achievement. I was appointed only because of what I was writing in the papers.

“I used to write letters to the editor frequently and some of the letters would become columns. I had written about the Jamaican election where the People’s National Party had refused to contest the elections because they said the voters list was not up-to-date. The prime minister held the election and won all the seats but then there was no opposition to vote in the opposition senate.

“So he made a recommendation to appoint eight independents and I was one, the only Rasta who has ever sat in the Jamaican parliament. That is perhaps the greatest achievement from what I have written.

“In terms of what I have done in my life it seems that having that job at Thames Television has been the most influential. I had little to do with that appointment, I didn’t make it happen, I just applied for the job and got it.

“But it has had such repercussions. Today it has made lemonade out of lemons, because it has created this award.

“What happened to me 50 years ago, which was so painful and hurt me so very much, deprived me of income even. What happened then has led to an award that’s going to recognise black journalists from here forward and that’s really great. If I’ve done nothing else in my life that’s been the most important thing that’s happened in my life.

“Especially I have to thank this young black journalist Bree Johnson [who interviewed Barbara for Sky News] for bringing me to your attention and saying let’s do this now in this Black Lives Matter year, let’s do it.”

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