Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 'I'm fed up with being told I should be grateful'

When Editorial Intelligence published its report looking at the power of the commentariat, Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown didn’t get a mention in its top 10 of ‘highly influential’commentators, or in the 46-page report overall.

Alibhai-Brown says such an omission is typical of her ‘invisibility'”within the media.

As a columnist for The Independent for the past 10 years, Alibhai-Brown can lay claim to having brought more black and Asian readers to the paper, by covering subjects not previously in the mainstream, and ‘giving voice to so much that was missing”. She also has reason to believe that she has influenced the opinions of people around the world – she is read by Muslims across the globe and has a growing readership in India.

But despite having won accolades such as the George Orwell Prize for political journalism in 2002 and two Ethnic Multicultural Media Academy Awards, Alibhai-Brown, who was expelled along with up to 60,000 Asians from Uganda in 1972, believes that she is not seen, much as the black men and women working in menial cleaning jobs are not seen.

Twice voted one of the most influential Asian women in the country, she has never been invited to the British Press Awards – a further indication, she believes, that she has not won acceptance of the mainly white, male and middle-class media.

Not that this is true of The Independent or the Evening Standard, which she also writes a column for, insists Alibhai-Brown, who gave back her MBE in 2003 in protest against the war in Iraq. Taken on at The Independent by deputy editor Ian Birrell after having written for The Guardian and before that City Limits and New Society, she acknowledges the paper took a chance on her: ‘They gave me a break when no one in newspapers was even considering a non-white regular political columnist.’

Both The Independent and the Evening Standard have allowed her to write without pigeonholing her, says Alibhai-Brown, who expects some criticism after drawing parallels between the current clamour for locally produced food with increasing hostility towards immigrants.

Alibhai-Brown, who is writing a book about Asian and East African food, Settler’s Tales of Migration, Love and Food, says she is also reproached by Muslims if she is at all critical of them. Although she is the founder of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, she insists she doesn’t consider it her role to do ‘PR’for the Islamic community.

While this means is criticised by both sides of the divide, there’s no doubting she’s telling the truth when she says: ‘I truly love my job”.

I don’t think columnists can change the world.

I do think it’s an important role, in that you can rebalance a public debate, especially if it’s one-sided, like it was with the Iraq war.

It was very important to hold the Government to account, because who is going to do that? Broadcasters shy away from real confrontation – the confrontation for three minutes on The Today Programme isn’t worth the air time, and so much of Parliament was in agreement with the war. We shouldn’t be that self-important – I think Polly Toynbee was right to say ‘I didn’t want Boris to win and he won”. But you can shape the way people think about things.

Imagine doing this and you are invisible.

In my head I am the equivalent of Steve Richards, I am in that class of columnist, I’ve had similar awards to him. I’m sorry, but I know I have influenced international politics, but I’m not there. In a sense having climbed a mountain that I was not meant to climb – and it was never easy – you still are exactly like the invisible staff who work in the toilet. Many in the business just don’t see you.

If I’m not good enough to attend their bleedin’ party, then who is?

I’ve never been to the British Press Awards. I’ve never been longlisted. Now I’m sorry, I don’t believe that the work I do isn’t as good as those who have been longlisted. If I can’t go there, if I, who is world-respected now, can’t get there, then what hope is there for other black and Asian journalists?

Do they tell Polly Toynbee she should be grateful?

I’m sick of being told this is an egalitarian society and I’m fed up of being told I should be grateful. Why would I be grateful? What for? I’m doing what I do because I’m good at it? Or I’m lucky? But I’m not lucky, no more than Matthew Parris is ‘lucky”. Beating the system took a lot more than luck, mate.

There was a time when things seemed to be changing, but I think it changed again after 9/11.

If you ask Lenny Henry or Meera Syal they say it about their own sector as well, that there was a time when there was a breakthrough. There’s something terrible going on now, where only one or two black or Asian people still manage somehow to get a look in. When you look at them you realise that the strategy in their case is that they are not troublemakers, they do not confront the system, they don’t upset the apple cart.

I still do give voice I think to many people who are voiceless.

I consistently will side with asylum seekers and refugees because they have no presence. The media says about them what they wish, and I often get such moving emails from Muslim women and all sorts of people whose views aren’t necessarily represented.

With refugees and asylum seekers, I am on their side, even if they lied. Nobody understands what being in that situation is like, and the way they treat them is to me immoral.

I’m sorry, I do not want to understand the BNP.

I don’t want to understand them because there is no excuse for voting for a Nazi however hard your life is. But almost everyone I know is falling over themselves to understand why people vote for the BNP. So where is the opposite voice that says no, this just isn’t good enough?

I hope that we will rediscover that alternative and incredibly proud legacy of this country which goes back centuries, which is about rights, is about entitlements, the struggle in class-ridden society for freedom and liberty – this country needs to rediscover that.

When have the white working class never voiced their opinions?

Goodness, do they have a voice now and do they use it, and use it badly. You can’t ever say anything positive or question attitudes towards immigration.

There are no alternative voices today. When did you last hear any known politician speaking out in support of migrants? We always had an anti-immigration culture, but we always had really decent voices on the other side influencing the debate as well.

If we don’t do something we will have more violence. It’s worrying where it’s going to end. The media has really given free access to ‘Migration Watch”, and nobody really interrogates them properly. They have controlled the agenda, and even the BBC allows these campaigners, because they’re not really a think-tank.

Society has become so much coarser.

It’s not just a case of people disagreeing with your opinion, it very quickly descends into abuse. It’s been encouraged by the internet and the television culture. Yes, people must speak, but not if they are coarse and crude. Our culture really overvalues that, and I’ve experienced it a lot more in the last two or three years.

I think there has been a major culture shift and not for the better. You have to take it because you are putting an opinion out there. I can hardly sit around and feel sorry for myself, but I feel it’s a terribly sad situation that you can’t say something on immigration anymore without people turning into absolute demons.

With Iraq I was so proud, I still am.

What Blair and the Government wanted more than anything else was to have that off the front pages, and journalists never let that happen. From left to right there was a moral understanding, and also between various racial groups a kind of moral truth prevailed. That to me is real integration, when nobody had to lecture each other on what British values were. Everybody understood that this was the wrong thing to do.

Roger Alton is a very good editor but I would be worried if he changed the political position of the paper and moved us to the right, because most papers in this country are on the right.

Everybody is relieved that we have someone with a proven record, but there’s worry about the political direction, given that The Observer supported the war.

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