Community Media Discussion – Super Diversity

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This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be talking about the changing social profile of the United Kingdom, and how places like Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester are increasingly defined by their non-white social identity. Can community media form a bridge for better social understanding of social and cultural diversity, by ensuring that many people from diverse backgrounds are inspired and empowered to represent themselves in their own media?

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The release this week of the 2021 Census data indicates that London, Birmingham and Leicester have become the first cities in the UK to be majority non-white places. According to The Guardian, the figures usher in a “new age of city-wide ‘super diversity.’” The ONS Census data, collected in 2021, shows that “59.1% of the people of Leicester are now from ethnic minority groups, a big change since 1991, when black and minority ethnic people made up just over a quarter of the city’s residents.”

With such significant changes to the social profile of these cities, which is also reflected in places like Manchester, Nottingham and Peterborough, is there now a need to think more deeply and critically about how we manage and support the process of human coexistence? Do we need to look again at the way that we understand the process of social integration and community cohesion?

Specifically, do we need to look at what role our media plays in shaping our experience and expectations of the full range of people who live in places like Leicester? The Guardian notes that the “recent disturbances in Leicester, between groups of Hindus and Muslims, show how difficult things can get,” when social cohesion is deprioritised, and that managing Britain’s social, cultural and ethnic diversity requires both “hard work” as well as good “intentions.”

One area of social difference that is notable for its lack of integration with the specific social experience of people living in places like Birmingham and Manchester, is our media. Ofcom’s most recent report into Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in TV and Radio notes the challenge of managing and investing in a diverse workforce. However, the report is substantiated by only eight broadcasters operating in the UK, and therefore fails entirely to capture the experience of people working in small, independent and community-focussed media roles in non-broadcasting organisations.

The picture of employability for people from non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds, reported by Ofcom, is therefore incomplete, and does not identify those people who are part of the wider creative and media industries. Is Ofcom failing in their duty to capture sufficient data that relates to many people’s media experience? If Ofcom sticks with their existing data collection model, what is the consequence for people from ethnic minorities when it comes to public policy around media and communications?

Media experiences, it should be noted, are generally prone to emphasise racial and cultural differences in a way that is often unfair, especially in relation to specific places like Leicester. Reporting of Leicester’s extended lockdown, for example, was often grounded in stereotypical and lazy characterisations of people with non-traditional ethnic and racial identities. It was easier to tell a story about ‘them’ – being those who could not follow the lockdown rules – than it was to identify the structural problems of a clear lack of investment and support for diverse forms of community communications.

Media reporting often revels in exacerbating variance and division, rather than acting as a bridge between different groups of people and supporting community cohesion. Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor at Cardiff University, speaking to The Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University, notes that “as is the case in many areas of society, the mainstream media often inadequately represent the diversity of the society they purport to reflect,” and that extensive and established “power structures, financial models and appointments to influential management and editorial positions” all can, and do, “militate against a representative media industry.”

While the social experience of the majority of people outside urban areas in the UK is defined by low levels of social diversity, the development of the ‘super-diverse’ places like Leicester means that there is little opportunity to share actual social experiences that people living in places like Leicester have in meaningful ways. It has become more difficult for the socially non-diverse communities to comprehend, never mind understand, what it means to live in communities that are so different and heterogeneous.

If community media is to play a role in developing and supporting an alternative approach to media inclusion and participation, then, we may have to ask some difficult questions. We definitely need to look at the structural underpinnings of both diverse and non-diverse communities that result in such high levels of inequality and a lack of social mobility for different groups of people. This means looking at alternative platforms and forms of organisation, such as community media, that people can get involved in directly and with people like themselves.

Likewise, what do the concentration of high levels of cultural and social diversity mean for community media and community-focussed communications? Can a multicultural model of interaction continue to work in places that are so heterogeneous? Do we need to think about more integrated models of communication that supersede legacy forms of cultural identity?

If we are to build and invest in media platforms that enable meaningful self-representation, how should we go about ensuring that different cultural experiences and traditions fit together? If our differences are based on language, how do we ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity for their social experience to be reflected in a language they are comfortable with?

Community media, in its more general sense, must be asking these questions, and more besides. Many of us are interested in working out how we can ensure that our media is fit for purpose in another ten years. When the 2031 Census is reported, and the social profile of the UK has further changed, will we still be talking about community media as the forgotten part of our media economy, or will we be celebrating the success that comes from social and cultural investment in diversity?