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Voice 35 Years: Challenging racism in the workplace

CONTROVERSIAL ISSUE: The Voice front page from November 1982

FOUR MONTHS after the launch of The Voice in 1982, the front page of the newspaper was covering the sensitive issue of race monitoring by employers. The front-page headline was BBC Scraps Snooping Race Quiz. While the monitoring of employees’ racial background is the norm today, among many establishments, in 1982 it caused a storm in the BBC.

The broadcaster was accused of using ‘snooping questions’ to ascertain the ethnic origin of its staff. The article commented on crass comments from the likes of Peter Day, the chair of the Broadcasting Industrial Council, which reflected a broader bias in society. He said: “You know where the blacks are at the Beeb? Working in the canteen and sweeping the floor.”

LOOKING BACK AT THE PAST: The Voice reported on a rise in demand for black beauty products

Two weeks after the questionnaire was brought to light by a Voice article, the BBC’s black staff refused to respond to the questionnaire, causing it to be scrapped. A senior broadcaster commenting on the survey was quoted on the front page of The Voice as saying: “If the National Front tried to do this it would be called Fascism. Everyone is furious.”

Britain’s only national black newspaper had quickly influenced the policies of one of the world’s most powerful media institutions; the BBC. On page four the newspaper championed a campaign to prevent the use of a long-term contraceptive, Depo-Provera. The headline was The DepoProvera Controversy.

CAMPAIGN

The injectable drug, which reportedly had side-effects including cancer, nausea and depression, was mainly used by black women. In a report by the Campaign Against DepoProvera, it stated: “There is no doubt that those being offered Depo-Provera in Britain tend to be women who are very poor and who are overwhelmingly non-English speaking and/or black.”

With the support received by The Voice, the campaign moved the Health Minister Kenneth Clarke to reject the Committee on Safety of Medicines’ recommendations. The suggestion was that Depo-Provera be licensed as a long-term contraceptive for “women for who whom other contraceptives are contra-indicated or have caused unacceptable side-effects”.

The Health Minister believed the risks outweighed the benefits and that as an injectable contraceptive it was open to abuse. Moving on to page 11, Isabel Appio, who was to become the editor of The Voice’s sister newspaper, The Weekly Journal, reported on the growing demand of African-American cosmetics among black women in the UK.

In tandem with an Alfred Fornay interview, the former director of cosmetics at Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the article highlighted the frustration many black women experienced pre-mid-1980s, when trying to find appropriate skin and hair products.


ENTERTAINMENT: ‘Cool ruler’ Gregory Isaacs topped the reggae charts at the time

The article quoted Fornay‘s prediction on how the cosmetics market in the UK would change. Fornay was quoted as saying: “The ideal situation is for the market to be flooded with cosmetics which give black women an equal choice as white women. White women have over 34 different brands of shampoo to choose from, why should the black woman be limited?”

A few months after Fashion Fair Cosmetics were stocked in UK stores the upmarket range of items from America recorded booming sales. Sales of cosmetics for black women continue to flourish.

The Voice didn’t shy away from publishing articles discussing debating sensitive social issues affecting the black community. For example, in the November 20 issue there was double-page investigation on the causes behind the rising number of single parent mothers in the community.

While some mainstream social institutions labelled black men and women as promiscuous, the in-depth article discussed contributing factors. Buzz Johnson, a social worker in Hackney, was quoted in the article. Referring to single parent mothers, he said: “They often come from an oppressed background, perhaps they have been in care and have left school without qualifications or hope.

“Maybe they think the only immediate thing they can achieve is to have a child.”

Lynthia Grant, who worked for Ujima Housing Association and who provided accommodation for many single mothers, observed that a greater number of young black girls refused to have abortions because of “having the basic Christian beliefs that they were brought up with”.

Page 17 of the newspaper was entitled The Buzzz, which featured a compilation of music enjoyed by the black community. The pages included the top selling soca, African and reggae singles and albums of the week. Within the reggae genre, Gregory Isaacs’ signature album Night Nurse and single of the same name was number one.

The popularity of the Cool Ruler’s anthem single was evident given his various performances on British TV at the time. Mick Hucknall, the Simply Red frontman and reggae enthusiast, later recorded a version of Night Nurse with Sly and Robbie.

ROOTS: Sound system operator and producer Jah Shaka

Another reggae legend, Jah Shaka, followed Gregory Isaacs on The Buzzz charts. The Commandments of Dub was number two, reflecting the vibrant nature of the reggae scene during the early 1980s, which was avidly portrayed by the Voice.

On the sports page to the back of the newspaper a young heavy weight boxer, Frank Bruno, was pictured celebrating his eighth win as a professional fighter. The fighter from Wandsworth, who was causing ripples of excitement within the boxing fraternity and became the heavyweight champion of the world, was labelled as a novice by Joe Bugner, who on observing the young fighter quipped: “I’ve seen nothing that could worry me.”

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