EXCLUSIVE: The Guardian’s plan to produce a podcast about its historical slave trade links has been the subject of a race complaint from an award-winning audio producer who worked on the series.
The British newspaper has been assembling a major editorial project about its founder John Edward Taylor and his connections to transatlantic slavery. At the heart of the work is a podcast, which is due to be published in the coming months.
Deadline can reveal that three producers raised their concerns in writing to managers last year after working on the show. The trio accused The Guardian of “institutional racism, editorial whiteness and ignorance,” adding that the newspaper had attempted to “whitewash” history during the making of the podcast.
The Guardian said it was “concerned” that the producers did not have a good experience. It said their allegations were discussed during a mediation process and were only a “partial” version of events. It added that the slavery podcast will pull no punches in addressing The Guardian’s history.
The producers revealed their concerns in an email sent on Monday to a mailing list of UK audio professionals (full email below). Deadline knows the identity of the person who sent the email, but has chosen not to name him. He is a rising star in the audio world, who has produced originals for Spotify and the BBC, winning awards for his work. The two other individuals who signed the email were engaged as freelancers on The Guardian project.
The producers said that they wanted to detail their experience because they were aware of other Black producers who had been contacted about working on The Guardian series.
“Our experiences are often buried, and production companies are able to continue as though nothing has happened and repeat the same harm whilst using our labor for kudos,” they said in the email to UK Audio Network members.
They said the slavery podcast was “mismanaged” by a team of Guardian editors, which Deadline understands included senior Black journalists.
“We were routinely undermined, unsupported and deeply frustrated by the absence of journalistic rigor and critical attention to history from a global news organisation,” the email continued.
“A key issue was the lack of any serious desire from the Guardian to face and interrogate its own historic role, what that has meant for its journalism to date, and what accountability might look like in the future.”
The producers said they experienced “microaggressions, colourism, bullying, passive-aggressive and obstructive management styles,” and that their concerns were dismissed as “trauma.”
After “numerous attempts to have good-faith conversations” with their team, the producers said they wrote a formal letter of complaint to their editors. They claimed that this was “ignored for weeks and minimized” before they were offered “ineffective” mediation sessions. Those familiar with the process at The Guardian said the producers’ concerns were discussed swiftly and they were offered a mediator of their choosing.
“We had hoped to make a series to contribute towards shifting discourse away from the kinds of reductive conversations about race and capitalism that are usually commissioned in our industry,” the three producers said.
“The outcome of this project is a huge indictment of the paper. The irony of dealing with institutional racism, editorial whiteness and ignorance on a project about the legacies of slavery hasn’t been lost on us – and deeply undermines the integrity of the project.”
Guardian: We Took Concerns Seriously
The Guardian confirmed that a complaint had been made by producers working on the slavery series. A spokesman said: “The Guardian has been working on a significant editorial project relating to its own history which is to be published soon.
“The project is being led by a diverse team of experienced and respected Guardian editors, with close involvement from a large number of colleagues and experts who also represent diverse perspectives.
“We are concerned that some former colleagues and contributors have not had a good experience working with us, but we are disappointed they have chosen to write a partial reflection of their time at the Guardian.
“We always take any concerns raised with us seriously, and we acted immediately to respond to the individuals, including by offering a mediation process, which took place with a mediator chosen by the individuals themselves.
“The project is largely complete and will not pull any punches in terms of transparency. It will be published in the next few months, and we then look forward to discussing it with readers and colleagues.”
All three producers who signed the email are no longer working on the project after their contracts came to an end in December. The podcast is now close to completion.
Taylor, the son of a cotton merchant, founded The Manchester Guardian in 1821. Scott Trust, which owns the newspaper, launched a review into Taylor’s slavery links, saying from the outset that there was no evidence that he was a slave owner or was directly involved in the slave trade.
The producer who sent the email has not been replied to repeated requests for comment.
Producers’ Email In Full:
We – [redacted] – are getting in touch to share our recent experience of working with the Guardian.
We’re doing this because we understand they are reaching out to black producers, editors and sound designers to finish off a project that we worked tirelessly on for most of the last year. We want to give you, our colleagues, clear context so that if you are approached, you know what happened, and therefore you can make informed decisions. We also wanted to share our experience as we know from conversations with many of you that when things like this happen, our experiences are often buried, and production companies are able to continue as though nothing has happened and repeat the same harm whilst using our labor for kudos.
We were hired to work on a multipart series exploring the legacies of slavery, taking the Guardian’s explorations into its own history as a starting point. We were promised a supportive environment where we could have open, generative conversations about race and narrative without the usual defensiveness and backlash we’ve all come to experience from execs of various races. That didn’t happen.
Instead, for months, we worked on a mismanaged project and had a difficult time trying to do our jobs due to the institution’s attempts to whitewash history. We were routinely undermined, unsupported and deeply frustrated by the absence of journalistic rigor and critical attention to history from a global news organisation. A key issue was the lack of any serious desire from the Guardian to face and interrogate its own historic role, what that has meant for its journalism to date, and what accountability might look like in the future.
This left room for microaggressions, colourism, bullying, passive-aggressive and obstructive management styles that have caused frustration and stress for members of the production team. Our concerns were dismissed as ‘trauma’ and ‘baggage’ rather than informed expertise and analysis, whilst they frequently admitted their own ignorance of the subject or responded defensively. We worked with execs who had no oversight of the series or subject matter and frequently had to problem-solve and work around the poor leadership and lazy production of our full-time colleagues whilst working part-time.
We made numerous attempts to have good-faith conversations with our team to no avail. We consequently wrote a formal letter of complaint to the editorial leads, addressing these issues and the impact it was having not only on the editorial but on us as producers. Our letter was ignored for weeks and minimized until we had ineffective mediation sessions (that we could not attend) just before Christmas -when our contracts ended. We heard nothing more until two weeks ago, and although we were given less than 48 hours to hand over, we were immediately locked out of our email and shared drive accounts and told to hand our remaining work over.
It’s been incredibly challenging for us, as we all care deeply about this history and were excited to produce something in solidarity with movements in the different parts of the world covered across the series. We had hoped to make a series to contribute towards shifting discourse away from the kinds of reductive conversations about race and capitalism that are usually commissioned in our industry. The institution is now looking for other producers to finish our work and has ignored our concerns. The outcome of this project is a huge indictment of the paper. The irony of dealing with institutional racism, editorial whiteness and ignorance on a project about the legacies of slavery hasn’t been lost on us – and deeply undermines the integrity of the project.
Whilst this is both unsurprising and disappointing, we hope that positive change and education can still emerge from the series.