By Leah Brown Founder & CEO, Broadstairs Consulting Ltd

The topic of race is front and centre in 2024 Britain. We are barely through Q1 and the public has had a talk on targeting extremism from the Prime Minister, and a police investigation into hate crimes directed at Diane Abbott MP by Frank Hester. The word “racism” is a ticking time-bomb that polarises society like nothing else. But the question at hand is whether the media has become complicit by choosing not to report on issues rendering public conscience divided?

The case of Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle against Arts Council England

Mercury Prize winner Corryne Elliott aka Speech Debelle brought a claim against Arts Council England (ACE) in September 2021 for racial discrimination, bullying and harassment after three years at the organisation. Debelle’s claim was heard in 2023 and not upheld by the Employment Tribunal. On 13 June 2023, Nous (a consultancy firm) published a near-final draft of an independent review into equality, diversity and inclusion at ACE (the Review).

The Review found that not all managers have the skills to create an inclusive environment, and “some staff colleagues identified their manager as a source of microaggressions or as failing to prevent or challenge exclusionary or discriminatory behaviours in their team. Some staff colleagues also saw managers, and the Arts Council more broadly, as lacking the skills to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled staff. Some female staff colleagues, Black, Asian, and ethnically diverse staff colleagues, and staff colleagues with/from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and disabled staff colleagues shared this perspective.”

Although the words “culture of racism” were not used in the text of the review, two things are particularly curious. Firstly, that an employment tribunal found that an ethnic minority employee had not been subjected to racial bullying and harassment when ACE commissioned a report to clarify this; and secondly, the hypocrisy of ACE departing from convention by pursuing Debelle for costs after the tribunal in order to recover public money spent defending a claim that arguably could have had a different outcome if it had taken place after the review.

The role of the media

The media has a duty to report cases that are in the public interest. Two weeks ago, Nadine White at the Independent reported on this matter. It is curious that other news outlets have not challenged the ACE’s position, or in fact reported on the story at all. Perhaps it is because this story poses uncomfortable questions: first, is it the case that the media is unwilling to consider this story as a public interest topic due to a lack of editorial independence? Or, rather, are news organisations burying stories on controversial topics to avert the negative press associated with the subject of racism?

ACE is one of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s government-funded bodies. A management agreement dated 2016-2020 outlines the ways in which ACE, namely the Accounting Officer, is personally responsible for safeguarding Government funds.

The case tugs at heartstrings of conscience. Where the public purse is involved, what role, if any, should ethics play? Debelle believes that her notoriety has informed ACE’s approach to costs recovery. Given the imbalance of power between an employer and a former employee, a Tribunal rarely makes costs awards unless the former employee has been vexatious, abusive, disruptive or behaved unreasonably.

Prior to the Tribunal, ACE made an application to strike out the claim. At that point the claim was not deemed to be vexatious because ACE’s application was refused in December 2022. Debelle crowdfunded to pay her own legal fees; ACE had a case to answer. Despite losing at Tribunal, the propriety of ACE’s actions to bring a claim for costs rests on whether Debelle’s claim was, in fact, a nuisance.

It may be fair to conclude that this case has been brought not just to set precedent for ACE regarding their reputation, but in pursuit of a landmark ruling that will justify the Government in pursuing similar actions through the courts where former employees have been unsuccessful at Tribunal. Curiosity on which of these motivated ACE certainly ought to have piqued the interest of major news outlets.

The media has a lot to answer for here. Had this story gained more traction at the outset, ACE may have been dissuaded from bringing the claim at all. As it progressed, the original claim may have settled long before trial.

The relevant costs action was heard by judges on 13 March 2024. We trust that justice will have been done. But with Speech Debelle we have seen the media’s unwillingness to call out injustice, conveniently blinded by the justifications given in support of the public purse.

It strikes me that the real shadow cast here is the continuing trend of unethical policy decisions that are not based on fairness or transparency, a trend that is being exacerbated by the bias shown in media reporting when it comes to matters relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Photo by r.classen – Shutterstock

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Media Diversity Institute.Any question or comment should be addressed to