UPDATED: Radio 4 presenter wanted to be Janet Jackson’s backing dancer

Former Newsround presenter Sonali Shah

Former Newsround presenter Sonali Shah

By Jay Unger and Elizabeth Archer

BBC Escape to the Country presenter says her career would have been very different ‘if she was a white guy.’

Freelance BBC presenter, Sonali Shah, 34, who has covered a wide range of events, including the 2012 London Olympics, told Leeds Trinity University students that the news industry needs to make sure that ethnic diversity in front of cameras is ‘not a token gesture’.

Sonali, who is of Indian origin, told the Journalism Week event: “It’s difficult to talk about diversity as a woman of colour without sounding like ‘angry brown woman’ but I do talk about it because of my daughter.

“I think it’s important to talk about diversity, I love my career and that I’m doing it whilst raising a child. I owe it to her to make sure she doesn’t have the struggles that I have found.

“You can’t just chuck someone in to a programme to show you’re diverse. That’s a disservice to the audience and to the community.”

Speaking about whether hiring decisions based on ethnic diversity could prove detrimental to sourcing new talent, Sonali said: “I think there is a risk, and that’s where broadcasters have to make the judgement themselves.

“There is a risk you could put someone in front of the camera that isn’t ready to be there – you’re setting that person up to fail. Our media and our newsrooms don’t truly reflect our society today.”

However, she said the situation had improved in recent years.

In 2011, Sonali won an International Broadcasting Association award for her documentary Growing up in a War Zone, filmed for BBC children’s show Newsround, and said that trust and integrity are partly what drive her.

“The one thing I never wanted to do is lose the trust of the audience,” she said.

Her bosses asked if she would return to Afghanistan, where the documentary was originally filmed, to start a new project. But Sonali, who now has a one-year-old daughter, declined – saying she couldn’t put her family through that again: “I wasn’t afraid to put life and family first.”

Sonali said that some people had a perception that she wasn’t a proper journalist because she worked for a children’s news programme.

But she said: “If you can explain the economy to a nine-year-old you can explain it to anyone. If you ever get the chance to work for a children’s broadcaster then do.”

Sonali said journalism was not her original career of choice – she had wanted to be a dancer for Janet Jackson, or a doctor.

She fell into broadcasting after presenting a show on hospital radio and currently presents the sports bulletins on Radio4’s Today programme as well as presenting BBC1’s daytime show Escape to the Country.

BBC presenter Sonali Shah speaking at Journalism Week

BBC presenter Sonali Shah originally wanted to be Janet Jackson’s backing dancer

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