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Decibel Penguin forced to back down

22 January 2007

Following the recent furore relating to the Decibel Penguin Prize, the organisers have been forced to back down. This scheme to encourage writers from an Asian, African or Caribbean background started with the best of intentions. The writers were invited to enter a short story for the Decibel Penguin Prize, sponsored by Arts Council England and Penguin with the intention of encouraging writers from these backgrounds.

The Prize was part of Decibel, a big ACE project set up to foster the development of writers from diverse backgrounds who are widely felt not to be fairly represented in terms of opportunities for writers and particularly book publication. The Free Verse initiative of last year to encourage Black and ethnic minority poets (see also the Free Verse advice to poets on getting published) was also part of the Decibel programme.

But, in the way of well-meant projects, the Decibel Penguin Prize has fallen foul of the rules relating to the very thing it was trying to support. In a move that is hugely embarrassing for Arts Council England, the Commission for Racial Equality has just found that the Prize, in specifying that only writers from certain backgrounds could enter, discriminated against white people.

This year's Prize will go ahead as planned, with the Decibel Writer of the Year Award for British Writers of Asian, African or Caribbean backgrounds presented at the Galaxy British Book Awards in March. The competition for next year, just launched, will be for new writing on the theme of personal stories of immigration to the UK, and will be open to everyone. Given the large number of other immigrants to the UK from across the globe, ranging from in earlier years Jews fleeing Hitler and more recently East Europeans, especially Poles, seeking work, this will give the Prize a very different slant.

Positive discrimination is extremely tricky. How do you single out particular ethnic groups with special programmes of support without discriminating against others? It is hard that such a well-intentioned initiative should have come to grief and Penguin should still receive due credit for their considerable efforts in support of the programme.