Lack of diversity undermines the future of the mass media

Written by:
Lester Holloway
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As Sir Lenny Henry turns up the pressure over the lack of racial diversity on TV and radio, Lester Holloway says the mainstream media are not just losing out on diverse talent; they are in danger of losing their future audience.

When architect George Val Myer designed the £1 billion extension to BBC’s Broadcasting House he intended to show off panoramic views of journalists busy collecting the news. An unintended consequence of this design is that it lays bare the lack of racial diversity in the heart of multicultural London.

The building allows visiting ethnic minorities to survey the internal BBC landscape from a vantage point where you can count on one hand the black and brown faces among sitting amid a sea of hundreds of white faces, and still have fingers left over.

It takes more fingers, indeed many more hands, to count the number of years that have passed since racial diversity in the media was first raised as a problem.

In 2014, actor and comedian Sir Lenny Henry took the campaign for better ethnic minority representation in the media to parliament, telling MPs on the Culture Media and Sport Committee that Britain was losing black acting talent like Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor to the United States because they could not get a break in Blighty.

Yesterday, three years later, he was back in parliament. Sir Lenny was speaking to an audience of some of Britain’s finest black and Asian media professionals, plus a smattering of MPs and peers.

This time he turned his attention to off-screen diversity, remarking that what went on behind the camera and microphone was the industry’s “dirty secret” and criticised the broadcast regulator Ofcom, currently headed by a black chief executive, Sharon White, for refusing to set targets for off-screen diversity.

There was cross-party consensus on the need for TV and radio to raise its game behind-the-scenes, so Ms White was effectively defying the will of elected MPs by limiting targets to presenters and actors and excluding programme-makers like producers, directors and commissioning editors, he said.

Lack of diversity was also turning off a generation of young people from mainstream media. With content freely available on the internet, the BBC and the mainstream media in general were losing their market share and relevance. Making content more appealing depended on getting more diversity into the entire programme-making system.

Last year the Sutton Trust found that 51 percent of Britain’s top 100 journalists went to a private school, more than seven times the UK average and making journalism one of the most elite professions.

One reason why this is happening is because graduates from privileged backgrounds – including the sons and daughters of journalists and politicians - are being fast-tracked straight into ‘Fleet Street’ through old boy networks.

Meanwhile working class and BME graduates struggle to break through at the bottom with unpaid work they can ill-afford due to lack of savings or the safety net of wealthy parents. Such media graduates are on a slow-track ploughing the traditional path of joining a local weekly, progressing to a regional paper and then on to the nationals. Yet this is a route where it is increasingly hard to reach the destination.

Yesterday Sir Lenny accused the BBC of “fake diversity” by inflating the figure of 14.5 percent BME’s with finance staff and World Service employees. The Beeb had also failed to factor in the lack of racial diversity in the independent sector who make shows that are commissioned by large broadcasters.

In the BBC the entire genres of period dramas, children’s comedy, children’s entertainment, game shows, sketch shows, panel shows and reality TV all had zero percent of directors from an ethnic minority background. The real figure for BME diversity across programme-making was nearer 1.5 percent rather than 14.5 percent, he said.

“This is a fight about who is and isn’t considered British. Whose stories do and don’t matter”, Sir Lenny added. “We cannot afford for our media to get it wrong. Diversity in the media is not a luxury. It is utterly, absolutely, and completely essential.”

David Lammy, Labour MP and a former culture and media minister, went further accusing Ofcom of letting down Britain’s ethnic minorities. Off-screen diversity was really about the money; who gets to make programmes; and who gets to make decisions. Excluding off-screen diversity from targets is tantamount to cutting BME communities out and saying as long as there’s a black face on TV “that’s okay”.

“People are saying ‘we’ve had enough of counting up the canteen and security staff’. We’ve been on this journey for years. Let’s get serious about diversity in the BBC.”

Conservative former culture minister Helen Grant added: “Some of the dinosaurs at the top of these organisations will have to go and their organisations rewired.”

Culture minister Matt Hancock revealed he was just about to head off to meet Ofcom chief Ms White and promised to take back the sentiments of the meeting.

The BBC’s former director-general Greg Dyke famously labeled his organisation “hideously white.” These two words that have hung over the BBC for the past 16 years like a personal rain cloud. 

There has been progress, but often it is piecemeal. An explosion of on-camera racial diversity in children’s TV and more newscasters, but little change in areas like BBC Westminster, BBC Bristol’s nature department, the rarefied corridors of radio’s Two, Three and Four, and perhaps most importantly, senior management.

The situation is worse in the commercial sector. These stations commission shows rather than producing in-house content and rely on a multitude of independent media firms of varying size.

The problem is production companies are mostly extremely undiverse despite most being based in multicultural London. Perhaps to cover this up broadcasters exclude diversity employment data from this sector. But the broadcast union BECTU estimates the BME figure to be around 5 percent, somewhat below the catchment area of the capital, which is almost 40 percent BME.

Channel 4 News have made some progress with direct employees. Their news team includes Fatima Manji, Krishnan Guru-Murty, Keme Nzerem, Darshna Soni, Jamal Osman, Jordan Jarrett-Bryan, Symeon Brown, Assed Baig and others.

This matters because the extent of diversity in broadcast does influence audience behaviour. The more diverse the programming, the more diverse an audience they attract. Research by Webber Phillips found that 21.9 percent of the population watched BBC One, but just 13.3 percent of BME people do, a massive negative gap of 8.6 percent. The gap for Channel Four was a much smaller 0.9 percent.

Channel Four News was watched by a higher percentage of BME viewers (5.6 percent) than the national average (3.2 percent). Again, BBC One’s News At Six had a negative gap of 14.1 percent when it came to attracting BMEs.

Half of the top 20 most popular shows with BME viewers do not turn up on the top 20 shows for all viewers. While the population at large tune in to Downton Abbey (7th most popular), that drama does not even appear on the BME list. Other shows popular with the masses that don’t appear in the BME top 20 include Broadchurch, Call The Midwife, Mrs Browns Boys and Poldark.

What these shows have in common is that they hark back to mythical ‘golden periods’ of idyllic Englishness. That is not the ethnic minority experience. The last 50 years are remembered better by first and second generation communities as a time of strife, of racial attacks and the struggle to put down roots in the face of hostility, suspicion, and fear from the 'indigenous' population.

The reportSuperdiversity Television's newest reality’ noted: “The media industry as a whole remains at some remove from the general population in its ethnic and faith make-up. The picture in front of the camera has improved; but behind the mike and in the executive layers of the industry little has changed from twenty-five years ago.”

In 2009 Radio 4 was exposed for having just two regular Asian presenters out of a roster of 104, and no-one of African or Caribbean background. The complaint was that diversity was restricted to ‘popular’ platforms like music-based One Xtra, while ‘intellectual’ speech-based broadcasting was overwhelmingly White.

Yet Rajar figures, which monitor audiences, showed a that greater proportion of BME communities listened to Radio 4 compared to the national population. If the ‘image’ in the minds of Radio 4 executives was that they are serving a primarily white and middle class audience that was not what the evidence was telling them. The truth was that an expanding BME middle class was tuning into the Today programme and the Archers, but they wanted to be reflected too.

Eight years on and the station remains largely monochrome and overwhelmingly Home Counties in tone and skin-tone. There are more BME presenters, like Mishal Husain on Today, but Radio 4 is still a long way from reflecting Britain in all its’ technicolour glory.

The BBC and other broadcasters still hold a significant audience share but they are steadily losing it. The BBC has diversity written into its Charter but without a diverse audience it loses its claim to demand a licence fee from those it is not serving.

Britain’s BME population projected to rise to 30 percent by 2050 and evidence that the drift away from mainstream media is already taking root – a combination of the general trend towards online and digital content, and a reflection of the alienation from, or rejection of, the traditional media and its perceived establishment ‘agendas’.

With the mass media struggling to compete in the digital age their failure to reflect diversity will surely accelerate decline in the multicultural age.

Sir Lenny is right, simply putting more black and brown faces on TV is no substitute for diversity in programme-making and decision-making in the media. The content matters, not simply who is seen or heard delivering it. That is where the power is.

Those with the power may not want to relinquish it, but change may be necessary for survival. Power is never given, but the audience that lends that power can take itself away.

Lester Holloway is Runnymede Trust's communications coordinator. He tweets at @brolezholloway

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