Thinking outside the box

by Lord Chris Holmes

Published: 01 Sep 2015

Last Friday 28th August 2015, I attended the annual gathering of the TV industry at the Guardian Edinburgh TV festival. As well as the debate about the future of the BBC, one of the main items discussed was how to address the issue of a lack of diversity in the sector and how the odds are stacked against you unless you are one of the usual suspects.

Whether it’s Coronation Street’s Claire King saying she had to have a facelift to get acting work, Anne Robinson claiming that an imaginary identical female twin of Evan Davis would never get a shot at presenting Newsnight or Sir Lenny Henry’s courageous work to highlight the ‘appalling’ low number of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in broadcasting, the lack of diversity in TV remains a stubborn stain on the industry’s reputation.

The statistics back this up. Surveys have shown the number of disabled people in the creative media industries has remained static for around 12 years at just 5 per cent compared with 11 per cent across the wider working population. Only 2.5 per cent of those appearing on screen were portrayed as having a disability. BME diversity at the top levels of our TV industry is even lower than the FTSE100 average. Shockingly, last year it was revealed that of the 62 board members at the BBC Trust, ITV, C4, BSkyB and Ofcom, just one wasn't white.

What sort of message does this send out about how open the industry is to people from a wide range of backgrounds? How will TV continue to attract the brightest and the best graduates, who can choose between a career in the games sector, building apps or any number of other businesses in our creative industries if they don't think they've got any chance of making it to a rewarding position at the top?

To their credit, we also know that all the main broadcasters – the BBC, Channel 4, SKY and ITV - have recently set-out ambitious diversity action plans and targets. PACT, the independent producers' alliance has also worked tirelessly for a long time to improve the situation.

So if it isn’t to do with illiberal and discriminatory attitudes or a lack of direction from the top, why haven’t things already changed?

This is the main question that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has tried to answer through a new government backed project, working together with Ofcom and the Creative Diversity Network.

The answer, coming out of our work with broadcasters, producers and others, seems to lie in part in the widespread muddle and misunderstanding in the sector about what is permitted by Equality legislation when trying to promote diversity.

That is why we have published a new guide providing clarity about the initiatives and actions that are permissible in law.

It busts common myths about perceived barriers that exist and shows how easy it should be for broadcasters, independent production companies and industry bodies to boost diversity.

Why does this all matter? The debate at this year’s TV festival had some big US players addressing the audience and in the face of increasing takeovers of UK producers and broadcasters by foreign owners, we need to ensure that British producers and broadcasters continue to thrive in an increasingly aggressive and saturated global TV market.

I believe we risk being knocked off our perch as a broadcasting world leader unless more is done to improve the quality and strength of our TV industry through greater diversity.

This is not about political correctness, it is about competitive edge. Drawing on the best talents across all communities will lead to better, richer and more innovative TV programmes. This is important, not only so that the industry can attract the best talent, but also because of the unique role television broadcasting has in shaping and reflecting our society’s values. 

It's clearly not a difficult hurdle to cross, when producers put their mind to it, they come up with fantastic content. I'm not talking about niche programmes focused on "diversity issues" aimed at a specific audience. Think about  how well it's been done in the States: R.J Mitte’s nuanced and compelling portrayal of young disabled man Walt Junior in Breaking Bad or seminal dramas like The Wire and you realise this isn’t a choice between better representation and better programmes.

And there are plenty of good examples closer to home too - recently we've had Channel 4's Autistic Gardener, the BAFTA-winning Murdered by My Boyfriend on BBC 3, Sky's Desi Rascals. Gogglebox is a perfect example of how diverse the audiences are watching our programmes, we need to make sure those making and presenting them are equally so.

Otherwise we risk squandering the talent of people from black and minority ethnic communities, older women, disabled people and many other groups if we don’t increase diversity on and off screen. In turn, this jeopardises our economic and creative success.

We need to end the 'culture of clone recruitment', the revolving door of appointments of people who look the same, think the same and went to the same schools and universities, once and for all.

During my time at LOCOG, running the 2012 Paralympics, we made huge strides in increasing the diversity of people working on the games and all the associated jobs around the event - including broadcasting - where Channel 4's coverage led the way. There's no reason why one creative industry can do this while another makes excuses.

So I welcome the clear targets and action plans put forward, but I don't want this to be just another diversity initiative which falls by the wayside. Until progress is actually delivered, the perception that TV is still dominated by a ‘luvvie' mafia largely consisting of white, middle class men will remain.