Earlier this year the Today programme reported the story of a performance by Black comedian Reginald D. Hunter at the Professional Footballers’ Association’s annual awards dinner. Hunter is known for using the ‘n-word’ in his comedy routines, and this night’s performance was no exception.
This was particular embarrassing for the PFA as they have been fighting the battle against racial abuse in the game for some years now, not least in their promotion of the ‘Lets Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign. Now the use of the n-word is a contentious issue. I have previously said on my blog I feel that white people should never use the word in any circumstance, but I acknowledge that many African-Americans reserve the right to use the term in an attempt to reclaim it. But this post is not about who or when it is appropriate to use that word. What got my back up is who the Today programme thought was qualified to discuss the issue. The best participants for the debate would have the Black PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle and Reginald Hunter himself. But no such luck. If they were unavailable then how about a representative from the ‘Kick it Out’ campaign, or a Black ex-footballer like John Barnes who experienced having this term shouted at them from the terraces? No? Well how about a Black comedian? No, to debate this sensitive issue the Today programme chose white comedian Marcus Brigstocke and white comedienne Rhona Cameron. So on BBC Radio’s flagship news programme we have the spectacle of three white people, none of whom have ever been on the receiving end of that term, discussing in which (comedic) circumstances it is allowable to use it. Could no-one on the production team see what was wrong with this picture? They really couldn’t find anyone more suitable – no Black comedian, no anti-racist campaigner, no one? Did they try and fail or could they just not be bothered?
The anomaly was made all the more stark by the fact that not one but three Black comedians had featured on this same station’s airwaves just the night before! Felix Dexter is a regular feature on the comedy series ’Down The Line’ (Wednesdays at 6pm) and both Nathan Canton and Curtis Walker appeared on the late night radio sit-com Can’t Tell Nathan Caton Nothing (Wednesdays at 11pm). Is it possible that a Black comedian can appear on Radio 4 and yet no Today programme researchers can get hold of their phone numbers? Or maybe Black comedians don’t get up early enough to appear on Today. (The BBC must think that all Black people keep vampire hours, as any show with/for us seems to be broadcast after 11pm!)
Let me restate, this blog-post is not about the ‘n-word’, it is about the BBC’s attitude to diversity. It’s now over a decade since the BBC’s then Director General Greg Dyke declared that the BBC was ‘hideously white’.
Since then little has changed in terms of its employment practices. Back in 1997 when I worked for a brief period in the Radio 1 press office, there were only two other Black men in the building – one fixed the computers and the other one was the security guard. And this was hip and trendy Radio 1. Imagine what it was like at stuffy Radios 3 and 4? Whiter than a snow storm! And though the BBC pay lip-service to increasing the diversity of their work-force, things don’t seem to be changing. Even the ‘institutionally racist’ Metropolitan Police are doing better, (at least they let in working-class whites) and this lack of respect on the Today programme shows why. The producers, presenters and execs continue to recruit from their tight little circle of white, middle-class Oxbridge cronies, even when they are debating Black issues! (Update –Mishal Husain is joining the Today programme – but does it need a more radical overhaul?)
It is the same situation in many institutions, not least our own government. Witness in April, the appointment of Jo Johnson as the head of the Number 10 Policy Unit. Mr Johnson, like Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne, and so many in the Tory cabinet is an old Etonian, Oxbridge graduate and former member of the infamous Bullingdon drinking club. Oh, and co-incidentally he’s also the younger brother of London Mayor Boris Johnson. David Cameron dismissed accusations of cronyism, arguing that he’s only hiring the best brains for the job. But can’t he see how bad it looks? This small band of white, middle-class, public-school boys dominate our government, our judiciary and our media, and it seems no-one outside of their clique can get a look in. They not only control our parliament, but also our airwaves. They not only make the laws, but also set the political and news agenda. From the outside, it looks like if you’re Black and/or working class the only way you can get a full-time job at Broadcasting House or the Houses of Parliament, is if your pushing a mop or checking security passes.
In closing I would like to remind our heads of government, and those at the BBC, of the words of an old song by Billy Paul.
Somebody’s knocking on the door, somebody’s ringing the bell,/ Do me a favour, open the door, and let ‘em in.”
If you’d like to read more about the issues raised in this article, check out my new book ‘The Problem With Black Men’ available now on Amazon.
Lee Pinkerton was born in London, the child of Jamaican and Guyanese immigrants. After studying Sociology and Psychology at University he spent the 90s as a music journalist, first as a freelancer for magazines such as Mix Mag, Echoes, and Hip-Hop Connection and then as the Arts Editor for ‘Britain’s Best Black newspaper’- The Voice.
In addition to this he also wrote a book the Many Faces of Michael Jackson published in 1997.
His latest book The Problem With Black Men examines the causes of the social problems facing Black men in Britain and America today.
He can currently be heard as a regular on-air contributor to the ‘ACE show’ on BBC Radio Derby and his political polemics and cultural criticism can be read on the blog-site The Black Watch and his daily musings on Twitter @_Runawayslave.
- Reginald D Hunter: ‘I’ll go on ’til someone stops me’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Mishal Husain’s debut on the Today programme – radio review (guardian.com)