‘How many black faces do you see on the BBC?’ was my parents’ first question when I told them I had decided to pursue a career in broadcasting.
Diversity in media and broadcasting, and particularly the issue of opportunity for people of colour, has been a recurring issue for decades.
Tonight’s Oscar ceremony will come under intense scrutiny for the whiteness of their winners. There’s no reason for anyone in the British film industry to feel smug though. Despite small gains, British screens are yet to convincingly reflect our society.
While talent like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Idris Elba, Sophie Okonedo, David Oyelowo, Thandie Newton, John Boyega and Steve McQueen have shown that there is a route to international acclaim for a few black British stars, most found success working on American productions.
Every now and then, the British media goes through a phase of asking why all of our best and darkest are making waves from the wrong side of the Atlantic, but once the drama has blown over the interest fades to black. Call me a cynic but it seems like a TFL announcement for on-screen progression: ‘Due to planned social engineering works, the next BAME train is delayed for 12 months – please find alternative routes.’
This year’s BAFTA awards seem to have escaped the scrutiny levelled at Hollywood. The #BaftaBlackout protest outside the event received only a cursory glance from British journalists, whilst the #OscarsSoWhite debacle created a media storm – the latest symptom that America’s vitiligo is far from cured. The truth is that centuries of silent prejudice have been allowed to seep into the pillars that uphold our television, radio and film industries. Neither token pledges from broadcasters nor an extra box on application forms will make headway in solving this deeper issue. We need to force commissioners, production companies and distributors to train and hire from outside the white, male and mostly middle-class pool. For as long as this continues our media and broadcasting will not represent British society.
Last year, when I was searching for a way into the industry, I attended a Guardian Live debate on ‘Diversity in the Arts’. As promised, conversation got lively with writer Dreda Say Mitchell quick to point out the irony of such an event being chaired by the figure of Mark Lawson (savvy, but white, male and middle class) and former BBC Drama head Ben Stephenson (similar) digging himself a hole. Stephenson argued that diversity quotas at the BBC had been enforced at the expense of script creativity – an outrageous assumption of mutual exclusivity. The notion that there simply aren’t as many quality BAME screenwriters is utterly false and it exemplifies how our biggest broadcasters are yet to move on from negative stereotypes.
Directors UK, who represent British TV and film directors’ interests, produced a damning report last year which suggested that between 2011 and 2013, the proportion of all television made by BAME directors in the UK had massively dropped (20% to 1.29%). Female directors fared even worse over the 2011-12 period, with 0% working on what they termed ‘popular UK drama or entertainment’ series. The people given the opportunity to produce our TV and film should be as varied as the society their content portrays, yet women, and therein women of colour, are too often overlooked when lack of diversity is criticised.
It would appear that the involuntary bias Stephenson displayed at the Guardian event pervades. Simply put, there is too much money at stake for broadcasters to air ‘risky’ content produced, written, directed, acted or created by anyone other than default males. When acclaimed director Ridley Scott was criticised for using white actors in his Egypt-based film Exodus: Gods and Kings, he famously said ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget…and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such’.
So how did I end up working on the most diverse production on mainstream British TV? When the Guardian talk ended that night, I felt paradoxically disheartened and encouraged – I felt compelled to add my voice to the conversation and to contribute to its progression rather than its stagnation. I hurried to catch up with a regal-looking young man who had sat a couple of rows ahead. He was softly spoken, educated and utterly unfazed by the panel we had just listened to. As we skirted the Regents Canal, Yinka Ayinde told me that with Arts Council backing, he had created and produced the West End’s first Afrobeats-inspired musical. Over the next few weeks, I was drawn into the fertile space his musical had created for young black thespians. It was my first taste of a creative arts project led by young people of colour and it gave me a glimmer of hope. Yinka suggested I look into the MAMA Youth Project, a charity that ran a TV traineeship aimed at promoting diversity in broadcasting.
Bob Clarke recognised long ago that equal access was the means to empowering a new generation of media professionals. He founded the MAMA Youth Project to ‘create a new school tie’. Self-funding the charity for two years, Bob and the close-knit training and production team could not have given more to keep it alive. (Today Licklemor Productions is the social enterprise set up to manage MAMA Youth’s commercial interests, feeding any profits made from producing the show back into providing the core training and staff salaries.) Twenty-four young people are carefully selected to train as editors, camera and sound operators, researchers, production coordinators and production managers. It was no accident that our cohort was comprised of all genders, religious beliefs, races and abilities, nor that we began each day with a ‘newsroom style’ conversation designed to challenge every possible preconception. The MYP ethos is simple; they keep it real with us, tailoring their seasoned advice to individual needs, supporting but not carrying us, and moulding our interest into employability. In 13 brutal weeks (5 trainees quit during my time) we had produced What’s Up Season 9, a glossy magazine style arts and culture series commissioned by Sky. It is the most diverse show on a mainstream British channel.
According to the latest available figures from Ofcom, online TV revenue grew to £738m in 2014. Again, on the other side of the Atlantic, content produced by online giants like Netflix, Vice and Amazon Prime is finally starting to reflect the plurality of wider society. MAMA Youth recognises that changes like this are long overdue in the UK, so instead of policy, pledges and pretence, it has gotten on with the unglamorous task of empowering through education. In fact, £738m still represents less than 5% of the British industry, meaning that the potential to tie growth to simultaneous diversification is huge. The future of broadcasting will be played out online, and to keep it diverse means teaching skills to underrepresented young people so that they can be part of the transformation. Contrary to Stephenson’s beliefs, MYP’s diverse graduates can thrive long term in a constantly shifting industry: 99% of the trainees gain a paid media placement after graduating MYP and 82% are still employed in media and broadcasting 12 months later. MAMA Youth clearly offers a successful model that should be adopted across British arts and culture.
You may be wondering why it matters that I’ve got my golden ticket? Well done for me, but what about the others who weren’t so fortunate, or those who don’t work in the TV and film industry – why does my story matter to them? I’m sharing my experience in the hope that it will inspire other would-be broadcasters to fight for their careers against all odds. And I’m writing to call for the continued support of charities like the MAMA Youth Project: schemes without which we would have no functioning archetypes for genuine media diversification. Even if you don’t work in the industry it matters because we all consume its products.
Tonight’s Oscars ceremony is probably worth watching just to see Chris Rock’s last hurrah. In a piece he penned on Hollywood racism, he imagined big black PR companies and big black agencies as a crucial step to a supportive Hollywood network of black talent – goals comparable to those of the MAMA Youth Project.
In the struggle against the cycle of injustice that reinforces racial stereotypes causing collective social trauma, it is crucial for us all to demand more of the industries that represent who we are. Thanks to Bob and his tireless team, I and many others who wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance, received an invitation to the next room on the next floor. As soon as we can we’ll be sending the lift back down.
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