Why the Twitter coverage of Michael Brown death highlights need for UK media diversity

Marcus Ryder, chair of the Royal Television Society Diversity Committee and BBC current affairs executive, explains why prioritising diversity in the UK media sector is needed.

Diversity in television is the hot topic. It is almost impossible to get two television executives together and the conversation not turn to the need to increase the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people working both in front and behind the camera. And the name “Lenny Henry” is never far behind in the conversation.

Last Monday (18 August), BSkyB announced it would implement BAME quotas for on-screen talent and certain key roles behind the camera in drama. The BBC has announced a raft of initiatives including more training schemes to increase the number of BAME people working in the corporation as well as a £2.1m pot of money to develop new programmes. ITV has also announced initiatives and Channel 4’s chief executive David Abraham has said diversity is a major priority.

So with all this “progress”, why isn’t everyone happy?

What prompted the Guardian newspaper to publish an open letter addressing the heads of the UK’s major television broadcasting organisations calling for more programmes made by and about Britain’s BAME population? The signatories were a who’s who of the British creative industry; it included Rufus Norris, Idris Elba, Emma Thompson, Alan Bleasdale, Richard Curtis, Stephen Daldry, Russell T Davies and Richard Eyre (and more stars keep adding their names – while writing this I have just heard film director Steve McQueen has also signed).

So why the disconnect?

What are the major figures in the creative industry calling for that is different from what the major broadcasters are promising?

The signatories to the Guardian letter want the broadcasters to take a similar approach to rectifying the BAME diversity problem to how nearly all serious issues are rectified in the UK television industry: either ringfence money or set a quota.

In 2007 the BBC realised that too much of its production was centred in and around London. Relying on the goodwill of commissioners to try and commission more programmes from the “nations and regions” for the previous 20 years had failed. It set itself stringent targets that at least 50 per cent of its programmes would be produced out of London and the number of programmes produced in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would directly reflect the percentage of the UK population living there.

In the last seven years the media landscape across the UK has been revolutionised. More Scots, Welsh and Irish are employed by the BBC than ever before and the television industry in places like Manchester is booming.

Similarly, if the broadcasters want to ensure that certain programmes are produced they set themselves quotas tying the hands of the commissioners. They have done this with children’s programmes and news and current affairs. If this is not done the pressures to commission other types of programmes are so strong that it is almost impossible for commissioners to prioritise these incredibly important public service requirements.

Now, the major criticism of ringfenced money for BAME programmes is that it will ghettoise black and Asian programme makers as they are forced to make “black” programmes.

This misunderstands what the signatories are asking for when they demand ringfenced money for “BAME programmes”. Just as there are quotas for Welsh, Scottish and Irish programmes, these programmes are not about St Andrew’s Day, eating Haggis and Irish dancing. It is about quotas that enable Welsh productions to make Dr Who, Scottish productions to make programmes like Question Time and Northern Ireland to make a fifth of all Panorama current affairs programmes.

BAME programmes are defined by fulfilling two of three criteria:

  1. 50 per cent of on-screen talent is BAME.
  2. 30 per cent of staff employed in making the programme are BAME.
  3. 50 per cent of senior staff working on the project – executive producers etc – are from a BAME background.

It is heavily modelled on the criteria as to whether a programme qualifies as an “out of London production” which has a similar two out of three tick criteria.

The reason why so many people (except the broadcasters of course) see this as more effective than the initiatives announced and even the quotas set out by BSkyB is that it creates an environment than encourages every BBC department and indies to employ more BAME people and train them up. Because by employing more BAME people, both in front and behind the camera, it gives them access to more commissioning possibilities. It also forces commissioners to seek out productions with a higher BAME employment rate.

Lastly if you ever needed an argument as to why things need to change in mainstream media and to change quickly I can give you three words: ‘Michael’, ‘Brown’ and ‘Twitter’.

After Michael Brown – an unarmed black man – was shot by police in Ferguson, America, more than a million tweets were sent about it before any major news outlet covered the story three days later in primetime.

I believe that until mainstream media more closely reflects our audience we will continue to miss stories that are important to large swathes of our audience, be they news stories, dramas, comedies or documentaries.

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