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Television companies accused of tokenism
Diversify or die: equality chief's stark message to broadcasting industry
· Television companies accused of tokenism
· Call for programme levy to finance positive action
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* Owen Gibson, media correspondent
* The Guardian,
* Thursday July 17, 2008
* Article history
A continuing failure to reflect ethnic diversity by "overwhelmingly white" broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 must be urgently addressed if they are to survive in the digital age, according to a study.
The damning report, commissioned by Channel 4 from Trevor Phillips in the wake of last year's Celebrity Big Brother racism row, calls for a financial levy on every TV show to fund schemes aimed at fostering diversity.
Twenty-five years after Channel 4 was set up, partly with the aim of giving minorities a voice, and seven years after Greg Dyke, then BBC director general, described the corporation as "hideously white", Phillips found too little had changed.
Phillips, a broadcaster and chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was paid to write the report in a private capacity. He commissioned research that found most white viewers felt broadcasters were doing a satisfactory job in representing multicultural Britain, but all other ethnic groups felt their performance was "very poor".
They accused mainstream broadcasters of tokenism and stereotyping, screening exaggerated and extreme representations of minority communities, failing to reflect modern ethnic minority culture, and of fostering a lack of black and Asian people in positions of power within the media.
Key criticisms included reference to characters in soaps that perpetuated stereotypes, such as the Asian cornershop owner in Coronation Street or a black single mother in EastEnders with two children by two different fathers.
"Quotas, codes and new institutions will not help. We already have a surfeit of bodies dedicated to cheerleading for diversity," said Phillips.
"What we need is a mechanism to bend resources and action in the direction of making things happen. I believe the best way to do this is to use the industry's own market mechanism, the commissioning process, and to tilt the playing field decisively in favour of rewarding diversity."
The mechanism would be a fund which, Phillips said, should be up and running by 2010, and would be raised by a 1% levy imposed initially on returning commissions before being expanded to all "sizeable productions".
It should apply, he suggests, to all broadcaster's commissioning budgets above a certain size and all independent production companies above a certain turnover. Companies would be able to reclaim their levy if they could show that through their own internal activities they were contributing to four of six key objectives.
That contribution might include training, content development or shadowing schemes.
While some companies would do enough to reclaim the levy, others might prefer to simply contribute to a central fund, he suggested. Initial calculations suggested between £3m and £5m would be raised each year, assuming that two-thirds of the industry either successfully reclaimed the levy or was too small to qualify.
"I propose the industry has to take a collective decision to put resources into activities which favour diversity and to withdraw resources from those which do not," Phillips said.
Pointing out that there was only one non-white face in this week's MediaGuardian 100 power list, for which he was on the panel, he said the industry needed to find a "broadcasting solution" rather than a political one.
He also recommended that broadcasters work with the ratings measurement body Barb to monitor the viewing habits of ethnic and religious communities more closely and cope with the phenomenon he dubbed "superdiversity" - the complex, multilayered patterns of immigration and identity that shape modern Britain. "In more than a quarter of a century as a TV producer I have never seen the industry more ready and willing to change and embrace diversity, not least because everyone knows that if we don't we're headed for oblivion," he said.
"Our problem is that as an industry we have no idea what to do about it. We have too little knowledge, too little diversity among our key decision-makers, and above all too little incentive to act decisively."
His third suggestion called for all major broadcasters and the top 20 independent production companies to agree to a voluntary code, monitoring the diversity of "senior decision makers", with the results to be published annually.
"The underlying problems are not peculiar to Channel 4; they are industry wide," said the report. "To be precise, the media industry's decision makers are too uniformly white and male; it has no levers to ensure the oft-expressed wish for change ever takes place; and as the sector becomes more competitive its leadership remains complacent."
As part of its Next on 4 manifesto, Channel 4 promised to reconnect with its mission to give a voice to minorities. It promised to appoint a head of diversity and ringfence £2m to commission more multicultural programmes in peak time. Yesterday, it said Aaqil Ahmed, Channel 4's commissioning editor for religion, would be appointed multicultural commissioning editor in addition to his current responsibilities.
But Phillips, who unveiled his findings last night to an audience of senior broadcasting figures and regulators at Channel 4's London headquarters, said that no single broadcaster acting alone would be able to effect change.
The Celebrity Big Brother racism row which triggered the commissioning of the report, resulted in a record 54,000 complaints and a stinging rebuke from the media regulator.
The report also coincided with a wide ranging review of its own purpose and future that culminated in a new manifesto earlier this year.
It follows a series of interventions by broadcasters and executives that have thrust the issue back on to centre stage.
Lenny Henry, in a speech to the Royal Television Society and in a subsequent Guardian interview, expressed frustration that after three decades in television "the status quo is still predominantly white and middle class". Samir Shah, a non-executive director of the BBC and founder of Juniper Productions who with Phillips made Eastern Eye and Black on Black for Channel 4 25 years ago, later added his voice to the debate.
"The ... tick box approach to equal opportunities has led to an inauthentic representation of who we are: a world of deracinated coloured people flickering across our screens - the irritation of many viewers and the embarrassment of the very people such actions are meant to appease," he said.
Meanwhile, he argued, "the positions of real creative power in British broadcasting are still controlled by a metropolitan, largely liberal, white, middle class cultural elite".
About this article
This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday July 17 2008 on p9 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 09:46 on July 17 2008.
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