Who defines “britishness” when it comes to television? Not people of color, that’s for sure | David Olusoga
OOur television, as we like to remind ourselves and the rest of the world, is unique and uniquely British. Last month, former media minister John Whittingdale suggested that UK public service broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – might in the future be legally required to produce what he described as “quintessentially British” programs. Whittingdale quoted Only fools and horses, Downton abbey, The Great British Cake, Doctor Who, The bodyguard and Chip bag as examples of the kinds of programs that would pass his test.
This raises a lot of questions. First, if “britishness” were legally mandated, who could define and measure it and according to what criteria? Do shows like Idris Elba’s Luther, Michaela Coel’s I can destroy you and that of Steve McQueen Small Ax films, which explore the stories of black Britons – real and fictitious – not so “quintessentially British”?
The deeper question, however, is whether the UK television industry is capable of producing programs that reflect Britishness in all its diversity – socio-economic, regional, gender, sexual, generational and ethnic. The reasons for concern in this regard are that, behind the scenes and behind the camera, television has long struggled to build a workforce that resembles the nation it seeks to reflect.
These failures and their continued impact are taken into account in a report released last week by Ofcom, the industry regulator. Carried out over five years, it concludes that, despite some progress being made in some areas, most of the old problems, familiar to anyone familiar with the industry, remain. Women are more likely to quit television than to join it. People with disabilities are represented far from their population level of 19%. And while people of color and other minorities are recruited in increasing numbers, they remain clustered in subordinate positions and under-represented at senior and decision-making levels.
Because TV companies “have focused on recruiting newbies, there is still not enough diverse talent in leadership positions,” Ofcom director of broadcast policy Vikki Cook noted. . Referring to race and class, she called on the broadcasters and production companies that make many of their programs to “slow down the revolving door and focus on retaining and advancing talented people from all walks of life.” “.
The image of Ofcom is that of an industry in which the power to select which programs to run and how rests with senior executives and producers who largely belong to the middle class, able-bodied, white and very often men. A little different picture than the one I tried to describe last August when I gave the annual MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival. I then spoke about my experiences on television and those of people of color I have known who left the industry frustrated with the lack of opportunities for advancement and a culture unwilling to listen to their voices and their views.
What’s most depressing about this report is how familiar it is. Previous reports from previous decades say much the same thing. I guess part of this is because the industry has not fully accepted that the status quo is abnormal. All-white production teams based in London, a city with a 36% ethnic minority workforce, only seem acceptable because we have culturally normalized what is abnormal.
For decades, the industry has focused on programs that helped people of color walk through the doors of the industry, but offered no help to move them up. The Ofcom report describes the industry’s record in promoting people from diverse backgrounds as “dismal.”
Many people on television are apparently comfortable with young Blacks in junior positions, but uncomfortable with older Blacks in senior positions. I’ve heard that the industry’s diversity issues could be addressed by increasing the representation of young people, both on and off screen. Solve the problem of youth and you solve the problem of diversity, this argument says, as if darkness and youth are the same thing, which, as my creaky joints can attest, are not.
Similar cultural barriers limit the industry’s attempts to change its socio-economic makeup and throughout my career I have seen how women are often funneled into administrative rather than creative roles.
Trapped in the world it created, the failures of the past, delaying necessary changes in the present, the industry is finding that its growing determination to be more inclusive is not in itself enough to make the necessary changes.
What makes Ofcom’s findings even less surprising to me is that after my MacTaggart lecture, I learned that the experiences I had observed and had during my career were even more common than I was. didn’t think so. In the days following the conference, dozens of people of color sent me emails and social media messages about which this Ofcom report contains little that they had not learned. by first hand experience.
This year’s MacTaggart speaker, screenwriter Jack Thorne, gave a passionate speech on television’s equally blatant failure to include voices and build careers for people with disabilities. I suspect that after his lecture he too will have received a similar flurry of messages from people whose experiences resonated with his heartbreaking account of a state of mind often unable to recognize the talents of people with disabilities.
Changing the dial of diversity, in all its forms, is important in all industries, but television is special and especially important. Even in the age of streaming services, little is more widely shared in the UK than television. He still has an almost magical ability to bring the nation together for moments of shared cultural togetherness.
At best, it can allow us to recognize and empathize with one another across class and community divisions. Yet who gets to make television has never been shared the same, nor open to anyone with talents to develop and stories to tell.
Until this is resolved, programs that might pass the ‘distinctly British’ test of a politician risk being still British only in a narrow sense, unable to represent the full breadth of Britishness as it is. it really is in the 21st century.