By Matthew Bell
July/August 2014

Will anything short of quotas reverse TV’s declining diversity? Matthew Bell listens to the debate

Public-sector employers and much of the corporate world have made great strides in building more diverse workforces in recent years. But the same cannot be said of the TV industry, where the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people has been falling. Last year’s Creative Skillset employment survey revealed that the proportion of BAME people in the creative sector, which includes film, advertising, radio and gaming as well as TV, had declined from 7.4% in 2006 to 5.4% in 2012.

These damning statistics formed the backdrop to the RTS-sponsored session “To quota or not to quota” at “Diversify”, an event organised by Broadcast and Screen International publisher MBI in early June and held at a packed RADA Studios in central London.

Peter Salmon, the BBC’s Director, England and a member of the Creative Skillset board, told the session, chaired by Channel 4 Director of Cultural Diversity Stuart Cosgrove, that the survey “deeply shocked us all”. The BBC, though, is performing better, he claimed. Salmon revealed that 12% of the BBC’s workforce is from BAME backgrounds, close to the average for the UK population as a whole. He conceded, however, that this overall figure conceals some troubling areas: “It is clear that there are not enough black faces at the most senior levels of all our media companies, not just the BBC. “And, while we bring on many good BAME producers, they don’t develop their careers fully with us. “We recruit and train them but we do not nurture and treasure them – and I think that’s why they’re probably leaving the sector,” he said.

Salmon added that Director-General Tony Hall would “announce new BBC plans to tackle some of our big diversity challenges” in the coming weeks. Fellow panellist Krishnan Guru-Murthy argued that “as an industry, we are failing. There is no doubt that we have gone backwards over the past 10 to 15 years” in promoting diversity. The Channel 4 News presenter said that “huge strides” had been made in the 1980s and 1990s, but nothing since. “A lot of the people who are senior in television, either on- or off-screen, are the same as when I was coming into the business 25 years ago,” he added. Specialist departments, such as the BBC Asian Programmes Unit, and series including Channel 4’s Black on Black and Eastern Eye (both aired in the 1980s), he argued, had proved “great training grounds” for BAME people. “They enabled people to progress up the ranks and then move out into other areas of television. Those were scrapped on an ideological whim, which said we should mainstream everything – and the truth is, mainstreaming has failed.”
Addressing the question posed by the RTS event – “To quota or not to quota” – Guru-Murthy backed the introduction of “enforceable targets with [financial] penalties”.
He characterised these as “rules with teeth”, adding: “I don’t see anything else that will produce the kind of step change that we need.” “There’s only one issue: power – who calls the shots”

Production companies, for example, would lose a percentage of their fees if they failed to hit diversity quotas. Targets would be nothing new for TV, he argued, which already has regional and independent-production quotas. “The market,” he concluded, “has failed and so we need to intervene. The argument against quotas is always the same, that they would be ‘unfair’. “Well, the status quo is ‘unfair’ and it has been for many, many years. If a small number of people are going to end up feeling penalised, well, they’re the people who’ve had the advantage for years and years.” Bectu Head of Diversity Janice Turner added the union’s support for enforceable targets, while black TV producer Paul Blake said that he had heard much “warm and fuzzy language” about diversity but had seen “no action whatsoever”. “Within our company we joke about doing a film with Will Smith and taking it to Channel 4 or the BBC and [the broadcasters] asking for a taster tape,” he added to illustrate the obstacles faced by BAME programme-makers. Salmon, however, argued against quotas: “Television needs to reflect everyone’s lives and experiences. But from my own personal experience working at Channel 4, ITV, in the independent sector and at the BBC, it’s much more about intervention at key points in the broader creative process that matters.”

He continued: “The debate is about best business practice; and fairness, too; it’s about culture; and for those of us at the top of the BBC, it’s about leadership. It’s about partnerships, too, because no organisation can do it alone.” Former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips, who once presented and produced LWT’s The London Programme, said that he and Labour MP Diane Abbott “have a simple mantra – the big problem is not that brilliant people are being ignored. “By definition, most people are not outstanding. All I think we – people from ethnic minorities – would ask for, is to be allowed the same right to be mediocre as most other people.” He added: “People in this industry and other industries don’t take the same risk with people from minorities as they do with everybody else.” Phillips pointed out that the use of quotas in the US hadn’t significantly boosted the representation of BAME people in TV and film.

And there are obstacles to introducing quotas in the UK, not the least that it would involve a change in the law, which could take up to three years. He argued that “there’s only one issue: power – who calls the shots”.

On the five main television boards – the BBC Trust, ITV, Channel 4, BSkyB and Ofcom – Phillips said that just one of the 62 members was not white (Sonita Alleyne at the BBC Trust). “People in this industry and other industries don’t take the same risk with people from minorities as they do with everybody else.” Phillips backed the use of the “Rooney rule”, named after Dan Rooney, the owner of the US football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. This requires teams to interview minority candidates for senior roles. Since its introduction in 2003, many more African Americans have become coaches and managers. For every top job in television, urged Phillips, there must be “one woman or one person from an ethnic minority on the shortlist.” Both Phillips and Turner called for better monitoring of diversity.
TV companies, said Phillips, are failing to follow the example of other UK employers: “How is it that television is the only part of the economy that has some difficulty with keeping numbers?

“The only reason that nobody is doing this is because they don’t want to – I think it’s absolutely beyond contempt.” Bectu’s Turner called on the Arts Council of England, the BFI and Ofcom to make monitoring and publishing data a requirement for those companies it funds or licenses. “Targets should be set and penalties [imposed] for those who fail to make progress,” she said. She added that the three organisations “bear quite a lot of responsibility for the disgraceful decline in the employment of ethnic minorities within media and the arts”. Turner concluded: “What we are demanding is that – finally – the industry is made to give ethnic-minority workers an equal, fair chance and reflect the diversity of this country.”

Original Article: