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Monday, 23 May 2011

Are You A TV Type Of Person?


“I’m not a journalist Marcus. I’m not a news and current affairs type person”. That was the response of one producer six years ago when I asked her to come to work with me on “Undercover Supermarkets” for the BBC1 series Whistleblower.

I was shocked. She had previously worked on Watchdog and two primetime BBC1 documentary-soap series for me, and I knew she had the ability. So I went through the list of skills I needed for a current affairs producer:

  1. Can you spot a good story?
  2. Can you persuade difficult contributors to talk to you?
  3. Are you meticulous about the facts of a story?
  4. Are you good at people finding?
  5. Do you understand how narratives work?

I told her: If you can answer “yes” to all those questions, I can teach you the rest.

She could. So she took the job and eventually made one of the highest rating and best quality programmes in the Whistleblower series.

But I found it disconcerting that she didn’t think she was a journalist. When I pushed her, I realised that it wasn’t the programme making skills that she thought she lacked – but some ill-defined quality that she felt she was missing.  So she ruled herself out.

Employers also rule applicants out.  I’ve seen it time and time again, when people in positions of power feel that the applicant is not “a (fill-in-the-blank) type person”.

The typical outcome if the person applies for the job is that even if they fit all the criteria, they don’t have one mysterious enigmatic hard-to-pin-down skill. 

There are a lot of variations on this theme:

“The person is great but they aren’t really a BBC1 type person.”

“The programmes they’ve made are wonderful but they just aren’t a Channel 4 type person.”

“Do you really think they are a music and arts type person?”

“They just don’t seem like a journalist type to me.”

Or the catchall:

“They just don’t seem right”.

Judging by the people that are employed however, the people who are the amorphous “right type of person” nearly always tend to come from non-diverse backgrounds. Ill defined-touchy-feely qualities never seem to work in the interests of black, Asian, disabled or working class people.

It’s crucial that we challenge employers of inadvertent prejudice when they use these ill-defined criteria to judge an applicant’s suitability. Some of my best Producers, Assistant Producers and Researchers have not only come from diverse backgrounds but they also have incredibly diverse CVs. Employers need to make sure they judge people by the skills that they have and their willingness to learn new skills - not whether they are a certain “type of person”.

But it’s also – if not more – crucial that we challenge our own prejudices. Too many of us buy into the idea that we are not the “right kind of person”.  We rule ourselves out of jobs because we do not think we can fulfil criteria that don’t even objectively exist.  It’s time to let go of the mystique, and start making those applications.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Slavery To Interns - The Joy Of Working For Free

When I was sixteen I spent a summer “working” at Ceddo a film collective responsible for producing black British classics such as Burning An Illusion and We Are The Elephant. My work was unpaid and consisted of making teas, syncing up film rushes and doing anything else that the real film makers couldn’t be bothered to do. I had no money. For lunch I would buy a large fried dumpling and a Supermalt as the dough expands in your stomach if you drink the Supermalt at the same time and kills your hunger. Occasionally I would even work the five miles home as I didn’t always have train fare.

Over twenty years later I now have a decently paid job at the BBC and I am troubled by my experience at Ceddo. The knowledge and skills I gained over that summer definitely helped me get my first job in the BBC it was then only film experience I had when I applied fresh out of university. But in recent years I have witnessed an increasing number of people working for free in television the way I did. The difference is that they are not 16 working for leftwing Rasta leaning film collectives but are working for free at large multi-national media corporations. I’m talking of course about the explosion of “interns” in TV in the last few years.

I realise that internships are vital to helping people getting a foot in the door of the TV industry. An industry where who you know is often more important than what you know. But is expecting people to work for no pay really acceptable? If we found people waiting tables for free or cleaning officers for less than minimum wage we would haul the offending companies in front of a judge. But call the employees “interns” and not only do some TV companies seem to get away with it but we have applicants queuing around the block to be accepted.

Interns seems to disproportionately favour the rich (people who can afford to live without any pay) and the well connected (few internships have the same rigorous recruitment procedures to ensure against discrimination as regular paid jobs). Taken together these two things favour white middle and upper-class people.

My fear is that not only do internships work against people from diverse backgrounds getting their foot in the door the few diverse people who do get internships are being exploited.

It is always questionable when people are asked to work for free regardless of their background (black or white, able bodied or disabled). But it is a questionable practice I might be willing to overlook if it was a short term measure that led to real training and employment. Looking at the diversity figures across television it wouldn’t appear to be increasing the diversity of the workforce. Therefore the few none white middleclass people who are getting internships seem to simply be working for less than minimum wage with little to show for it at the end.

I am not advocating the end of work experience and internships I realise from my own experience that it can give people a valuable leg up. However I believe it is incumbent on larger media companies to show not only how they are recruiting interns from a diverse background but also how they are not exploiting them. If they are expecting people to work for free the least the companies could do is publish the success rates of interns finding work later on and exactly what they expect interns to learn from their experience.

At Ceddo they made me to work in the morning, in the afternoon they would give me simple artistic video editing tasks and film making challenges. If well meaning film makers could do that for a black boy who walked off the street we should expect no less from large media organisations with budgets that run into the millions.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Celtic Versus Rangers An Example To Us All

“…we took pride in knowing we were BBC Scotland’s first all-black news crew” text message.

I received that text on Thursday 21st April while on a train going from Glasgow to London. It was one of the proudest and saddest moments of my career in television.

First of all let me give you a little background to the text. It was sent by one of my best Broadcast Journalists after he had just finished filming a piece on sectarian violence in Scotland (not traditionally seen as a “black subject”). It was filmed in the wake of three parcel bombs being sent to prominent public figures associated with Celtic football club. Celtic is a club which, along with Rangers, symbolises the sectarian tensions in the west of Scotland.

I was proud because in many ways this was the culmination of what I think I’ve been striving towards for years: A truly colour-blind employment policy. The sectarian story was not a side story or an “…and finally”, nor was it what TV bosses euphemistically call an “urban” or “community” story (really meaning “black”). This was a big story with national and international significance. The footage the crew filmed was used on various BBC news outlets and even the odd sports programmes. It was a moment that proved the point that BBC Scotland News & Current Affairs had a diverse enough workforce that when a big story breaks and we put our best people on it they could be all white, all non-white or a mixture. It is the story that comes first.

Now “BBC Scotland’s first all-black news crew” isn’t exactly on par with Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League Baseball colour barrier in 1947 or Nelson Mandela walking free from Robben Island in 1990 but it was the ordinariness of the event that made it so special to me. We sent out a crew and they happened to be black. The truth is I hadn’t actually realised we had sent out an all-black crew until I received the text. I had just sent out the best people available to cover the story.

(Incidentally between them the crew have around ten Dispatches and Panorama credits to their names so a simple news and current affairs piece on sectarianism was not the biggest stretch of their abilities)

But while “BBC Scotland’s first all-black news crew” made me proud it was also tinged with sadness.

It was tinged with sadness because it was so easy to achieve. There was no affirmative action, we haven’t had a non-white training programme, none of the crew were part of a special BBC mentor scheme (I think one of them used to be part of a Channel 4 mentor scheme) and there was definitely no positive discrimination. Instead since being made Editor of Scotland Current Affairs all I have done is try and identify and employ the best people – three years later we are sending out all black news crews.

Scotland has a far smaller BME population than London and other places in the UK and yet we’ve been able to increase the diversity of our staff. With it being this easy my sadness comes from the fact it seems so difficult to achieve similar results elsewhere in television.

I have lost count of how many meetings I have gone to about increasing diversity in television. I have seen numerous diversity programmes developed, implemented and then ended with limited results. From my own experience I can’t help but feel that diversity in the media could be solved incredibly easily; people in positions of responsibility simply need to employ the best people regardless of their backgrounds. This might sound naive but I do believe the talent is already out there and it can be done.

The fact the problem continues to exist when it seems so deceptively easy to solve makes me sad.

The fact we are making incremental progress though does make me happy and when it has something to do with Scotland Current Affairs it actually fills me with a little pride.

(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 3rd May 2011)

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Census Form - Filled Yours In Yet?

Back in 1991 as a student I had a part time job of a census enumerator. The job involved going door to door, handing out the national census form, helping people to fill it out and then collecting them all back. I was responsible for eight streets in Kilburn and a tower block. It was one of the hardest jobs I ever had. 1991 was also the time of the dreaded poll tax and so a lot of people thought I was trying to do the work of the tax-man collecting information on them. I had a lot of doors slammed in my face, heard a lot of words that I don’t think are appropriate to commit to a blog post and was even threatened with a dog.
It turned out I wasn’t the only enumerator that had problems getting people to fill out their census that year because of the poll tax. 1991 is now viewed as one of the least reliable British census ever with an estimated million people just not accounted for. If my experience was representative of census takers up and down the country I would guess it was predominantly poorer people who fell off the census radar that year fearing that the poll tax would catch up with them. The census is used to decide how public finances should be allocated, which groups the government should focuses its services towards and how to form public policy. The irony was the very people who needed to be counted by the census the most were running away from it.
20 years later I have hung up my census enumerator clip board but now as a BBC television producer interested in diversity I find myself grappling with the same issues? Only this time I am not directly worried about government policy but the policy of broadcasters. And it is the census figures that once again that are all important.
The diversity targets that the BBC (and other broadcasters set) for staffing are based on the percentage of BME or disabled people in the general population for example. And where do these statistics usually come from? You’ve guessed it – the census. It is very hard to argue for more diversity in front of or behind the camera if the figures don’t back you up. Conversely when the figures are on your side the argument literally makes itself.
A number of Scottish politicians have consistently used the census to argue that the amount of the BBC’s licence fee spent in Scotland should directly correspond to the percentage of the UK’s population that live in Scotland (roughly just under a tenth). It’s an argument that the BBC seem to be listening to more and more as the BBC increasingly moves productions out of London.
As I filled out the census last week I started thinking which census figures will be useful for The TVCollective. Should we be arguing, like Scottish politicians, that there should be a direct correlation between licence fee spend and productions staffed by diverse talent? If the census shows that the there is an increase in disability should TheCollective argue for bringing back the Disability Programme Unit? And if the middleclass black population has grown how should broadcasters reflect this? (The popularity of Colourful Radio seems to indicate that the black middleclass are an underserviced audience).
So now I have posted back my completed census form I realise my census work has only just started. The raw data will determine how I focus my energies around the subject of diversity and which arguments I might be able to win and which I won’t even bother having. My days as a census enumerator may now be a distant memory and I haven’t been chased by a dog since but it’s only now that I realise just how important that little form really is.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 08/04/2011)

I Am Not A Victim

I have just signed off the final cut of “Born To Lead” a film about guide dogs that will be broadcast on Monday the 28th March on 19.30 BBC1 Scotland. It is a very straight forward documentary; Ian Hamilton is a much loved blind reporter for BBC Scotland, his old guide dog is being retired and he needs to find a new dog.
The challenge for Ian and the producer when making the film is how we should represent visually impaired people. At the beginning of the film Ian was adamant about one thing,he did not want blind and partially sighted people to be portrayed as victims.
Yes the film needs to expose how difficult it is for visually impaired people to lead independent lives, (we’ve uncovered new and alarming stats as to how many visually impaired people never leave their homes).
Yes the film needs to give an accurate picture of how a ten minute walk down the street for most people can turn into a marathon for visually impaired people due to the increase in “street furniture”.
And yes the documentary has to show how emotionally distressing it is when a person loses their friend and partner (their guide dog) who they have relied on for years and needs to find a new dog.
But the message Ian Hamilton wanted to get across loud and clear is, “blind people are not victims”. I think most people from diverse backgrounds want to tell television decision makers a similar message. It is important for TV producers not to portray large sections of the population as victims with white middleclass people being the norm.
People from diverse backgrounds want stories that reflect the reality of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and disability prejudice but these are simply aspects of their lives, these things don’t define their lives.
With this thought at the forefront of the production team’s minds the team started production on “Born To Lead” knowing that they didn’t want to make a simple story on guide dogs reminiscent of a Blue Peter Special, they wanted to produce something with a more current affairs grittier edge. But they didn’t want to produce a film just about the problems the visually impaired face.
As the executive producer I think the team succeeded in going beyond victimhood journalism, and the reality is it’s difficult to portray the people who appear in the film as victims. Ian Hamilton (BBC reporter), David Blunket (ex-cabinet minister), Peter White (Radio 4 presenter) and Scottish DJ Mikey Hughes (Big Brother contestant) may face challenges but “victim” isn’t the first noun I’d reach for when discussing them.
The challenge I face however as a regular blogger for the TVCollective is how can I write about the issue of diversity in the media without coming across as a victim? Yes we face challenges as programme makers and yes there is prejudice in the world of television but I don’t wake up every morning thinking “Life as a black producer is terrible”, far from it. Like my reporter Ian Hamilton diversity is an issue in my life – it doesn’t define my life.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 28/03/2011)

The Curse Of Potential

In recent months I have become a massive fan of Twitter. I’m not so much into the celebrity Twitterers so I don’t follow Lady Gaga or Stephen Fry, nor do I care that much about friends twittering about what they ate for breakfast or what film they are about to see.
Instead I love Twitter because it tells me about things larger media organisations don’t, my favourite Twitterers point me to web sites I didn’t even know exist and increasingly I often get breaking news before it’s officially reported by traditional broadcasters.
It is for this last reason that I turned to Twitter to find out the winners of the RTS journalism awards last week. As each award was announced @TVNewsroom let his 1,244 followers know who the winners were. And so it was at exactly 22.17pm on Wednesday 23rd February that I learnt that Rohit Kachroo had won Young Journalist Of The Year.
This is the second year in a row that a BME reporter has been awarded the Young Journalist Of The Year, the year before it was Tamanna Rahman. Anyone who has seen Rohit’s work on Channel 4 or Tamanna on the BBC will know they are both worthy winners. My concern is that their achievements point to a pattern that seems to be common in the television industry.
BME talent often seem to tick the “has potential” box. Ever since I have worked in television when it comes to BME staff the focus is invariably on the “young” and “potential”. Until recently nearly all initiatives to increase BME representation behind the camera have focused on young entry level positions. This strategy has been going on for over twenty years. For over twenty years we have had our “great potential” praised and are told we are about to be the “next big thing”.
However for staff from diverse backgrounds being the “next big thing” has rarely translated into being the “actual big thing” ten / twenty years down the line. Something is clearly happening from our youth being lauded to it translating into long-term careers.
While prizes are very nice and going to black tie events are great for our egos we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of the bigger goal. The goal of more people from diverse backgrounds having long, fulfilling, meaningful careers in television. A glittering career that ends at thirty followed by short-term contracts and long periods of unemployment is a pattern I have seen too often among my BME and disabled colleagues.
We need to identify the career obstacles and stumbling blocks that mean that we invariably have problems fulfilling our amazing “potential”. The success of Rohit and Tamanna once again confirm that given a level playing field diverse talent have the skills and determination to succeed in one of the most competitive industries in the world. The challenge for the TVCollective is to make sure that we can help the likes of the two recent young journalist of the year translate their recent success into even bigger and brighter awards in the future. The test for the television industry is to recognise that our talent doesn’t end when we stop being young.
The RTS Programme Awards is on 15th March read full shortlist  here.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 11/03/2011)

Just Say Yes

Working in BBC Glasgow I spend a lot of my time travelling back and forth to London to see genre commissioners, series editors and other key BBC figures based in London. The BBC might be pushing programmes out to the regions but most of the big money decisions are still made in our glorious capital. All of which means I spend a lot of time on the train.
The other day I was sat beside a young couple with a very noisy small toddler. Working away I was studiously trying to ignore the toddler but could see the young child was definitely not happy…his favourite word seemed to be “no” and his parents were struggling to figure out what their “little bundle of joy” wanted.
It was during this time that I received an email on my work blackberry inviting me to the launch of the BBC’s Chairmanship of the Cultural Diversity Network (CDN). When it comes to the question of diversity in TV one of my biggest worries is that I am like that young toddler: I know exactly what I don’t want but have trouble articulating exactly what I do want.
I know I don’t want business as normal. I don’t want BME and disabled people to be under-represented both in front of and behind the camera. I don’t want pledges that are easy to sign up to but require no action to be taken. And I don’t want a lack of accountability when no action is taken to improve diversity.
As you can see, like the toddler, I am very good at saying “no”. But unless we can state clearly what we are saying “yes” to, people working in the TV industry from diverse backgrounds will be forever passive recipients of initiatives that large media organisations role out “on our behalf”. With the BBC preparing to take over the Chair of the CDN we have a rare opportunity to influence diversity initiatives and make our “Yeses” heard – not just our “No’s”.
So for the rest of the train ride to Euston I decided to try and make a “Yes List” – things I want the television industry to adopt in regards to diversity…
My Yes List
1. More transparency. All companies who receive more than £250,000 worth of work from broadcasters signed up to the CDN pledge (BBC, ITV, Sky, Channel 4, 5 et al) should be made to publish their employment diversity statistics, disaggregated by grade. These statistics should be easily accessible to everyone.
2. Sharper Diversity Measurement: Diversity should cover six broad areas: race, class, gender, disability, religion and sexuality. Progress in these areas should be quantifiable and therefore measurable This will avoid “Diversity” meaning all things to all people and essentially becoming meaningless. The hardest one of these six areas to measure would be class – I’d suggest we measure it in terms of employment of non-private school educated people. A rough measure, but better than none at all.
3. Clearly Defined Terms: There should be an industry-wide definition of BME as visible non-white minority. The idea that employing white Americans and Australians should count towards combating prejudice and racism in the industry makes a mockery of our statistics (NB: Don’t get me wrong – I think there is a need to look at culturally excluded white groups – but simply broadening the definition of BME only confuses matters.)
4. Real Penalties: As previously suggested by Pat Younge, there should be real penalties for managers who do not meet set diversity targets in large media organisations.
It’s not a definitive list and I’m not expecting everyone (or anyone) to agree with all of it. I should also add that this “Yes list” is just my personal opinion, having worked in the TV industry for almost twenty years. It’s not the opinion of the BBC.
But I think everyone should have their own personal “Yes List”. In fact, I hope that people will reply to this blog with their own “Yes Lists” so we can all start influencing the BBC and its Chairmanship of the Cultural Diversity Network. It is only by saying “Yes” that we will get what we want… As my train pulled into Euston the toddler was still saying “No” and neither he nor his parents were looking any happier.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 07/03/2011)

Stereotypes And Rastamouse

As a black person I should have natural rhythm, like fried chicken and wear chunky jewellery.
Well one out of three isn’t bad.
Like numerous people from the TVCollective I’ve watched a few episodes of Rastamouse; a children’s cartoon about a crime fighting, reggae loving Jamaican mouse. Whether you love or hate it, think it’s the best thing that ever happened to diversity or the worst that happened to TV since Mind your Language, there is no denying that Rastamouse is full of stereotypes. It is a cartoon after all – and cartoons are not the subtlest of mediums. However stereotypes in real life are incredibly dangerous and have a bigger effect on our lives than we even realise.
I have just finished reading a fascinating book called Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele that explores the new science of stereotype psychology. The author details a number of experiments that look at how we are affected by stereotypes. For example the psychologists gave a group of black students a simple golfing exercise and told them it was to measure natural athletic ability. The scientists then gave a similar group of black students the same golfing exercise and told them it was to measure strategic intelligence. The second group on average took four strokes longer to complete the experiment. (When they gave the experiment to two corresponding groups of white students the result was the exact opposite). Stereotypes are deep and ingrained; black people are natural athletes we aren’t meant to be intelligent. The opposite is true for white people.
With more experiments the author demonstrates that the bad golf is due to a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”. We are aware of stereotypes and when we are placed in situations that might confirm them we try and avoid them or disprove them. The irony is the stress of trying to disprove them causes us to perform worse.
To demonstrate this they set up another experiment that looked at the fact that women are often stereotyped as being bad at maths. If the women took the test in a room full of men and knew the test would be judged by men they did considerably worse than if they did the test surrounded by women knowing they would later be judged by women. In the room full of men the women were under threat of confirming a stereotype and they did worse under the added pressure.
Working in television we will often find ourselves being the only BME, or person from a diverse background, working on a production or in the entire company. The stereotype threat frequently hangs over us all. The fear is we under-perform because of it and in so doing reinforce the negative stereotypes.
I believe that there is some hope at combating stereotype threat: Critical Mass. The more of us doing something, the less individuals feel the stereotype threat, whether that is consciously or subconsciously. If I think I am the only black journalist the bigger the chance I will fall prey to the stereotype threat. The more I talk to other black journalists, see other black journalists and socialise with black journalists the more I will feel that there isn’t a stereotype that I singlehandedly have to disprove. I can just concentrate on making the best programmes irrespective of whichever stereotypes I might conform too.
Which brings us back to Rastamouse. Is the cartoon a good thing or a bad thing for our children? If Rastamouse ends up being the only “black” cartoon on TV then we will always be acutely sensitive of every stereotype that it might confirm. The answer must lie in critical mass and that means I won’t be criticising Rastamouse but campaigning for more obviously ethnically diverse characters and programmes. Stereotypes must be beaten and can be beaten by quantity and diversity.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 11/02/2011)

BBC Cuts, The Start Of The Gentrification Of Television?

Last week the BBC announced massive redundancies in the World Service with 650 jobs to go. The announcements came hot on the heels of equally painful redundancies being announced at BBC Online. And at work I’ve gone to several management meetings to discuss how BBC Scotland will meet its 20% “savings” requirements (I’m sure similar meetings are being had all over the country). One of my biggest concerns is that these cuts, (if not handled properly) will result in an industry version of gentrification, rolling back the slim advances made by BME and diverse talent over the last twenty years across television.
Gentrification in Britain is a funny beast. I work in Scotland but a split my time between the West End of Glasgow and Brixton. As a Brixtonian I have witnessed the south London neighbourhood undergo a transformation in the last few years, some for worse and some for better. The overall trend however has been one of gentrification with more white middleclass families moving in as the established West Indian community moves out.
While some people might bemoan the decline of an established black British community it is very hard to find the villain of the peace. Property prices in Brixton have increased in line with the increased gentrification. Many black families have sold the homes they previously purchased under the “council right to buy scheme”. They have received a massive windfall, while white middle-class families get to live in the neighbourhood of their choice. Every individual is happy with their side of the bargain. The end result however is that a once vibrant black community is under threat. Working in Glasgow, I can’t exactly point a finger at a West Indian home owner and say “don’t sell, stay where you are, think of the community, think about the neighbourhood”.
When the BBC makes redundancies we first look for volunteers – hoping that we won’t need to make anyone compulsorily redundant. My fear is that BME and diverse talent will be the people first in line to take, what is very often, a financially attractive redundancy package and leave the BBC.
Two weeks ago one of the few Asian directors at BBC Scotland told me she wanted to take redundancy. She is incredibly talented, is able to deliver quality films on time and on budget, every exec’s dream. I took her for a coffee to try and persuade her not to go. But as she talked through the reasoning for her decision I realised it was like trying to persuade someone not to sell their house in Brixton. Taking redundancy makes perfect sense; she feels she has hit a glass ceiling, is frustrated and the BBC is offering her a big wodge of money. It’s hard to argue against that kind of logic.
But the end result will be that BME representation in her department will decrease by 25%. I cannot blame her, I cannot tell her “to think about the BME targets” anymore than I can tell someone selling their home in SW2 “to think about the historical importance of a black community in Brixton”.
Individuals should be allowed to freely choice where they work and where they live regardless of their race, colour, creed or religion. Anything else would be a perverse inversion of the racism that many of our parents fought against when they were confronted with signs saying “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”.
We can argue the merits or otherwise of neighbourhood gentrification but Brixton is still a great place to live in and you will see me in my favourite West Indian takeaway as often as you will see me in the new Australian coffee shop. “Gentrification” at the BBC though is a different story. As more redundancies take hold, BBC management needs to make sure that they don’t disproportionately affect BME and diverse staff. As the first trench of voluntary redundancies goes through, the challenge for BBC management will be to ensure the corporation is a better place to work than the financial redundancy packages being offered.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 01/02/2011)

Local TV And The Meaning Of Life

What is the meaning of life? I know a pretty deep question for a blog post.
Maybe a better question should be; “Does my life have meaning?” which leads to “Does my life matter?” and “In a world of almost seven billion people am I significant?”
Although these can seem like rather abstract philosophical issues they go to the heart of what I think the TVCollective is about. History is full of BME, disabled and other people’s lives not being valued in comparison to other people’s lives. It was the heroic struggle of Doreen and Neville Lawrence to make sure that Stephen’s life was as valued by the police investigating his murder as any white victim that made them into icons of a struggle and changed British society.
The stories our media cover show who our society value and enable us to frame the importance of events in our lives, our communities and in the world generally. When I was eleven I won a chess championship, I was obviously happy, but it wasn’t until I saw my picture in the local newspaper with an accompanying article that I realised that what I had done was important not just for me but to an entire community. In a global population of five billion (the world was smaller back then) my life was significant it had meaning.
Last week Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, announced his plans for newlocal TV news provision. Emulating an American model he is looking for small organisations to be able to produce local news devolving responsibility away from large centralised providers. Most of the time the importance of local and regional news is framed as being important in terms of holding local councillors to account or telling people what is going on in heir neighbourhood. The fact is local news is far more important than that. It tells people that their lives are important, their local school is significant, their neighbourhood matters. Exclude people and events from news and TV and you are saying their lives are not important consigning them to a slow death of insignificance. It is this slow death that I believe we are fighting against when we are trying to increase diversity on television. The TVCollective rightly stresses the importance of increasing diversity in front of and behind the camera but all too often we are campaigning or fighting after the event, after the television production has been staffed up or after the programme has been transmitted.
Here is a rare opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to shape the future of our lives before the event has occurred. Rather than just watch events unfold around us and comment on them afterwards we can join in now! Jeremy Hunt has asked for expressions of interest from people who want to provide local television news by 1st March. These do not have to be detailed business plans at this stage but simply a marker indicating your interest.
Like most people who work in television news and current affairs I can see a lot of potential problems with Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local TV News; will it be economically viable in the long term? Is it just a way of letting ITV off the hook from providing local news and shunting it off to a digital channel no one will watch? As well as a host of other issues.
Despite these concerns I believe Hunt’s plans for local news will become a reality and if that is the case I want us all to be involved, not just a few of the “non-diverse” usual suspects. I am hoping that black, Asian, gay, lesbian, disabled and every other type of person you can imagine will be involved in groups submitting expressions of interest. It is only if people of all different backgrounds are involved behind the camera that we are accurately represented in front of the camera. The local TV news covering the story of an eleven-year-old black boy winning a chess championship is as important as filming the white boy winning. And maybe that in some small way is the meaning of life – we are all equal.
Click here For more details on the plans for local TV.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 22/01/2011)