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Monday, 30 January 2012

Britain's First Black Prime Minister?


A few months ago, one of my production team called me excitedly: “I’ve just spoken to Britain’s first black Prime Minster!”. He had just interviewed Chuka Umunna MP for the Panorama film “Carry On Banking”.  Of course, political predictions by journalists are notoriously unreliable. If the majority of journalists had been right in 2009 Hilary Clinton would be President now. However, it demonstrates that even for hardened Panorama journalists, the young black MP did make an impression.

I was reminded of that Panorama and the Umunna interview today, with the bankers’ bonuses back in the news, and the charismatic young MP seeming to be on every TV and radio news outlet.  They reminded why that one interview encapsulated all the reasons why it‘s crucial to have people from diverse backgrounds working behind the camera.

The Panorama was, as the title suggests, an investigation into bankers’ bonuses. During the  production meetings, we would think through all the relevant people that we could interview – including banking experts, small businesses, banking insiders and of course politicians. It was at one of these production meetings that I suggested we interview Chuka Umunna for the programme. At the time, he had been sitting on the Treasury Select Committee in charge of examining banking practices, and prior to that had worked in the city as a lawyer.  I also knew he was very eloquent. In short he was perfect for our programme.

Despite all of these qualities, no-one else on the production team had heard of him. To be honest, it wasn’t that surprising. He had only been an MP for 6 months, so was still relatively unknown to the majority of people.  At the same time however, I don’t think there was a single black British person interested in politics who did not know of Umunna. So I pushed my team to interview him for the Panorama, and as I anticipated, he proved to be a valuable contribution to the programme.  And obviously, he improved the programme’s on screen diversity.

What this experience proved to me was just how important it was to have people from diverse backgrounds  on production teams if we want to get the very best contributors. The fact of the matter is that while all journalists try to have as large a black book of contacts as possible, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. If all our journalists come from the same background, we will invariably have the same weaknesses and strengths in our knowledge of contributors. It is crucial to draw our journalists from as wide a pool as possible in order to make sure our strengths and knowledge on a team are as  broad and strong.

Working in Scotland news and current affairs I regularly see the benefits of this diversified strategy. Scottish journalists regularly know of contributors that might escape our London based colleagues. For example, the majority of Scots are very aware of Margo MacDonald’s campaign to change the laws on assisted suicide. She is a politician, an MS sufferer and in most Scottish circles considered a “national treasure”. When my Scottish team were pulling together an excellent Panorama – shown in the whole of the UK – on assisted suicide called “I’ll Die When I Choose”, Margo MacDonald was the obvious choice for presenter. But I think it would be fair to say that not many London colleagues would have thought of working with Margo MacDonald on the film. I don’t think it is controversial to say my Scottish colleagues are more aware of potential Scottish contributors and issues than journalists who do not live in Scotland.

But it’s not just important to have people from diverse backgrounds in the production team.  They also need to be in positions of power and influence. Trying to persuade my team that they should interview Chuka Ummuna,a contributor they had never heard of, was certainly difficult. But as the executive producer, ultimately they did as I said. If I had been a researcher with the same suggestion and knowledge, I’m not sure my suggestion would have gone that far.

Following his interview in our Panorama programme – his first on a network current affairs programme – Ummuna is now on our screens and on the radio pretty consistently. You definitely no longer need to be from a diverse background and take a special interest in BME politicians to know of him. However, every time I think of that interview, I wonder how many other great “next Prime Minsters” as my colleague put it, be they black, Asian, disabled or come from any manner of diverse background, aren’t making it to the screen.  And whether that’s simply because the production teams aren’t as diverse the population we make programmes for.

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