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Monday, 14 May 2012

A Week In The Life Of A TV Executive

Week really starts on Sunday when I received the call that convicted Lockerbie Bomber Megrahi might be about to die. He’s been “about to die” ever since he was released on compassionate grounds in 2009. The Lockerbie bombing was the largest single terrorist act over British soil so it casts a large shadow over Scottish current affairs. The Sunday phone call hijacks most of my Monday morning as I make sure our Lockerbie current affairs output is up to date. Although talking to the team one thing is certain we are NOT preparing an obituary! We don't do obits for convicted mass murderers - I feel I could pre-write the letters of complaint now if we did. We have to get a film ready that will cover all the issues relating to Lockerbie and Megrahi when he dies. A film that will mark a convicted terrorist’s death that isn't an obit’. It's not easy (did I mention some people think he’s innocent?)

Meeting Head of Scheduling at BBC Scotland (wish I had her job). At school I used to play chess at the National Championships and scheduling is the closest I get to exercise that strategic part of my brain. I've got a big investigation into Rangers football club and we've got to decide where to place it in the schedules. I've been in Scotland five years and I'm only just getting to grips with the place Rangers and Celtic play in the Scottish psyche. It’s nothing like any Premiership clubs in England, it's more like Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain representing specific histories, politics, and unfortunately in the case of Scotland often religions. Being English I tread carefully when covering these Scottish icons. I still find it strange to describe myself as "English" something I'd never done before coming up to Scotland. Five years ago I was "black British", a “Londoner”, a “Brixtonian” but not “English”, Scotland quickly knocked that view out of me. Nothing like being in a minority to make you aware of your identity.

TV history is being made with cameras being allowed to film the sentencing in an Edinburgh Court of David Gilroy for murdering his lover Suzanne Pilley. I've got a special into her murder going out that night; only interview with the family, exclusive access to police investigation etc etc. Network news is going big on it as well. It definitely feels as if Scotland is ahead of the curve when it comes to filming in court. But we were ahead with the smoking ban and minimum pricing of alcohol – wow, can’t believe I’m saying “we”!

Massive spring in my step: overnights have come in and last night's doc gets a 24% audience share – great for a current affairs programme. Have a meeting with a London indie. It seems everyone has woken up to the fact that Scotland has an independence referendum looming. It's like being the plain Jane who's had a make-over and now everyone wants to ask you out for a date.

After the indie pitch I catch a flight to London for a meeting with Doreen Lawrence about taking part in a TV event. I often feel I inhabit two worlds. Exec'ing Panoramas and Scottish commissions I firmly park my race at the front door. But I'm also acutely aware I'm one of the only non-white execs working in current affairs so I have an added responsibility (being a role model and all that stuff). To be honest I think being black has really helped me in Scotland: I’ve been having conversations about independence since I was a teenager - Martinique model (stick with the devil you know) vs. Jamaican model (independence or die). And as for feeling a minority in a larger UK I totally get that.

Still in London. Chasing network commissions. The Panorama Editor Tom Giles is always looking to feed the ravenous beast that is Panorama so meeting goes well. Nothing green lit, but nothing ever is at the first pitch. As I leave White City someone asks if I'm moving to Channel 4, it seems I was spotted "lurking around Horseferry Rd". The reality is a lot more mundane as I was just popping in to see Daniel Pearl new Editor of Dispatches to discuss some academic work I'm doing for Bournemouth University. They really need to get a back entrance at Channel 4, for once I have sympathy for Murdoch visiting Downing Street. The sympathy doesn't last too long though as the following Monday the Leveson Inquiry interview both James and Rupert and the media world erupts again - but that's the start of another week.

(Edited Version First Appeared In Royal Television Society's "Television" Magazine, May Edition)

Friday, 11 May 2012

Using Science To Tackle Racism

Last week I received an email from an old friend and cameraman that I used to work with when I was a director. The email was asking for copies of a series that we had worked on together.

The programmes in question were part of a documentary series aired over ten years ago with a black focus and the majority of the production team who made it were also black. That’s when I realised that I was actually the only person from the old production team the cameraman could ask for copies of the series. All my black colleagues had either left television completely (two have become teachers) or at least left production.

The issue of retention of talented black and minority ethnic staff is one of the biggest problems when it comes to addressing problems of prejudice and under representation in television. But could we learn from other industries that also suffer from a lack of diversity.

This week Professor Lesley Yellowlees, the first female President of the Royal Society of Chemistry said the UK was 50 years behind the US when it comes to women working in science. She also has the figures to back it up. For example when the National Academy of Science (a preeminent American institution) announced their 2012 electees last week, 24 of the 84 – more than one in four – were women. Compare that to the Royal Society (The British equivalent of the N.A.S.) where the figure was 2 women out of 44. These figures were part of a study done by the Royal Society called “Tapping All Our Talents”.

What was interesting is that like my experience in television the biggest problem is not getting minorities into the science where they are under-represented but keeping them there. For example in subjects such as Biology, Maths and Chemistry women make up around 50% or more of people studying it at undergraduate level. At entry level jobs women still make up around 50% for Biology but as the years progress you find that by the time you reach professor level less than 20% of all people working in science are women. It is not that women are still working in the respective sciences but at lower levels, the evidence seems to suggest that they just leave.

In the Royal Society study motherhood is seen as possibly the largest factor contributing to the lack of women staying in science. Scientists are meant to work long unsocial hours in labs and often have to travel around the country leaving their families and children. With mothers still often the primary child care providers in a family these unfriendly family working practices are thought to hit women particularly hard and cause them to leave the industry. If they want to address the lack of women in science they need to make it easier for people to balance work and parenthood. In typically scientific fashion the Royal Society had identified a phenomenon (lack of women) analysed the data (women are there at the beginning of their careers and then leave) found a cause (unfriendly family working practices) and decided what needs to be addressed.

There is no doubt that television suffers from many of the same working practices as the sciences; long unpredictable working hours and often working all around the country. And I’ve heard these same reasons given as to why there are not more women in management positions in television News and Current Affairs.

While this may be true it fails to explain why BME staff (many of whom are men) do not manage to have long careers in television.

Large media institutions who, with the best of intentions, often want to address the under-representation of their BME staff invariably devise programmes to encourage more BME people to enter the industry or to arrange mentor programmes for people already in the industry. While these initiatives are welcome what The Royal Society study teaches us is that no number of mentoring schemes or entry level programmes will help increase the number of women in science in the long run, for the sciences what needs to be done is address unfriendly family working practices.

In the same way the television industry needs to clearly identify the exact factors that stop BME staff from having long and fruitful careers. Until we do that we do not know if we are using the right tools to address the problem. Mentoring schemes and entry level programmes might end up being the best solution but the only way we’ll know for sure is if we follow the Royal Society's example and take a more “scientific approach” to analysing the problem.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

What’s Wrong With Our Black Communities?

A few weeks ago BBC3 aired the powerful docu-drama “My Murder”. The drama retold the true story of the murder of Shakilus Townsend, a victim of a “honey-trap” who was lured to his killers by his ex-girlfriend.

I remember when the crime was initially reported in the newspapers and was shocked and fascinated by the story in equal measure. All the major characters in this horrific crime were of African and / or Caribbean decent; Shakilus, the girlfriend and the leader of the murdering gang. The drama (like the reality I am sure) was firmly set within a black community.  

Now I am not going to join the usual chorus of complaints that follow these kinds of programmes of “why are black people always shown in a negative light?”. This was a true story and I'm sure the ethnicity of all the people portrayed in the drama was accurate. Shakilus Townsend, his sister and family were also, in fact, all portrayed in a sympathetic light. Yes, there were bad criminal black people but the drama in no way portrayed all black people as criminals or potential murderers.

However the programme still left me feeling uneasy. It left me worried about how black communities are portrayed on TV.

Over the last twenty years there has been real progress, with most British drama writers now recognising that there should be "positive" black characters. Casting directors are now more willing to cast black actors in non-stereotypical “positive” roles. Things are far from perfect, but there is no denying that progression.  We see “positive” black characters on our screen relatively often – from actors in Dr Who to The Hustle and of course Luther. However, there’s something special about these “positive” characters..

They are often the only black character, inhabiting functioning white communities, or at the very least majority white communities. Black communities on TV on the other hand are portrayed almost exclusively as “dysfunctional”. While many of the people portrayed in the “My Murder” drama may have been likable, the community they were set in was anything but.  

The message that came across loud and clear from the docu-drama and more generally on our screens is that while there might be good black individuals, black communities are a problem. It suggests that if you are a “good” or “positive” black person you should want to leave the dysfunctional black communities as quickly as possible. While some might downplay these unspoken messages, the reality is one comes across these implicit negative views about black communities all the time.  There are often similar messages about Asians on TV: while there might be “positive” individual Asians, the community is invariably problematic, populated with forced marriages and potential terrorists.

Yet the reality is that while dysfunctional black communities certainly do exist, there are also very good positive functional communities. Recent analysis by Dr Nicola Rollock into the black middleclass offers strong examples of functional positive black communities that rarely see our TV screens. I for one am very proud to be part of a black community that includes lawyers, film makers, policemen, civil servants, charity workers – but also unemployed people.  It’s mixed, but positively so.

So why aren’t these positive, broader messages about our diverse communities coming out?

I believe that the reason we now have an increase in the portrayal of positive black individual characters on TV is less to do with political correctness than the fact that many white script writers, producers and directors  increasingly live multi-cultural lives and regularly come into contact with “good” non-white individuals in their real lives. The positive individuals trend on our screens is itself a by-product of a broader trend, rather than an intentional outcome.  But if we are going to get a similar sea change in how the black community is portrayed as a whole we need to ensure that people from these functioning communities are employed in positions of editorial responsibility, like the “positive” individuals trend, positive communities will hopefully appear on our screens just by people writing, casting and directing about what they know, rather than any intentional effort.

With an increase in the portrayal of all different diverse communities  maybe then I will be able to see "My Murder" for what it was; an horrific crime in a dysfunctional community that happened to be black, rather than yet another crime in our dysfunctional black community.