Black Staff Matter — What you probably don’t know from the BBC playbook.

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Trish was fearless. Athletically-built, around 5.9" with a brummie lilt, she was the sort you’d think would make the game “truth or dare” appear inconsequential if she ever played. That brazen gutsy streak was offset by a skill for humour and one-liners: “Wot, a cat die in here, or something?”, she’d say entering the room when it was too quiet for her liking.

Her obvious talent was a nose for a story in which she could ferret out the extraordinary. In Birmingham, in difficult times in the UK’s economy, she uncovered a community that had taken to trading favours documented in a ledger as a substitute for monetary payments. This was blockchain, before Blockchain.

Trish had come from the BBC sports department and moved along the corridors of the grey industrial-looking building into an open plan office that seated around 25 youngsters in their early twenties, The BBC is famed for its spectrum of programming, but this department served something unusual.

Firstly the make-up of its personnel mirrored the array of nationalities you’d encounter walking outside into Manchester city centre. Secondly everyone was a YAB (Young with an Attitude to Boot). This was the de facto training ground where Trish could make a difference and next, the BBC’s flag ship programme — its shape-shifter of public consciousness, News and Current Affairs.

In Thatcher’s Britain, where public structures were being unbundled, pulling up bootstraps and getting on your bike was the new leitmotif, and the very idea of society was being politically and socially dismantled, Trish, a black woman in her early twenties, symbolised the confidence of the young and people of colour doggedly setting out to make it. This was 1990.

Public corporations then were generally homogeneously white, hideous would come later. However, there was a sense this was merely a depreciating legacy from three decades after Windrush, and two decades from the mass expulsions of Asians from Uganda who arrived in Britain. The successor generation who generally knew nothing else than being British, who schooled here, could have sex with whoever they pleased, could take legal action if met with the sign their parents encountered: “No Dogs or Blacks”, who wanted to go places their parents perhaps couldn’t, were in the mood to be unapologetic.

A transactional currency of opportunity rewarded through endeavour was, it felt, being addressed through moral grounds; it felt right. The business case was yet to arrive. Take this month, for instance, that British bastion of high fashion, Vogue, under its new executive team of Edward Enninful and Vanessa Kingori, featuring more black covers and minorities’ stories has registered a “1,033 per cent increase in events and special projects revenue”.

Back then bodies too like the CRE, the Commission for Racial Equality, also mounted persuasive and legislative arguments for integration. A couple of years earlier, the BBC working with the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL), and the CRE launched a unique one-year post graduate scheme in journalism targeting young blacks and Asians. They would not replicate the scheme.

Hiring talent and people who were different by dint of where they were from, their lived experience and associations, encoded at face value through their ethnicity, as well as gender, had appeal. It gave you something different in an industry whose raison d’être was to be creative. After all this was television — theatre brought to you in your living room. Then, relatively few black faces appeared on the box which catalysed a freakish ritual amongst black households when someone did.

In Manchester, this is where a relatively small but vocal unit was making its mark at an exciting time of creative Britain. The Hacienda was the in-club, Happy Mondays ruled, The Face magazine epitomised young Britain’s zeitgeist and the unit within the BBC called Reportage was riding this crest. Reportage would become the apprentice ground for names known today like Brenda Emmanus, Sanka Guha, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Trish Adudu. Some were from the BBCs-PCL scheme. Reportage’s DNA was a petri-dish for personnel who themselves de facto would inspire a new generation.

In that vibrant office, which I can see now in my mind’s eye, Hardeep, one of my film directors, has now scaled the heights of the media readily identifiable from his Scottish brogue, bright pink turban and razor wit. Today he resides on Radio 4 and BBC.

Trish, I would cross paths with again four years later when we were part of the UK’s official experiment with one-person crews called videojournalists. She today reads the news and presents a popular radio programme in Birmingham. There were others whose programming skills brought Reportage attention. Seated behind me too, in this United Britain, was this no nonsense petite Liverpudlian called Esther McVey, now a Conservative MP.

The department, part of a bouquet of programmes under a themed hipster Def II sign broadcasting from the early to late evening fell under Janet Street Porter — a woman with a now legendary approach to achievement and getting people to deliver. “I wanted to make a programme in Russia”, says Michele D’Acosta, “so Janet listened to the idea gave me a crew and off we went. If you didn’t deliver you were out”. I was in Russia last year I joked with Michele. We gestured a facial look that suggested “you know”. I can’t think what it must have been like nearly thirty years ago.

Diverse perspectives mattered for what talent could reflect individually and for opening discourse into a broadly untapped sense of space and place. How Reportage came to be shaped as thus is down to a combination of factors, but in no small way a key figure head underscored change, Terry Jervis.

Jervis’ raft of exciting-watch programmes included Behind the Beat which snatched the exclusive first showing of Michael Jackson’s world exclusive Thriller. He was targeted by the BBC and he rewarded them in spades. Today, Terry, no longer at the corporation is, involved in a range of things, such as Black Panther, a space academy, a global platform in Trace, and a new graphic novel series that introduces a fresh crop of superheroes into the comic firmament, who are black.

Within the BBC or any institution for that reason, replete with one false-start initiative after another, in which the phrase, “Diversity” rolls eye balls. It’s been industrialised to support a multi-million industry of conferences, supported by the acronym BAME, a policy batch word morphed into cliched slogan; why try something new when a slogan will do, one thing is irreducible. From the transition of the 1980s, of programmes such as Black London ( which I hosted too), or the BBC’s programme Black Britain with programme head Pat Younge, Eddie Botsio and now Sky’s Gillian Joseph, that irreducible thing is this.

A talented conscientious figure head at the top, with a supportive team can prove that creative Britain media embraces the best from all walks of life. It’s a political decision not a HR or Tech one. Being a minority and working in the media, isn’t just about presence, it’s an entire ontological schema, which places in a mirror on you, which is reflected to the audience who just want to be entertained, informed and educated by the best. And then there’s a new generation who need heroes as epitomised in the Black Panther poster. “There”, says Jervis when I catch up with him last week, “is it” as he shows me the first edition of Black Panther with Artist Tom Beland’s now famous cover which Marvel acquired.

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A couple of months back, (producing alongside Simone Pennant ) we celebrated the achievements of some of the UK’s leading television practitioners from the Reportage era until the present. Celebration alongside activism is a strategy that has proved to work from attending the US’s NABJ ( National Association of Black Journalists).

It’s difficult to celebrate what you can’t see, hence our strategy was to give further visibility to talent in a commissioned set of photos, a gallery opening and a uniquely bound book all of which can exist in perpetuity and, as we know, presently sits on the desks of senior BBC and programming personnel. It’s a playbook to remind the likes of the BBC how they can recapture the initiative they once held within a progressive unit in Manchester.

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Recent photo of Trish Adudu, interviewed before going on air

Next post — Full interview with Terry Jervis, followed by what to do with minorities in higher education. Please watch this clip. Its Gold.

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Dr David Dunkley Gyimah

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David leads the disLAB, a multi-faceted digital-agency course at the University of Westminster. Nominated as this year’s Visiting Professor for Journalism at the University of British Columbia, he is a designated a leading writer in Journalism on @medium and a leader in Cinema Journalism which challenges the conventional structures of news. He’s worked in the media since 1987 for the likes of Newsnight, Channel 4 News (He was Jon Snow’s producer who talks about him here), and ABC News in Apartheid South Africa. He has worked in academia since 2001 and is the designer, co-coder and publishes the US award winning platform which showcases work along the Syrian border, with Apple and his Obama film after his 100 days in office.

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Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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