Marcus Ryder is not given to hyperbole. A former senior executive at the BBC, who now works in China, and a Visiting Professor at Birmingham University’s Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media and Diversity.
The MacTaggart lecture, prime spot of the Edinburgh TV Festival, is the TV industry’s equivalent of the US President’s Address to the Nation (in normal times). Except these extraordinary times are not confined to politics. TV, perhaps not so nakedly, has gone about its business of exclusion away from public view. It’s never really turned the camera on itself. Ironic really!
I know metaphors can sometimes get in the way of a story, but this following comparison provides some framing. David Olusoga, a historian, author and Professor of Public History at Manchester University, is the “Denzel Washington” of his craft. He’s highly respected, possesses a calm poise, knows his trade craft and makes television look so effortless.
His intended address to industry executives, who if they could would avoid being publicly chastened, was not I presume, something that gave them thought to be nervous. “Nice bloke, that David”!
Sometimes, an important message learned from politics and working as a political producer is, you don’t need any tells. It’s in the words.
By way of example, political grandee Sir Geoffrey Howe you might remember devastated the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with a cool and calmly worded speech after he resigned from her government. If Thatcher was prone not to listen to her colleagues, she did then. Again another metaphor that might get in the way.
At the MacTaggart, Olusoga delivered his thoughts. It was nuanced. It was brutally honest. It was devastating. It situated the impact of Black Lives Matters and pointed to the Civil Rights struggle as a reference. The story arc on Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees, a working class black man, yields a recurring logic. Rees was the perfect interviewee when matters came to a head in Bristol with Edward Colston’s toppled statue.
He was good says Olusoga because he was a former BBC News veteran who left the industry worn down. “As a historian”, Olusoga added, “I can tell you that if you can run Bristol — a city that is so proudly political, edgy and radical that we had a mini-riot over the unwanted opening of a small branch of Tescos — if you can run Bristol you can run a TV channel”.
Earlier on Olusoga framed his approach: “I am going to say what I really think about race, racism and our industry. And I’ll discover if, at the end of it, I still have a career”, he said. This tweet from @blaakRichardson captured it.
I urge you to watch Olusoga’s address in full. In fact every TV exec and staffer, student and academic, and viewer should watch. He selflessly open his public persona and spoke about an industry in a way that most Black and Brown people would have identified with.
Two years earlier, another first, TV and Screen multi-hyphenate Michaela Coen, behind the critically acclaimed “ I May Destroy you”, delivered her MacTaggart to the industry. Could industry execs avoid the swords they might fall on in the room?
Olusoga’s letter to the industry carried with it the burden of television’s inactions over the last twenty years and a solution, which is why Ryder, who himself could have been a worthy MacTaggart host, was enthusiastic.
The industry’s de facto revolving door means highly qualified Black and Brown professionals rarely stay in their jobs — a combination of lack of opportunities or otherwise preserving their mental health, or both.
It would be easy to be dismissive. The stats in 2017 speak for themselves.
You may see more Black and Brown presenters on screen than you would have ten years ago, but if those talents aren’t also involved in decision making, shaping programmes, then we’re lacking a diversity of narrative. “The diversity we’re missing is Black and Asian producers being able to tell their own stories in their own way” says Pat Younge, a former senior BBC figure who now runs an independent production company Sugar Films.
Olusoga’s talk demonstrated the pain the privileged exercise sometimes knowingly, and perhaps sometimes blithely unaware. It resonated deeply with me.
I could offer this ensuing paragraph to any number of people I know to write their own account. Forgive me if at 5.00 am in the morning I momentarily recall mine.
I entered the media as an undergraduate and some years later in the early 90s worked on BBC 2’s Reportage, BBC Newsnight, and presented on GLR. These were highs, but in effect all too often they were cast by the industry as nothing burgers. I upped sticks to South Africa to report. It was all but impossible to build on each position in the UK as a trajectory to a sustainable career. In one year I earned less than £2000. “Was that sustainable? Did I have to work in the industry?”, a BECTU career’s advisor asked. “No”, I said, feeling torn and liberated at the same time. But for me, it was about applying something I believed I was good at. Channel 4 News was a good home. I was there as a producer/ videojournalist for four year before the night of the long knives when several producers were laid off.
In 2005 when I won first place at the US Knight Batten for Innovation in Journalism, the first Brit to do so, and other major awards, it was a validation of my own steely self-belief.
The reflection for the industry is to imagine how the talent drain it has effected within Black and Brown producers could have created a deeply enriched, gilt gold standard UK TV industry, where a spectrum of societal, historical and contemporary issues would be confronted.
An imagined industry in which intellectual, informed and entertained programmes mined the deep well of all the talent in the industry. And yes diversity is equally diversity of thought, but:
Diversity of storytelling from a cultural heterogenous group is different to diversity of narrative from a cultural homogenous set of people
Netflix may not be the model to reach for; but it’s a close approximation of a realism that the industry could, and should have in sight. Olusoga’s solutions summed up put the onus on the TV regulatory body OFCOM that figures like Sir Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder have sought to make accountable.
“If Ofcom is not able or not willing to hold the industry accountable on diversity and inclusion”, says Olusoga “or able to use its power to set minimum standards, then the DCMS should set up a new body willing to do so”.
It’s worth saying, though it’s obvious. This isn’t about privileges, it’s about fairness. In 2020, waiting any longer is not an option, is it?
David Olusoga’s talk in full here