Diversity on our screens: never mind the 'initiatives', let's see some action | Observer editorial

Britain's television industry has for years been promising a better representation in its programmes of the nation's ethnic makeup. Now it's D (for diversity) Day

The countdown started early this year: if there was no new plan to privilege black, Asian and ethnic minority staff in British television, both behind the scenes and on camera, by August there would be a national call for the public to stop paying the licence fee. While diversity campaigners were slightly unsure about the detail of urging supporters to break the law in this way, one thing was clear: patience was running out. So, as the deadline draws near, has the director general, Lord Hall, done enough to convince viewers he is serious about opening up the BBC to a wider range of influences? And what about ITV, where chief executive Peter Fincham has suggested a quota system to improve the situation?

The credibility of these two white men's plans has to be seen in the context of a long history of task forces and initiatives . As diversity campaigner Lenny Henry pointed out last month in response to Lord Hall's new scheme for a £2.1m training fund, "At the BBC alone in the last 15 years there have been 29 initiatives to achieve ethnic diversity, and the numbers are actually going down. Things are being done, but they're not really working."

In the summer of 2008 Samir Shah, then a BBC non-executive director and former senior executive, expressed a similar sense of exasperation when he gave the Royal Television Society Lecture. He was irritated by a "box ticking" approach that bedevilled diversity drives. By focusing simply on the number of black faces on screen, Shah argued, attention was distracted from the real problem. It was, he seemed to suggest, like a magician's misdirection, perpetrated by a great, white television controller in the sky. Audiences were blinded to the fact that those inside the small, charmed circle at the top of British TV were failing to take cultural diversity seriously. And not only were producers and directors annoyed by being told to limit their artistic licence by employing a set number of black faces, many of those watching television were also unconvinced by the casting they saw. Parts given to actors from ethnic minorities were not judged authentic.

Last month Lord Hall's reaction to Henry's call for ring-fenced funding that would treat Britain's black, Asian and ethnic minority population just like an under-represented BBC geographic region was interesting. The DG showed a familiar fear of restricting the "creatives" in the industry. He wanted "targets not quotas", adding, "It's not appropriate for me to say that in each programme there should be X, Y and Z."

Despite this rebuff, Henry has gamely said he will remain involved and serve on the corporation's newly created Diversity Advisory Group. Yet he and his fellow campaigners are correct to be suspicious and to wonder if the BBC has still not fully recognised the problem. It is not a question of political correctness, or of being nicely inclusive, or even of being properly representative. It is affecting the quality of British drama. As Henry has pointed out together with Homeland actor David Harewood, who writes in the Observer today, British television has already lost talent, creative breadth and BAME viewers because of its lamentable failure to look in the mirror and name the colour of the face it sees.

It is a predicament caused in part by the small size of the British industry. As black actor Treva Etienne argues in the Observer's news pages, Hollywood can afford to take more risks because there is more money. Etienne, who made his name on British TV but has transferred to America like Harewood, Chiwetel Eijofor, Idris Elba and Marianne Jean-Baptiste before him, highlights the lack of provision for drama in schools and youth clubs serving Britain's black communities. No wonder, he says, that public schools have recently produced so many stars. Harewood blames British television for relying too heavily on scripts that privilege white actors, in more ways than one. Costume dramas such as Downton Abbey, Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders, only have roles for the odd black character. As Harewood writes, British drama archives are just the same, from Marple and Poirot to Cranford and Midsomer Murders (where "no blacks" was actually a policy for a while).

In a spirit of hope, let's say the solution needs fine-tuning. Hall's plans include a hefty "diversity creative talent fund" to fast-track shows by ethnic minority talent. This could work if it can beat what Henry calls "initiative fatigue". The proof will be in translating training into jobs. As Henry told MPs last month: "Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba didn't need more training, they just needed a break."


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