Talent not tokenism

There is still much work to be done to make the British media more diverse says Lindsay Johns, but it should be on the basis of talent, not tokenism.

Ever since 2001 when former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke infamously referred to the corporation as ‘hideously white’, lack of diversity has officially been on the British media radar. Since then we have seen initiative after initiative, but today many people—including diversity’s most vociferous campaigners—think that the media and arts landscape is less diverse than it was a decade ago. Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?

Despite the efforts of organisations which seek to promote intelligent diversity in the media such as the TV Collective, the work of Channel 4 under Baroness King and various laudable BBC initiatives, much still remains to be done to make British media and arts the intelligently cosmopolitan envy of the world.

As a straight, mixed-race, Oxbridge-educated male working in television and radio arts broadcasting, I not only declare an interest in the way diversity is approached, but I’d like to think I am well placed to see both sides of the debate. It is true that I do stand to benefit from institutions being encouraged to open their doors to more diverse pools of talent, but at the same time I don’t want demeaning tokenism to prevail at the expense of ability.

I agree that more needs to be done to reflect our multicultural nation and the talent within it. Thankfully that is now a sine qua non. A plethora of viewpoints and perspectives from contributors of different races, genders and classes can only make for more robust, balanced, intellectually rigorous and thus better programmes.

But there are also dangers in an unthinking ‘diversity at all costs’ orthodoxy. Now sadly not a day goes by without a straight, white, Oxbridge-educated male in a position of power in the media or arts feeling the need to genuflect at the high altar of diversity (often with revealing faux contrition) and apologise for the simple fact that he is a straight, white, Oxbridge-educated male.

The current debate is too Manichean. We need to navigate a middle path between acknowledging the problem and not exaggerating it or claiming ‘victimhood status’ (and thus dispensations and privileges) for under-represented groups. All talent, whether diverse or otherwise, must get ahead on merit and not simply because it is diverse.

In an ideal world, I couldn’t care two figs what colour, gender or class the presenter of the television or radio documentary on Boccaccio, Rattigan, Himes, Césaire or Marvin Gaye is. What matters infinitely more to me is: are they any good at what they do? Can they communicate their erudition with passion and an infectious enthusiasm? Can they bring the subject alive for me as a viewer or listener? Yet I am too often subjected to programmes where it is readily apparent that contributors or presenters have been selected for either their inimitable diversity or their awfully good connections, as opposed to their actual knowledge, expertise or skill in the given field.

At the end of last year, the comedian and actor Lenny Henry guest-edited an all-black Today programme on Radio 4. Henry is a talented, versatile actor whose 2013 performance as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences was one of the most profound portrayals of masculinity in crisis I have ever seen on stage. But the concept of an all-black Today programme as a racial barometer for British diversity was flawed and somewhat misses the point.

Crucially, at no point in the discussion has anyone admitted that the educated, black British middle class in Britain (from whom presumably most black talent would be drawn) is actually fairly small and that there is arguably not yet the strength-in-depth to be able to have an all-black Today programme or – more importantly – for it to be any good.

Whether we like it or not, Britain is 30 to 40 years behind the US with regards to the development of our educated black middle class. America’s has been built up over centuries; ours since the 1950s. We have no Morehouse, Spelman, Howard or Atlanta Clark (historically black colleges and universities) here – and for good reason. Thankfully, our history is very different to the appalling history of racial injustice that the US has witnessed. That is not to say that there is a dearth of intelligent black talent here. On the contrary, it certainly exists, but it is still not as widespread as we would like it to be.

Moreover, would we even want an all-black Today programme in the UK, a proudly (and for the most part harmoniously) tolerant, multi-ethnic nation? We are not yet living in Atlanta, Chicago or Cape Town – cities with vast, educated black middle classes where such a thing is both possible and even, in many cases, desirable.

It is our very different racial history, combined with the much smaller black population that largely explains the exodus of black British acting talent to the US, most famously Idris Elba and David Harewood (who found recognition for their talents across the pond in The Wire and Homeland respectively).

The variety of roles for black actors on offer in the US is infinitely greater and reflects the wider range of black experience: in short, art reflects life. The same is not yet a reality here, so we live in hope that life will reflect art. By decamping, they have thus escaped the constantly limiting, stereotypical role offers and an over-reliance on colour-blind casting to get complex, fully rounded parts – the principal consideration for any serious actor.

Of course much more needs to be done to increase BME representations in media and the arts, since we no longer live in a monochrome, Mary Poppins England. But diversity should be approached in an intelligent, meritocratic and organic way, not a contrived, lazy or patronising way as a result of white liberal post-colonial guilt. Opportunity should most definitely be open to all, but people of all colours, genders and backgrounds should be judged solely on talent, ability and merit.

That said – and this is where the debate is indeed complicated and where nuance is needed – even I am tiring of seeing the Evening Standard without a single, regular black columnist in a city like London (a metropolis that is now minority white British) or television historian Dan Snow on the box yet again, expatiating on the history of the Congo. Snow is an accomplished and successful broadcaster with impeccable credentials, but I struggle to believe that there is really no one more suitable to present such a programme.

That is not to say that only a black presenter can present on black history – of course not – or that only a black writer can write about black topics – but it would be great to see more black talent getting these roles, not only for the sake of our collective self-esteem, but also because their insights may well be more illuminating, given that they are arguably closer to the material by dint of lived experience.

Most BME talent, whilst keen to do ‘black stuff’ (as it may well reflect one’s personal, cultural or intellectual interests), is equally keen not to be pigeon-holed into only doing it. Being perceived as ‘incidentally black’ will sadly only become a reality in Britain when our black middle class has grown to a size whereby it regularly offers up talent capable of doing both the ‘black stuff’ and the mainstream stuff equally well—and when the British media and arts gate keepers judge us as equally capable of doing both.

Audience diversity in the theatre is another topical minefield. Thankfully, the last time I checked, there is no such thing as apartheid in this country, thus people of any hue are free to attend whatever play they like. Yet the recent vapid comments by actress Janet Suzman about black people not going to the theatre because ‘it’s not in their DNA’ needs immediate rebuttal, not to mention ridicule. Of course black people attend the theatre. It just so happens that many black British people (due to a variety of socio-economic, class and cultural reasons) often choose to attend ‘black’ plays, as opposed to ‘white’ ones. In time, as the black British middle class grows, and as its cultural horizons are expanded, people will hopefully seek to attend great plays, regardless of the colour of the cast or the subject matter.

There is undoubtedly a pool of diverse talent currently being neglected in Britain, which is a sad waste. Furthermore, too many of those from diverse backgrounds who are the flavour of the month seem to have been promoted on criteria other than talent, which is doubly frustrating. Thus we urgently need a new middle ground, where merit and ability (irrespective of one’s ethnicity, gender or background) reign, yet also where the all-too-real scourges of discrimination, nepotism and the old boy network don’t stymie minorities with real talent from getting the opportunities they deserve. Maybe then les neiges d’antan can become les étoiles de demain.