I have been making public service television and radio programmes for nearly
twenty-five years, first within the BBC and subsequently as an independent
producer. Like most people who have had the privilege of working in this
industry, I am a passionate advocate of public service broadcasting and proud of
the place it has in the hearts and minds of people in Britain. However, I am
acutely aware that there are many sections of UK society that it does not serve
I have often witnessed the barriers facing those who try to widen the range of
stories and voices that get broadcast, particularly the voices of those who have
less power and status in society such as people with disabilities, people from
ethnic minorities, the old and the young, and those with lesser economic means.
In the past my own response has been to see it as simply a matter of time before
things would improve and to focus on doing my own work as well as possible to
contribute to that improvement. But several incidents in recent years have made
me question how much things are actually improving and I became concerned to
understand the issues more deeply.
When I joined the BBC at the beginning of the 1980s, there was a great sense of
change in the air. Sexism and racism were already being challenged in
programmes and in the workforce. The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 with its
explicit remit to focus on under-represented voices helped to put diversity on the
broadcasting agenda with a new political dynamism.
Real breakthroughs seemed to be happening everywhere. Lenny Henry
established himself as a talented Black entertainer in his own show; The Chinese
Detective featured David Yip in the lead role of a major drama series and turned
him into a household name. Women were presenting news and current affairs
reports, and starring in their own cop shows. The BBC Community Programmes
Unit was bringing many ordinary voices to the fore in a direct and
unselfconscious way. The first magazine programme for disabled people crept
into the schedules. Many local radio stations launched their first programmes for
Black and Asian listeners. On national television Meera Syal was doing pioneering
work as an actress and writer which was to lead to her blossoming as a fully-
fledged celebrity on Goodness Gracious Me in the mid-nineties along with co-star
But, spin the clock forward and how much have we really advanced? Women
have undoubtedly consolidated their position and risen through the ranks in great
numbers. But look elsewhere and the picture is disappointing. Lenny Henry
remains the only major Black entertainer on TV. Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar
are still the only significant Asian celebrities. And there hasnt been another
British Chinese lead actor in any drama since David Yip in 1981. There have been
many false dawns. Pioneering initiatives such as programmes about disabled
people made by disabled people and programmes about African-Caribbean people
from the perspective of African-Caribbean people, all have come and gone
without any lasting impact on mainstream programme output.
Although research suggests that the presence on screen of people from some
ethnic minorities increased between 1993 and 2003, the increases were almost
entirely due to their appearance in incidental roles.
The total volume of (and
spend on) television programmes defined as multicultural dropped substantially
between 1998 and 2002 across all the terrestrial channels.
The numbers of
disabled people on television also fell during this period and remains extremely
But most worrying is that, behind the scenes, the mix of senior people who
shape the National Conversation has barely changed at all in twenty years.