What diversity means in public broadcasting
March 31, 2004 — Comment
Written by Colin Prescod
BBC Radio London presenter Henry Bonsu has been axed because his bosses said he was ‘too intellectual’. Whereas in the past, distinct Black media voices were shut down in the name of ‘multiculturalism’, today it is done under the fashionable banner of ‘diversity’.
Something about the taunt ‘too intellectual’ rang a bell. This was one of the lines used when the BBC’s fledgling TV Black production department was shut down, back in 1991. Back then, no big fuss was made about the casual closing down of the dedicated African-Caribbean Programmes department and its replacement with a ‘Multicultural’ department. Today, ‘diversity’ is the new ‘multiculturalism’. While there is a hunger for serious Black public broadcasting, what we get instead is ‘diversity management’.
In the early 1990s, it was the multiculturalist agenda that provided the justification for disbanding an exciting African-Caribbean TV programmes department, then based at Pebble Mill in Birmingham. At the time, we were told that BBC bosses could no longer justify privileging just Asian and African-Caribbean community voices. Never mind the very real militant Black history that had resulted in opening small doors to these leading anti-racist communities. So, the two relatively young departments had to be disbanded and their interests merged with those of other minorities in a new Multicultural Programmes department – where ALL minority voices were to be given an airing. Some of us argued, with good reason, against the wisdom of this project, but only in-house and to no avail. And the erstwhile Editor of the Asian Programmes department was willing to take up the post of Head of the new Multicultural Programmes set-up.
Within a couple of years, the nonsense of the ‘experiment’ was exposed. From memory, in the years 1991 to 1993, the Multicultural department broadcast just one, major seven-part documentary series focused on African-Caribbean subjects. These programmes were so deliberately aimed at only digging out sensationalist items, that they provoked outraged responses from Black media watchers across the land. No other minority voices (say Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Cypriot) ever featured in broadcast programmes from the Multicultural department. Interestingly and divisively, Asian programming flourished.
This state of affairs became so embarrassing that, in 1993, the failed Multicultural department was disbanded and its Head dismissed. There was no admission of managerial fault from within the BBC. There was no apology to the many who, down the years, had worked at laying in the solid foundations for BBC Black programme production. And there was no explanation offered to the constituencies served by disappointed Black programme-makers. So much for public broadcasting’s accountability.
The pioneering work of Vastiana Belfon and her team of producers and directors is hardly remembered today, even by workers in the industry. In the course of half a decade, they had taken the BBC’s Black TV product from a cramped magazine-format, Ebony, to a departmental output that delivered a spread of programmes, many of them deservedly gaining prime-time broadcast slots. There were sharp, cutting-edge music and entertainment programmes, talk-shows, current affairs magazine programmes, as well as serious documentary films covering the national as well as the international. Vastiana Belfon guided and encouraged her team – giving answer to the oft-asked questions: ‘What’s Black perspective programming?’ and ‘Can it be both Black and available to wider audiences?’. These were questions that had been used to intimidate Black media workers during all the years that they had been excluded from making the attempt. Under Vastiana, and not without testing production challenges, some exciting and fresh work was made – stylish, engaging, daring and always based on sound journalistic practice. BBC bosses should have been proud of this work and protective of its production base. But there is little evidence that they were. And the easy manner in which they turned it back suggests that the work was never valued as adding substance to the BBC’s core practice. It is as though the department was merely a temporary contrivance, to duck the charge that the BBC was a too-White institution.
Since that early 1990s fiasco, there is evidence that the BBC has attempted to revert to the status quo ante – again, to my knowledge, with no considered reflection involving any of the Black programme-making expertise that it itself had nurtured. Today, the BBC’s Asian programmes production base survives. But the BBC’s Black African/Caribbean TV production and programming have never recovered from the thoughtless and stubborn decision to shut down its Birmingham-based department.
The arguments for the shut-down were intellectually, politically and managerially weak, from the start. Lumping all the marginalised voices together in the name of multiculture, and hoping to get all production departments across the corporation to take up a multicultural programme-making responsibility, was never convincing to anyone who knew anything about the values, professional and personal, of those who dominated production decisions. Over the last decade, attempts to restart a Black news and current affairs operation at TV Centre, alongside a Black entertainment programmes operation centred in Manchester, and a Black drama development initiative, again at TV Centre, have all proved unsustained. There must be many unregistered tales of disappointment.
To put it directly – it is as though the BBC’s ‘White perspective’ management has never understood or trusted its ‘Black perspective’ production and programming operations. This translates to Black programme-makers as undervaluing and dismissing of their worth. This is particularly galling, when we all know how vital the Black Brit presence is and has been as a driver of contemporary British culture – part and parcel of how its communities have managed to force a way on to the media establishment’s agenda.
When was the last time that the nation’s major public broadcaster reflected deeply on the nature of the ‘publics’ that it now serves or, indeed, on the notion of ‘serving’? If the new-spin notion of ‘diversity’ is to be of any use to new thinking on these matters, the Governors must take up the challenge of going beyond the cosmetics of the employment-numbers game, and must address the production and programming realities integral to encouraging, nurturing and valuing a diversity of perspectives.
Colin Prescod worked in the BBC's African/Caribbean TV programmes department from 1989 to 1991, and was Head of the department, briefly, in 1990 to 1991.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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