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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

Connecting the dots

By Richard Middleton 24-08-2017

Talk at the Edinburgh International TV Festival this time last year centred on the UK’s then-recent vote to leave the European Union. The industry was, in the main, left aghast at the decision.

Fast-forward 12 months and most people are sick of talking about it and have started to prepare for it instead. But fear not for painful lulls in pre-dinner chat north of the border this week, for the topic of gender pay disparity – indeed discrimination across the board – should more than fill Brexit’s considerable void.

UK journalist and broadcaster Jon Snow yesterday used his MacTaggart Lecture, one of the most important speeches in the UK media calendar, to paint a picture of the “gulf” between the disadvantaged and those working in the media industry.

He pointed to the devastating fire at London’s Grenfell Tower in June, which killed at least 80 people, as a tragic symbol of the cracks in modern society. He told a room full of TV industry delegates that the experience had made him feel “on the wrong side of the terrible divide that exists in present-day society and in which we are all, in this hall, major players.”

“We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell,” said Snow in his address, titled The Worst and Best of Times.

This is perhaps why the mainstream media was caught so off guard by recent events such as the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Donald Trump becoming US president and the result of the UK general election over the summer.

It’s a point that Kim Shillinglaw, Endemol Shine UK’s head of factual, touched on in the August edition of Channel 21 International. The former BBC2 controller argued that there is a “real problem” of class representation behind the camera that is not talked about sufficiently nor acted upon.

More needs to be done to develop thriving production hubs outside London, she argues, and perhaps simply moving pubcaster Channel 4 out of the capital isn’t the complete solution.

Add these concerns to issues such as the lack of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation – despite the success of shows such as Top Boy and Luther – and the picture is not that of the diverse workforce the TV industry needs if it is to engage with, rather than just preach to viewers.

Yet addressing these concerns cannot simply be a box-ticking exercise, as the publication of the inaugural report from the Creative Diversity Network (CDN) partially demonstrated.

The report, titled Diamond: The First Cut, attempted to delve under the bonnet of the TV industry to find out just who is producing and starring in the shows we watch, with series commissioned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky all covered.

The CDN, which is backed by major local broadcasters, was at pains to point out that the system is still being developed and added it would not be offering conclusions on the figures because of the “modest level” of data collected to date.

Yet even as a rough guide, the findings revealed further “cracks,” as Snow put it. The disabled, it turns out, are among those most under-represented by the TV industry – so far, so sadly predictable – yet the other major ‘minority’ to miss out on proper representation are the very life blood of the linear television world: the over-50s.

Idris Elba in Luther

More than a third of the UK’s population is over 50, yet only 24% of those on screen were from within this age bracket. Only 20% of those behind the camera were over 50.

Meanwhile, around 18% of the UK population has a disability yet, less than 7% of on-screen talent and fewer than 6% off-screen staff are represented on or from within TV.

The CDN was clear that the findings were provisional, adding that it had recorded more than 80,000 contributions between August 15, 2016 and July 30, 2017 from almost 6,000 individual contributors. Only 24% of those asked to respond had done so.

Other findings included that those from a BAME background – an estimated 13% of the population – made up 21.5% of those on screen but less than 10% work behind the camera. Elsewhere, the off-screen workforce was 55% female, against a national labour workforce figure of 47%.

In themselves, such statistics offer little to clarify the situation of diversity in TV-land, and it’s understandable that the CDN wanted to make the ‘provisional’ nature of the findings clear. In future years, it reckons broadcasters will be able to use the data to take action to increase diversity within channels and at supplier level.

Those over 50 will no doubt be thankful for that but self-flagellation, expertly administered by the BBC recently over its pay revelations and by many a TV exec over the years, doesn’t change anything in itself. Join the dots of disparity and it’s hardly surprising that there was shock when the EU referendum vote came in all those months ago – huge swathes of the UK’s population are not represented in any way by the industry.

That has not changed in the intervening months but what is different is that the industry is becoming increasingly – painfully – aware of the problem, which is a start.