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British media: not quite black and white

New research reveals Britain’s TV viewing is split along racial lines, and risks amplifying this division by excluding whole groups from the shared national conversation.

Credit: Lauren Hurley / PA Wire/Press Association Images Credit: Lauren Hurley / PA Wire/Press Association ImagesI want to talk about the media’s role in meeting the challenge of diversity. It’s a topic on everyone’s lips. And despite the news from the Oscars, we shouldn’t be too gloomy. We haven’t been completely hopeless. For example, Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics in 2012 was utterly transformational. Those two weeks marked a step change in the image of disabled people in this country.

Idris Elba recently drew attention to the paucity of roles for leading black actors in British film and TV. He’s right, but he’s helping to fix it by brilliant performances in Luther, in Beasts of No Nation; and by appearing every night puffing Sky – after all sometimes what we see between the programmes is as important as what we see in them. 

We have yet to trust many women with authority roles in current affairs; but we should raise a small cheer for the first female double act to host a prime time entertainment show – Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman. And let me just recite some names of people who might in the past have been ruled out of key roles: Sue Perkins, Grayson Perry, Mishal Hussain, Frank Gardner, Graham Norton, Katy Piper. I could go on.

But I have my own personal test as to how far we’ve come as a diverse society. I call it my invisibility test. When I was a child it was common for people who were not white and male to be next to invisible. Disabled kids would be carted away to special schools. Boys played football over here, and girls skipped rope over there. Nobody talked about homosexuality. My father and I would listen to Round The Horne every week, and I swear that to his dying day he would have been utterly baffled if you’d told him that Julian and Sandy, the resident camp couple were anything other than posh white boys. The racial version of invisibility was that we all looked alike. There’s a reason why we never figured as real people to white folks. Our friends’ parents’ were reluctant to let us in their houses. My sister discovered that she hadn’t been invited to the birthday party of the girl she thought was her best friend. In truth, we hardly knew each other.

So it’s not surprising to me that a man of my generation – John Motson for example – could say, in all innocence, that he found it hard to tell black players apart. But even today, I find that someone will come to a talk like this by Trevor Phillips, and be disappointed that they’re not listening to the guy who reads the News At Ten. Or as someone said as I was filming at an anti-immigrant march two weeks ago – “aren’t you Trevor Nelson?" Bizarrely, I was still being asked in London’s Oxford Street last July if I was Howard from the Halifax ads – eight years after they dropped the poor bloke. We still have a long way to go in many areas.

This isn’t just about race. Whilst disabled people do now have greater visibility and autonomy, the dreadful impact of mental illness in the workplace has still to be fully confronted. Far too many lesbian or gay people feel unable to come out at work. 

But I would argue that we remain furthest away from a better society when it comes to race and ethnicity. Yes, some minority groups are outperforming the majority in employment, education and entrepreneurship. Yes, we have quadrupled the number of MPs of colour over the past decade. Yet most minority groups still lag behind even when they acquire the right qualifications. And as the Prime Minister has pointed out, Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a British Muslim if he walks down the street and is abused for his faith. Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a black person constantly stopped and searched by the police because of the colour of their skin.” 

And though many of us don’t want to admit it, a racial fault line runs right through our society. The Mapping Integration Project at Policy Exchange has shown that we remain residentially segregated, and in some respects we are becoming more so. The Social Integration Commission, backed by research here at Oxford, found that even in cosmopolitan London, where we have the range of social groupings, we tend not to mix with people unlike ourselves. Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck, University of London, has shown that between the 2001 and 2011 censuses some 600,000 white individuals had moved out of the capital – mostly for perfectly understandable, non-racial reasons – but the effect was to increase white/non-white separation. What is worse, we are doing little as a society to bridge the gaps.

There has been much optimistic talk of the rise of mixed marriages, both married and cohabiting. In fact, though the numbers of such relationships have increased by 7% over ten years, the numbers of people from non-White British backgrounds has risen much faster - by some two thirds. In fact, we seem less likely to marry across the lines of race than in the past. Only 4% of all White British people in a couple are in inter-ethnic relationship. Many of the great traditional engines of integration – the churches for example – are losing their influence. In the workplace, whilst there are few figures available, the 2011 inquiry into the meat packing industry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission threw up an unexpected and unwelcome finding which we fear may be a sign of the times. 

The researchers found during the investigation, that some companies were segregating their production lines. Many employers were quite open about their reasons, telling the investigators that: "managers preferred particular nationalities for certain shifts as they regarded these workers as ‘more reliable’ or ‘hardworking’; some firms attempted to manage communication challenges or to avoid tensions by segregating shifts so that all workers spoke the same language; and some supervisors refused to have certain nationalities working for them on grounds of race or colour."

But surely things are changing for young people who have grown up in a multi-ethnic society? Well, no. About one in four of British school children are not white. Yet, our Mapping Integration Project demonstrated that in 2014, 60% of minority children who started school did so in classes where more than half the pupils were not white; in London that number was 90%. We may not be, like some nations on the continent, or to some extent the USA, a nation characterised by racial hostility or antagonism. But we are increasingly a country of racial alienation and indifference, where we mix less and less, at school, at home and at work. That is why the role of the media,And in an era where social media, acccording to Google analysts, do more to fragment us than bind us together it is left to broadcast media, particularly television to become a modern engine of integration. The good news is that the media companies haven’t been idle. Lenny Henry’s campaign on representation has bucked up the BBC – a bit. The major TV broadcasters are getting together to do some limited monitoring of who’s on screen. The nation’s 2015 sweetheart Nadiya Hussain provided the most effective riposte possible to anyone who thought that the sinister image of Jihadi John would come to represent British Muslims in the popular mind.

But I do wonder if we're aiming slightly off-target. Who we see on screen does matter; but perhaps we need to think more about who decides who we see. If we look at the top tables in our industry, they aren’t exactly setting a great example. Of the 46 seats on the boards of the four major broadcasters just one – a BBC Trustee – is occupied by a non-white person, though collectively they do surpass the Davies gender target of 25%, with 14 women. The fifth channel’s American owner, Viacom, has just one non-white board member. Ofcom’s 9-person board has only recently acquired a person of colour, in the shape of its CEO Sharon White. And, frankly if you have to be as exceptional as Sharon – a former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury – to make the cut, it pretty much says that these posts are off limits for people of colour.

The problem, however, isn’t just the suits. Even at the creative end of our business I don’t think we can claim that minorities are accorded parity of esteem. Our own BAFTA or RTS Awards are still pretty pale. And it’s not for the want of trying by those organisations. I was particularly disconcerted at this year’s Grierson Awards. I know that the Chair, Lorraine Heggessey made an exceptional effort to be inclusive. Of the 48 films competing for awards on the night, about a quarter were about non-white subjects - African Ebola victims, Indian rape victims, Ethiopian orphans, Kenyan-farmers-fighting-drought victims, black American serial killers, and a black prostitute. Yet there were just two non-white people amongst the shortlisted nominees. One of them was me, and that was for presenting, which I don’t really count as a serious creative activity; the other was a French director, who I think is part Vietnamese. In essence these were awards for white filmmakers pointing a lens at black and brown people.

So as an industry, whatever we say we want, we aren’t doing much to change the picture.

It’s worth saying that TV isn’t alone in this. In the newspaper Oscars, the Society of Editors’ Press Awards, there have been 47 nominations for Columnist of the Year, over the past four years. Having been a weekly columnist myself, I know that there are no qualifications necessary to write 1200 words a week. Yet amongst those 47 nominations there was not a single person of colour – not one in four years. That isn’t because the Society or its judges are a bunch of bigots. It is because there are hardly any minority columnists in the UK from whom to choose. So the territory on which we think we’ve been making an effort remains pretty bleak.

If we turn, to the people who really matter, the TV audience, we should hang our heads in shame. Any sustainable change will only come because our media appeal to the audience. That audience is changing. But you wouldn’t know it from the response of the TV industry. Today, Britain’s population is about 14% non-white. Our best estimates are that by mid century that proportion will grow to at least 20%, and possibly reach 30%. The box still remains our nation’s campfire; TV news is the most consumed and the most trusted way of understanding what is happening around us.  It is the vital connective tissue that shares and maintains our values. That tissue is wearing alarmingly thin. 

According to a 2013 reprt from Ofcom, people of colour who pay their licence fee to support public service broadcasting, just don’t think they’re getting much out of the deal. The regulator asked viewers about the frequency and the manner in which women, disabled people, older people and ethnic minorities were portrayed. The results in relation to race stood out for one reason above all. Whites and non-whites had completely different perceptions of how diverse British TV was. Whilst a majority of white viewers thought that minorities had a pretty fair representation, more than half the black viewers thought they didn’t see enough black faces. A majority – 51% - of black viewers said they were portrayed very or fairly negatively. Just 16% of viewers overall agreed. But that’s all about opinion. We know polls can mislead. What is more telling is what people actually do. Viewing of terrestrial channels is a powerful proxy for integrated behaviour. It isn’t constrained by income, by geography, or even by educational background. What you watch is a straightforward preference, especially in these days of multi-screen homes where nobody needs to argue who's in charge of the remote.

In a perfectly integrated society a channel’s proportion of viewers amongst people of colour would be no different than amongst the population as a whole. So, by this measure, how integrated are we? To find out, my colleagues at Webber Phillips and I analysed the BARB data for 2015. We compared the performance of the major channels amongst the whole audience and with their performance amongst minority audiences over the year.

Here’s what we found:


Every channel did worse amongst minority audiences than amongst the overall audience. 

This, unlike the Ofcom data isn’t what people thought. It’s about what they did. Not opinion but behaviour. And we can measure the extent of integration in numbers. We’ve created a simple integration index that essentially rates channels according to their share amongst minorities compared to the whole audience. Here’s what it shows for 2015. 

None of us is equal to the task – but some are more equal than others.

As you can see, our most successful channel, when it comes to bringing the nation together is Channel 5, by a small margin. But its audience is tiny, so the real player here is Channel 4. ITV and BBC1 lag well behind. And to prove that this isn’t just a penetration effect, BBC2, which really should look a bit like Channel 4, is by some distance, Britain’s whitest TV station. But in and of itself, the channel share is only part of the story. If we want to bring the UK together, we want all our people to share a single narrative about what’s taking place in the world, at home and abroad. So how are we doing on our news coverage? Here’s the BARB derived picture for our main news bulletins. 

 With a single exception, the pattern for news is similar to that for channels as a whole. 

Depressingly, if you look at the numbers for our most watched news bulletin, the BBC’s Six O’ Clock News, the share amongst minorities is almost exactly half that for all viewers. So let’s flip the chart to see what our Integration Index tells us. 

Most of the bulletins fall within a 78 – 92 range, which is poor but not disastrous. But look at the outliers - the BBC’s 6 O’ Clock News and Channel 4 News. In the case of the Six, this implies that minority viewers are almost half as likely to tune in to this bulletin. I’m sure that people will want to offer explanations, such as the disproportionate number of minority viewers in London. But no demographic assymetries can account for a gap this big. The other remarkable result here is the index for Channel 4 News – fully 78 points above parity – that is to say it is relatively more popular amongst minority voters by a factor of 78%. That should give Mr Snow and his colleagues some comfort; the presenter line-up and the news agenda of C4 News must be doing something for minority viewers. But shouldn’t Channel 4 pause for thought? Ideally we want an integration index of 100. Unless of course, you are charged with a special remit to super serve one group – and that of course is Channel 4’s business. So actually after the pause for thought, the Channel should definitely break out the champagne – this is exactly what fulfilling the remit should look like.

Let me turn finally to my final piece of research. Twenty-five years ago, I came across an extraordinary ratings chart, which showed the Top 20 shows for American audiences overall, and for black audiences separately. The remarkable thing was that they had just two shows in common: ER and Monday Night Football. This was as clear a demonstration that America was not heading towards a post-racial future. Once they shut the front door, black and white Americans were inhabiting different countries. In recent years, Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the disastrous OJ Simpson trial, now being replayed on TV, and latterly the Black Lives Matter campaign, have all shown how utterly divided the USA remains, in spite of the election of President Obama.  Recent figures do show a closing of the gap, but this is less because the black, white and Hispanic audiences are watching the same programmes, and more because the so-called minorities aren’t really minorities any more. 

I wanted to see if we could build a similar picture here. We could and we did. Here’s what it shows us.

The two tables, for all viewers on the one hand, and minority viewers on the other, do have ten shows in common. But they also have ten shows that they do not share. We can guess at some of the reasons.

Citizen Khan’s high placing amongst minorities doesn’t surprise. The popularity of the New Year’s Eve programming may be explained by who wants to go out and drink themselves into oblivion and who doesn’t. You can make up your own explanation for the Queen’s popularity or why minorities prefer the round ball to the oval ball.

But two things do become clear. Shows that have consistently integrated speaking casts where the black and brown faces aren’t there to be exotic or to explain their blackness or brownness – the Apprentice for example - win big amongst minorities. But shows which hark back to a Britain where people like me seemed to have no material presence – Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Midwife, Poldark – hold little appeal.

Does this matter? Yes it does. For four reasons: commercial; creative; political; and social. One reason is that for the next fifty years, there will be more minority viewers; and according to Ofcom some minority groups are far heavier TV viewers than the average. That’s a commercial imperative. A second reason is that in spite of broadcaster scepticism, these tables show us that on-screen representation, whilst it’s not the only thing that counts, really does make a difference. That’s the creative imperative. Third, people of colour are paying nearly a hundred and fifty pounds a year for the upkeep of services that actually don’t serve them. I would say that whoever is regulating the BBC that is a question that should be near the top of the Charter renewal debate. That’s the political imperative.

But the fourth reason is, in my view, by far the most important. What happens at home doesn’t stay at home. The phrase water-cooler television was coined to describe the impact of a great show on the day after – everybody should be talking about it at the water-cooler or over coffee. But imagine what it’s like to be in a workplace or the classroom where you’re the only person at your water-cooler. What everyone else saw last night isn’t what you watched. What you saw isn’t what they watched. Not only can TV tell us a story about our racial divisions – it can amplify those divisions by excluding whole groups from the shared conversation. That is the social imperative.

So what do we do to avoid this picture? Today is not the day for extensive discussion of solutions. But let me end with three points – two things we ought to do; and one thing we definitely need to avoid doing. The first step is to acknowledge the truth and to make it transparent. One way would be for the broadcasters to publish the sort of data I’ve shown you today every month at least. As everyone knows, if we have to tell our story we want it to be a good one. I suspect that no one wants me or someone else to come back here next year and put up slides that show the same ghastly deficit. So they should do their damnedest to make sure that the truth changes.

Second, accept the scale of the integration challenge. Here the Silicon Valley giants are showing the way. They may have their tax issues, but let’s credit them with the fact that they’ve been totally transparent about their colossal failure to hire women in engineering departments or people of colour anywhere. One company alone, Intel, has pledged over US$300 million dollars to fix its diversity problem. Third, we should stop talking about privatising Channel 4. Based on the actual data about how people behave, Channel 4 right now is the most important agent of integration in our national media. Privatisation would destroy that at a stroke.

Full disclosure. I made my first programme as a producer for Channel 4, over three decades ago. I am currently making a film for the Channel with my friend Samir Shah, who also started at LWT, producing programmes for Channel 4 before becoming head of political programmes at the BBC and starting his own indie.

But that isn’t the reason I’m making the case. Let me emphasise this. I am not saying that Channel 4 is the most popular or most watched channel amongst minorities. But I am saying that it is the channel doing the best job of leadership right now on the vital work of racial integration. The Secretary of State’s hints that he might favour privatisation run directly counter to the Prime Minister’s declared ambition to tackle racial inequality and racial division. The stakes are much higher than the billion pounds that the government might recoup.

So what exactly could go wrong?

A privatised Channel 4 would have little incentive to appeal to minority audiences, or to bring them together with majority audiences. Roll on the rise of separate language channels and special ethnically exclusive services. A privatised Channel 4 would have no reason to ensure that it was pursuing a news agenda that made up for what other channels were not doing. Goodbye reporting of Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America except when there’s a coup or a war.

 A privatised Channel 4, even with an official remit to serve diverse audiences would do it in a way that was simply tokenistic and unconvincing. 

Exhibit One: Big Brother was probably the first popular format routinely to put people of different races together on screen. Contrived and theatrical as it was, I've always believed that many people got their first glimpse of how the other 14% live and behave when we think no-one white is looking, through tuning in to Big Brother. This became one of the show's hallmarks, with a non-white participation rate among housemates of 43%, according to Channel 4. Since the show went to Channel 5, the non-white participation rate has fallen to less than half that. I think we can expect something similar to that to happen to Channel 4's output if it were privatised. 

But my greatest worry is that a privatised Channel 4, even with an official remit for to promote diversity would become prey to some dangerous external pressures. When I speak of the Channel serving diverse audiences I don’t mean by sucking up to the so-called community leaders and shouty lobbies. Quite the reverse, actually. Because it doesn’t have to worry too much about pleasing politicians or appeasing minority lobbies, Channel 4 can ask awkward questions about female genital mutilation; about whether the disability movement is truly representing disabled people; whether old school feminism has got it wrong. Or indeed, whether there are things we can’t say about race that are true.

The mark of Channel 4’s independence isn’t its willingness to give cheek to government Ministers – that’s easy. Even the Beeb does that. No, the really hard thing is to keep your nerve in the face of ruthless pressure from the right thinking, often well-connected middle-class groups who treat the NHS or climate change as beyond challenge; or who assume that any test of the continuing relevance of the welfare state is evidence of contempt for the poor; or who greet any vaguely even-handed examination of the case for and against mass immigration as neo-Nazi propaganda. These are, in my view conclusive reasons for not interfering with something that works. 

I’m now just a private individual, with no public role. But I will say that if the government decides to go ahead with this proposal, then I do hope that my old organisation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission should be on the DCMS doorstep the day after with a demand to see the equality impact assessment proving that it does not disadvantage ethnic minority and disabled people.

I also spend some of my time now working in the USA. Make no mistake, should any of the bidders be American companies, you can expect the question of whether this privatisation will lead to the silencing of a vital voice in the UK to be raised by people such as Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, who regularly turn up at shareholders’ meetings. I wonder if companies like Viacom, or Discovery or our own BT really want to spend a billion quid for the pain that would follow?

The reason that Channel 4 leads is precisely because it has the combination of constitutional certainty, commercial freedom and political independence legally guaranteed. If we interfered with that trinity, people of colour in Britain will be losing their most trusted voice. That surely is a cause worth fighting for; and in all the noise about this diversity initiative and that, surely the one that should most preoccupy broadcasters right now.

 This is a version of a speech delivered at the Oxford Media Convention on 2nd March 2016.

About the author

Trevor Phillips is a writer and television producer. He is co-founder of Webber Phillips Ltd, and the President of the Partnership Council of the John Lewis Partnership. He is also currently the Deputy Chair of the Steering Committee of the National Equality Standard and Chair of Green Park Diversity Analytics. Formerly he was chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the elected Chair of the Greater London Authority.


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