Research commissioned by Channel 4 and conducted by the Cumberbatch Research Group showed that during a sample of 368 hours of peak-time viewing in 2009, Ethnic Minority representation (those appearing on BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One) accounted for just 10.2% of the overall output during this 368 hour period. This data also includes the possibility that some of the individuals counted as an ethnic minority were also counted on several occasions (Trevor McDonald on the news for example). Quite a sobering statistic until you consider that ethnic minority (dark skinned – this detail needs to be pointed out) groups only make up about 13% of the UK population – which may seem an unrealistic statistic if you live in the multicultural centres of one of the major cities in the UK – or Bradford. However, step outside of those areas and sightings of ethnic minorities are as rare as UFO’s. However, it’s the percentage of executives, producers, directors and the people who are at the creative and financial decision making level in the media that is most important. These figures would not even make a whole number.
At a seminar on the subject of increasing the number of ethnic minorities working in the media industry, a chief production executive at Red Productions (one of the UK’s most successful production companies in the 90’s) candidly explained that people instinctively “hire in their own image”. It might be a little unfair, but it made sense to me. However, it doesn’t matter what initiative is put in place to redress the disparity of ethnic minority representation in the arts and media, because what you look like has less to do with how you represent as what you think like. Racial representation is much more than colour, it’s about a shared experience by a minorities’ majority.
One thing statistics of Channel 4’s superficial type won’t reveal is that the few coloured faces representing within the media will not have been raised or educated in Hackney, Brixton, Moss Side, Toxteth or any lower class ethnic part of the country. They will have gone to the same schools, colleges and universities as their white middle class counterparts and identify more with them than they do with their wider ethnic groups. The UK isn’t as backward as the US on race. British society by and large accepts a little bit of colour. We fell in love with Trevor Mcdonald and Lenny Henry in the 80’s, embraced the superb collaboration of culture as reflected in music like ska, jungle, drum n bass and garage, and generally accepted that mixing is ok because it creates beautiful babies and stronger DNA. But that acceptance hasn’t quite permeated the corridors of power or the executive offices of the media where they still have a knee tremble at the idea of social and racial agitation. Now and historically Britain has always been much more apprehensive about cultural interference within its class system and that is where the real prejudice lies in British media.
Whilst the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s may have symbolically vilified ethnic minorities by colour representation, the culture of the lower classes has become more of a target in contemporary media since the 90’s. Fiction like Shameless and The Royle Family, and offensive reality TV like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street that explore the lives of fringe sub-cultures, do not divide by racial lines, they divide by social class.
Representation is primarily about intention; what is the intention in the representation. That intention then depends on the viewpoint of the representative. QED – if the representatives have no empathy or legitimate understanding of the subject matter or audience they’re representing, then their message will reflect that. Politicians and their policies have proven that for eons. Objective reasoning is a rare quality, but when an appointed representative who is also intelligent and sufficiently clued up about the subject matter they’re representing has that quality, then irrespective of race, colour or creed, they can still do a good job. But objective reasoning is a rare quality in the arts and media where egos reign supreme.