Lenny Henry: There is only one certain way to smash the black glass ceiling in television

The television industry is 94 per cent white and, like some bad washing detergent commercial, it seems to be getting whiter all the time.

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Last year I joined Patrick Younge, Richard Curtis, Paul Greengrass and others in signing an open letter to ITV, the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky. It demanded that broadcasters sign up to one very specific means of increasing diversity in the British media. That change was to ring-fence money for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) productions: shows that meet certain criteria for black and Asian representation both in front of and behind the camera. It could include everything from top-end dramas and science programmes to Panorama.

We did this for two reasons. First, ­because the problem is serious. The television industry is 94 per cent white and, like some bad washing detergent commercial, it seems to be getting whiter all the time. In February this year Broadcast magazine revealed that the number of BAME people leaving the BBC was at an all-time high. But this is far from just a BBC problem – the corporation is often just more open with its figures. Between 2006 and 2012 the media industry as a whole lost 2,000 BAME people, although it grew by 4,000 overall. For me that’s 2,000 glass ceilings that just proved too hard for black and Asian people to live with.

The second reason I signed a letter calling for the change is, to misquote Beyoncé, “If you like it then you should have put a ring-fence on it.” When the industry really likes something and wants to make sure it works, it ring-fences money for it.

When Ofcom, the industry watchdog, wanted Channel 4 to make more programmes from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it told the broadcaster to ring-fence money specifically for programme spend in the nations and regions. The same is true for the BBC; a spectacular 50 per cent of all BBC network programmes are now made outside London.

Ring-fencing also works for specific genres. The BBC ring-fences money for children’s programmes, for example. All I’m asking is to have the same rights as Peppa Pig, dammit. If ethnic-minority programmes were given the same status as children’s TV, classics such as Goodness Gracious Me and Desmond’s wouldn’t just be fond memories. Instead, the broadcasters would invest in making their successors work. I dream of the day when we have an ongoing comedy series that renews its cast every two years and that seeks out the best black and Asian comic performers, a Real McCoy meets Saturday Night Live.

And the focus should not just be on comedy. There is a glaring need for black and Asian people in high-end TV drama (both in front of and behind the camera). All too often broadcasters take the safe option – ­using the same cast and scriptwriters over and over again, with BAME talent hardly getting a look-in.

Before I get too carried away with this fantasy world of high-end dramas with BAME people producing and starring in them – as well as comedies that do not disappear in a puff of smoke after one outing – it is worth asking what the broadcasters themselves have been doing to address the problem. Well, the BBC has announced several new training schemes: a fast track for six management leaders and six trainee commissioners. Hopefully these 12 people will begin to break the glass ceiling in senior management. The BBC’s director of television, Danny Cohen, has also announced a development fund for programmes with an ethnic-minority focus.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 has introduced a “two-tick” scheme to increase diversity. Under the scheme, every programme has to be able to tick certain diversity boxes for on-screen and off-screen representation in order to qualify for Channel 4 money. This might be great but it is too early to be able to judge it. The concern is that the criteria are so broad (covering gender, class, race, sexuality and disability) that it is hard to think of a programme in production at the moment that would not already qualify under this system, or could qualify after only very minor tweaking. This was apparent when Channel 4’s deputy chief creative officer, Ralph Lee, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show and was asked how many programmes already passed the new diversity criteria. He was unable to answer.

Oh, and what happened to the open letter we sent last year, I hear you ask? So far we’ve heard nothing back.

The broadcasters have raised concerns informally, in whispers, about whether ring-fencing will ghettoise black programmes and black people working in the industry. It is a concern not shared by the senior BAME people who signed the letter. Or they whisper that ring-fencing money for BAME productions is illegal. Well, I went to the leading discrimination lawyer in the country to get her legal advice on exactly that question – and it is not.

I honestly believe that broadcasters want to solve the problem of the lack of BAME people in the television industry. But I also think they should listen far more closely to the solutions being proposed by the BAME people actually working in the industry. All the people I talk to think ring-fenced money would be a good idea.

Lenny Henry is currently filming “Danny and the Human Zoo”, a BBC1 drama based on his upbringing

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This article appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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