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All white on the night

What do Doctor Who, Sherlock and the team captains of Have I Got News for You have in common with the ITV FA Cup Final panel, all the presenters on Newsnight and the commentators on Test Match Special? They are all white.

What do Doctor Who, Sherlock and the team captains of Have I Got News for You have in common? Here’s a clue: they have the same thing in common with the ITV FA Cup Final panel, all the presenters on Newsnight and the commentators on Test Match Special. They are all white.

This month Lenny Henry attacked the whiteness of this year’s Baftas. The awards, he said, were a disgrace for not celebrating black talent. “There weren’t any black people at the Baftas; there was no black talent,” Henry told the Daily Telegraph on 13 May. “In 200 years’ time, our children are going to look back to now and say: ‘Remember that really weird period when there weren’t any black people in any programmes?’ It’s unthinkable, but now we’re having to live through it.” He is absolutely right. Out of 31 nominations or special awards for individual categories, 31 went to white actors and performers.

The Baftas are by no means exceptional. Take the peak-time programmes ona recent Friday. On BBC1 was The One Show (two white presenters), followed by A Question of Sport (white presenter and six white panellists), Would I Lie to You? (white presenter and six white panellists), Have I Got News for You (white presenter and four white panellists) and The Graham Norton Show (white host and four white guests). On BBC2 it was Gardeners’ World (two white presenters) and QI (white presenter and four white comedians), followed by Newsnight (white presenter).

It’s the same story wherever you look. Whether it’s Call the Midwife or Broadchurch, Top Gear or Match of the Day, the presenters, guests and main leads are white. Do you like arts programmes? Whether it’s Melvyn Bragg or Alan Yentob, Andrew Graham-Dixon or Howard Goodall, Mark Kermode or Jools Holland, the presenter is white. Every major sports presenter and commentator is white, though there are one or two black football and athletics pundits, and the occasional black cricket commentator if the West Indies are touring. Chat-show hosts and quiz presenters are white. So are the people who appear on the cover of the Radio Times – the Doctor’s assistant last week, Robert Peston the week before that. There’s a better chance of a Dalek appearing on the cover than a non-white TV star.

The most serious example is in news and current affairs. All the presenters on Newsnight and the three main Radio 4 news programmes, nearly all the TV newsreaders and nearly all of the editors and main reporters are white.

Why does this matter? First, how can the experiences and realities of non-white viewers be represented properly when nearly every major personality in television is white? The situation is especially worrying when all the figures of cultural authority – newsreaders, current affairs presenters, people who run all the TV and radio networks – are white.               

Second, what about nonwhite talent? Surely they must feel discouraged about their chances of breaking into television or radio when there are so few role models and when what they see and hear is, in the immortal words of Greg Dyke, “hideously white”?

Finally, what kind of society do we think we live in? Is it as white as the 1950s and 1960s or is it properly multiracial? If we think we live in a diverse society, why are there so few non-white faces on TV or behind the scenes, in charge of networks? As the media run endless stories about Asian grooming gangs, immigrants sponging off the welfare state and alleged terrorists such as Abu Qatada, where are the positive images of non-white Britain? Lenny Henry started out in the mid-1970s. Who would have thought that, almost 40 years on, things would have changed so little?

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once