ITV’s response to complaints about Diversity’s dance routine on Britain’s Got Talent has been declared a landmark definition of diversity in an RTS panel attempting to establish a pathway for the industry on the issue.
Having backed the Black Lives Matter-inspired routine in the face of more than 24,000 complaints, ITV took out a full-page advertisement across the national press this weekend with the message: ‘We are changed by what we see. Just as we are changed when we are seen.”
Speaking on the Defining Diversity panel, Nine Lives Media founder Cat Lewis said it was the clearest definition of diversity that she could recall seeing.
“To achieve it, you need to see it,” she said. “Public service broadcasters have to reflect everybody in the country and we as producers have to be careful we don’t inadvertently end up with stereotypical portrayals.”
Lewis said this applied to all measures of diversity. “If you’re making a documentary about prisons and all your contributors are northern, but the narrator is southern with a posh accent, you’re sending a dangerous message. We all love to get a celebrity to do the commentary, but it’s really important to think about who that voice is, and what it’s adding to the editorial message you’re conveying.”
The panel was dominated by the extent to which diversity should be considered a social and commercial benefits of diverse representation on- and off-screen.
Clive Nwonka, an LSE fellow in film studies who has closely scrutinised the BFI’s diversity standards, said diversity measures are in a constant state of flux, contingent on which under-represented groups senior-level figures and stakeholders feel is important at any one time.
As a result, he said, organsations will focus on what is “palatable”, often resulting in box-ticking and surface-level changes.
“When did we stop talking about discrimination and inequality?” he posited. “Being included is one thing – that’s what surface level equality does. Retention is a massive problem because there are incidents and cultures that make people leave. It is very palatable for the industry to retain the structures of inequality. When we have equality in representation you will see diversity organically on- and off-screen. There must be some space in our thinking and policy around the discrimination in public and cultural spaces.”
Marcus Ryder, visiting professor at the Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, agreed, adding: “The emergence of the term ‘diversity’ replaced discussions about combatting racism. Are we really addressing the ugly truths?”
Ryder called on Ofcom to apply its models for defining regional diversity to the issue of ethnic diversity and set minimum standards for the broadcasters it regulates.
Ally Castle, a creative strategy consultant specialising in disability portrayals, pointed to a lack of accountability and broad-brush definitions of diversity and minority groups.
“There needs to be will from within to reflect and re-examine and get houses in order,” she said. “There are different types of disability and everyone has a different lived experience. Yes, there has to be an umbrella term ‘disability’, but within that it has to acknowledge that you have to get down to an individual level on things like workplace adjustment requirements. Disability is not fixed – it fluctuates almost minute-to-minute. It is very difficult to put me in a box.”
Nwonka agreed that the agenda has to be set from on high, starting with the DCMS. “We are still treating diversity, in all its variations, as some kind of novel inclusion. It’s time to think of it as a social issue rather than just a creative one. “There’s a social agenda for equality now and that has to come from the government.
“Diversification might be good foor business but doesn’t change fundamental principle that people are excluded. The business case is a very thin unstable measure of diversity.”
Lewis pointed to her own workforce, which is 50% BAME, and her company’s production team on Songs of Praise, 60% of whom are from a family in which neither parent went to university.
“If you are commissioning programmes outside London, you will get a much better socio-economic mix – better as in more representative of the country as a whole,” she said. “We’re much more creative and successful when we’re more diverse.”
She reserved her ire for the pledges that have characterised past efforts to address diversity with little impunity for those that fail to put their words into action. “The problem is that companies sign up then don’t do it – and then try to poach my staff.”