‘Incompetent’ was the invisible sign stamped on my forehead. I spoke to an old acquaintance from one of the tech giants this week who was looking at how to improve diversity in media and I was reminded of this personal story.
I got my first freelance reporting gig on national radio, e.g. BBC Radio 5 in the early 90s. I noticed something quickly. There were three tiers that generally behaved in a distinct way to me and other journos who were black or brown. There were the producers, about my age; then senior producers and then heads.
When I was welcomed to the station the head spoke eloquently and earnestly about equality and wanting more journos from ethnic minorities. Diversity wasn’t a term in use back then. I felt he genuinely wanted to make a difference.
Then there were the senior producers who were generally, but not exclusively, indifferent and at times displayed sentiments that were the antithesis to the head. This was equally evident in the producers who were drawn from similar universities and social groups.
On several occasions a script I’d put together would be passed without any structural or syntaxical changes by the head who would welcome me into his office. Literals, the odd punctuation, that was it.
Yet when it got to the producers the script would undergo savage changes — complete rewrites in cases. You could say I was a poor writer, but based on my experience with the head and my previous local radio background during my uni days, I’d question this. I was though not above reproach.
I complained once ‘You want authenticity, yet what’s the purpose of me being the reporter if the script is written in the style and canter of the producer ?’ It was terribly frustrating, but I could do little, but let go and collect my freelance fee.
Eye on the Prize
What I discovered generally is observable today.
The producers were highly ambitious; nothing wrong in that. I was ambitious too. They wanted to become senior producers in no time and to accomplish that generally meant a plan of sorts. They kept de facto scores amongst each other about what work was getting them close to their next move. Outsiders and having to ‘help’ black reporters appeared an impediment. ‘ I’ve been lumbered…’ Yes that one!
I remember one producer asking me in conversation whether I’d gone on one of those black schemes, as if they were inferior. I hadn’t but had considered; I went to Falmouth College of Art and Design.
The goal of the producers was awards and promotion and there was a touch of resentment at carrying out the head’s not so secret ambition. ‘D’you mind, I’m a bit busy?’ was a regular refrain. That’s why often I would go to the head for a chat and help.
At the mid level this scenario was heightened. I could imagine, based on conversations, that the senior producers were within sniffing distance to a head’s position and no equality trainee programme they were meant to play along with would thwart their ambitions.
The heads were generally more relaxed, more giving. Why was that? Why is it such that when you hear about diversity initiatives within a media corporation, it’s the head that appears enthusiastic? ‘We must change and we will’, to warm applause. Is is that they’ve achieved their goals or have comparatively little to prove, so could take on risks? I came to see this acceptance as conditional. When departments were being restructured and jobs amongst seniors were on the line, all bets were off.
Later on I discovered I was, a risk. It seemed strange, but I reconciled myself to believing it was part of the journey as anyone joining a creative industry may initially have a risk quotient attached to them.
It’s the reason why we read stories of successful actors and journalists trying to break into the industry and often jumping through hoops, making cups of tea and so on, until one day that lucky break happens.
This, predicament, however felt like it came with added layers. I was the unknown, not just as a person, more apprehensive unknown. It’s not that I hadn’t gone to a good journo school. I had and worked at previous outfits. It seemed like I wasn’t cut out to be here because, at the very least, I did not fit with the producer or senior producers’ social-cultural network.
The Smith’s ‘Heaven Knows’ or The Cure’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ ? I think Milli Vanilli are OK? Had a great time on the Kibbutz. Wolfe’s ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, but Amis’ ‘London Fields’ is stylistically better. These were cultural signifiers that alongside ethnicity played in a game akin to people’s chess.
I had a university degree, but I may as well had a sign on me that said ‘incompetent’. I had been a steward so had been to gigs with Morrissey and Echo and the Bunny Men, but you’d likely find Eric B. & Rakim in my record collection or Fela Kuti whom I hung out with once and wrote about it. Actually as my friends found out sleuthing on my tweet, I have Cliff Richard too— eclectic eh?
I didn’t do the Kibbutz but inter-railed and was detained in Brindisi because they thought I was a ship stowaway, and alongside Amis, was Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’.
Yet the presumption wrapped up in stereotypes was unavoidable, to generally, the two strata of employers, producer and Senior Producers. Whatever my authenticity was, eating fufu alongside bangers and mash, it wasn’t theirs.
From the producers, whatever those upstairs believed in, well, they could, because they’d made it and had secure jobs. That appeared to be the thought bubble. If you anonymously asked middle management, many, perhaps would decline that applause having been ‘dumped’ with an initiative that hindered their progress.
Authenticity is a resurgent topic at the moment as a parameter for deciphering how programmes are made with diverse staff. I was fortunate to be a panelist at The Importance of Being Authentic at the Edinburgh TV Festival showcase staged by AHTV. I’d like to thank Sarah Vignoles, the Director of the Talent Schemes The TV Foundation, for the opportunity.
It’s a complex subject to unpack, but needs unpacking, because following the Macpherson enquiry in 1999 three friends and I staged a similar The Importance of Being Authentic, in ‘All Change. Increasing Diversity in the Newsroom’, and thirty years later from my first foray into national radio, plus ça change. I have been authentic to my values. I’m British and Ghanaian and generally know what I’m good at, and where I’ll yield.
The succinct answer to the Festival audience and my Tech giant acquaintance suggests from this article, authenticity is but one of many parameters that require attention. Heuristics in merely considering this framing might easily suggest authenticity alone, is the driver. That’s heuristics for you. If you’re an academic or writer then you’ll be inclined to spend energy framing what we mean by being authentic and how other areas e.g. social capital, class, trust, confidence are intricately bound in decision making when considering commissions. It’s not an easy task.
There are bottle necks across the whole of the supply side that need surgery and jointly with those committed. In line with that, here’s some things that could be done with a joined up approach.
1. Rework the perception of black and brown journalists/ producers etc and programmes as not on par with others. This is as much too about exposure of staff and celebrating their successes, as we attempted to do in our small way on the Leaders’ List.
2. Form broader more unified rules, guidelines, approaches that critically uphold what is meant by authentic and the real contribution and absence of this to media forms. Can a producer make an informed choice about your authenticity if they lack knowledge of you and your journey?
3. Setting examples particularly at the top and across the workforce. In Chi-Chi Nwanoku’s piece for Wired Mag, she writes ‘Forget quotas and training: people in power should consider stepping aside to allow for more diverse leadership’.
4. How do you assuage the ‘concerns’, staff may have, but is not expressed openly? Honest conversations?
I’m a senior lecturer at Cardiff University and the co-founder of a new journal on media diversity. More on me and my background reporting from across the world here.