Off message: no laughing matter

When comedianLenny Henry recently addressed the Royal Television Society and attacked the industry for its lack of non-white faces, he rightly observed that society in general is far more diverse than the BBC or ITV, or even Channel 4.

He pointed out that broadcasting has hardly changed in terms of diversity from the days when he amazingly managed to break through the ranks of white racist club comedians to win the X-Factor of its day, New Faces. And he particularly targeted the lack of black and ethnic minority faces in top jobs as scandalous.

He has a point.

According to official government figures, 10% of the population is non-white. Yet while the proportion of the overall working-age population in employment is 74%, in the ethnic minority community, the figure is nearer to 60%, and this figure has changed little in 20 years.

And this, says Henry, is evidence that something needs to be done.

Nurture versus nature

Henry’s lament was echoed by Samir Shah, a non-white independent producer who called for ‘affirmative action’ to redress the balance, and bemoaned the lack of non-white faces on TV, as well as the lack of ethnic minorities behind the scenes.

Writing in the Guardian, Steve Hewlett lists Shah, George Alagiah and now head of the Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips as evidence that non-white people can break through. He said: “If the political will had been there to nurture and groom talented people from ethnic minorities, we would not have this problem.”

And therein lies the problem – it is easy for commentators to say it can be done, while offering no solutions as to how it might be done. And if you substitute the word ‘woman’ or ‘disabled’ for ‘black and ethnic minority’, the argument would be the same.

No doubt Trevor Phillips will be leaping upon this opportunity to push for ‘positive discrimination’ across the nation. But before he goes ahead and pushes for ill-will and bad feeling all across the country, it’s worth examining what is really going on here. It’s not a matter of colour, sex, how many limbs you have or your mental health. The lack of progress on diversity is all down to class. It’s just that we give it a different label these days.

A class apart

We may not like to admit it, but the UK is still a nation defined by class. The difference between now and 20 years ago is that the many people who would once have labelled themselves ‘working class’ now describe themselves as ‘middle class’ – largely due to the fact that rampant Thatcherism has given them the illusion of somehow having worked their way up the ladder by virtue of having a mortgage to pay off.

But ‘class’ is itself a label, and at the lower end of the scale simply means ‘poor’. In raw terms, it’s about the haves and the have-nots. And the gap between the rich and the poor has grown apace in the past few years.

Then there’s protectionism.

Protect and survive

Twenty years ago, protectionism was something the government was fighting by stifling the powers of the unions, as it was widely regarded as unions keeping ‘jobs for the boys’ at the lower end of the spectrum as a way of getting back at those at the top who reserved all the best jobs for ‘the boys’, or at least their own boys, whatever the cost.

Things have changed, however, as the unions did lose their stranglehold and the concept of the ‘closed shop’ and ‘a job for life’ disappeared. And quite rightly, it’s no longer a case of who you know, but what you know that gets you on the lower rungs. Trouble is, while ‘what you know’ will get you a certain way up the ladder, to really get on in the modern world requires a baffling sequence of what you know/who you know/what you appear to know/who you then know/who they know/what who they know knows/and who who you know knows and what they know. In other words – networking.

As networking is regularly cited as a key part of leading HR directors’ lives, this could be worrying, as the implication elsewhere seems to be that, to succeed, you may need to sacrifice your integrity.

On his way to the top, Lenny Henry played as a support act for the Black and White Minstrel Show – a strange brew of ‘variety’ in which white singers and dancers blacked up like Al Jolson to sing the kind of songs that would not be out of place in Fame Academy or Britain’s Got Talent.

Radical thinking

So how has the BBC responded to Henry’s outburst? Worryingly, a spokesman for the corporation is reported to have said that below senior levels there would be “ring-fenced places for black and ethnic minorities”.

But replacing one form of closed shop by making institutionalised racism OK – as that’s what positive discrimination, or ‘affirmative action’, is – will only serve to raise hackles.

A more radical approach is needed. And perhaps the ‘legendary’ Jack Welch of General Electric has the answer. But instead of getting rid of your worst performing 10%, turn his thesis on its head.

If affirmative action meant axeing the top 10% of your company’s earners, regardless of their achievements – thereby paving the way for non-whites to, perhaps, reach positions of power – would organisations collapse? Of course not. Would the sky fall on our heads? No.

But is this likely? Is the incumbent Labour government likely to introduce proportional representation before it loses the next general election? Will Prince Charles actually become king, and immediately abolish the monarchy? Or will organised religion finally come clean and admit that money is its true God?

Stranger things have happened. You only need to look at some old clips of the Black and White Minstrel Show to know that.

Do you agree with Tony? Or is he wide of the mark? E-mail your response to

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