Talk of the lack of diversity in the film and TV industries starts to bubble up around awards season every year. This year is no different with the Golden Globes notably snubbing one of the most critically acclaimed shows of 2020, I May Destroy You, and its young, black female creator, Michaela Cole.
Despite repeated pledges to improve diversity it seems the situation isn’t getting any better. In fact, recently published data from the creative diversity network found that diversity behind the camera is getting worse over time.
The report found that positions such as directors, producers and camera operators are being filled less and less by those who identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic, disabled, transgender or the over-50s.
In drama, perhaps the most high-prestige genre of all, the data revealed that behind the camera contributions by black, Asian and minority ethnic people had fallen from 8.6% in 2018-19 to 5.9% in 2019-20. Also, there has been a decrease in the contributions from women in senior roles.
My research adds a human element to such inequalities. In 2020, I collaborated with the Leeds production company Candour and screen industry professionals to create a research-led film series called Industry Voices. We sought to document the testimonies of those with experience of inequality, looking at the sectors of television, film and games.
Presenter and comedian Sideman resigned from the BBC last year after the corporation initially defended the use the N-word by a white presenter in a television news broadcast. He told us there was a need for change in the make-up of regulatory bodies, noting that it’s crucial to have people of colour included in decisions that affect them. Sideman’s comments are particularly prescient in relation to the all-white Ofcom board, who received 384 complaints regarding the use of the racial slur that caused him to resign.
Drawing out this focus on power and the fact that inclusion is critical to democracy, the study explored processes of hiring and progression in the screen industries.
Speaking about her experiences of both getting in and getting on in the screen industries, Channel 4 commissioning editor, Fozia Khan noted how her gender held her back when it came to moving from the role of producer to director.
Fozia’s sentiments were bolstered by Welsh documentary producer and director, Liana Stewart, who noted:
When you’re a female, and then you’re Black on top of it, and then you’re working class, there’s not many reference points, there’s not many people you can see who are [producers or directors].
In line with this, screenwriter and chair of the Writers’ Guild, Lisa Holdsworth criticised the “trickle-up effect” that occurs when many companies only have diversity hiring policies when it comes to entry-level positions, such as runners. For instance, the BBC’s board only has one black, Asian or minority ethnic member while Channel 4’s has two members. To make things worse, the BBC’s news board recently let go of its only non-white member, Kamal Ahmed.
Broadly, our contributors pointed to the problematic and nepotistic nature of hiring practices in the screen industries, and the fact that these processes are often undertaken on a “nod and a wink”. It is, ultimately, still about who you know, rather than what you know.
In project-based industries like film and TV, processes of hiring and progression are far from transparent, and questions of who has power are central to understanding the inequality in the sectors. One of the key findings of our research was not only that inequality needs to be tackled by those at the top but also that the configuration of those who make up the top needs to be decisively reconfigured.
Class and location
Other outcomes related to the barriers associated with social class and region. While broadcasters have begun collecting data about the class make-up of their workforce, it can often be a facet of equality that is overlooked. Meanwhile, our research indicated that power in the UK TV industry is still situated in London and regional work is often not considered “real” work.
Northern and Midlands accents are still felt to be locked out of networks by powerful gatekeepers, and middle-class cultural reference points are treated as the expected ‘norm’. These were seen as barriers to opportunity by our contributors.
In an era when many broadcasters and production companies speak about the desire for colleagues to bring their “whole selves to work”, it’s clear that the work of genuinely addressing inequalities and levelling up must think across these layered identities, and recognise the inherent value of diverse voices and experiences.
Industry change is urgent, and the impacts of COVID are likely to exacerbate existing inequalities, moving from an equality, diversity and inclusion crisis to a full-blown emergency. For the film and TV sectors to move forward, those with experience of inequality must be listened to – and really heard. As so many of our contributors say, change could happen tomorrow. It should.
Beth Johnson, Associate Professor in Film and Media, University of Leeds
Featured image credit: Netflix