From Here to Diversity: The Freelancer’s Tale, Freelancer’s Fair 2014

(The original Speech from the Freelancer’s Fair Diversity Debate, June 2014 at Ravensbourne College)

We sat in her office. The Union official and the unemployed Creatives.

We’re not allowed to be called that though – we’re ‘Freelance’ – and with our training, experience and “eclectic” CV’s we were struggling to find work.

Opposites though we seemed, all three of us were bonded by one common cause – The Fight Against Inequality In the UK’s Entertainment Industry.

As Janice revealed the stats, I sat there wondering “How on earth I could have been so naïve?” All the while I had been editing in air-conditioned Quantel suites at Red Bee Media or Shooting my TV Series on Black Women in the Media, I had been slumbering. Protected from the evolution happening all around me.

The media landscape had been changing. The BBC had moved a third of its productions out of London and into the regions (opening up a world of opportunity for those in Wales, Scotland and the North West) and many other Broadcasters had followed suit. No more could I be complacent. Whereas before things had been tough, now was another thing altogether. Before, I had been in the enviable position of having the Music, Entertainment, Sport, Drama and Film Industry on my doorstep in London, the Media Hub of the UK, but now I would have to rethink my career strategies.

As Janice Turner, BECTU’s diversity officer, spelt it out, the facts made shocking listening. In 2006 7.4% of the film and broadcasting workforce was BAME. By 2012 this had dropped to just 5.4%. In the last three years, between 2009 and 2012 the overall industry workforce increased by 4,000 and the number of women in the industry increased significantly – but over the same period 2,000 BAME professionals left the industry.

Between 2004 and 2006 the number of BAME workers in the UK television industry increased by 81% – but in the six years between 2006 and 2012, there was a 31% decline.

In film the figures were even worse. Between 2009 and 2012 BAME representation halved in both film production and film distribution. In film production, in 2009, 12% of the workforce was BAME compared with 5.3% last year and in distribution it fell from 8.3% to 3.4%.

Nearly half of London’s population is BAME and 80% of the film production workforce is based in central London, as is 68% of the film distribution workforce, so BAME employment levels of 5.3% and 3.4% are shocking.

OFCOM refused to release the 2013 Figures because they were ‘Protecting their Licensees’. So who was going to ‘protect’ the BAME Talent in front of and behind the camera? With 40 per cent of London’s population being BAME, and talented, it was left for us to bear the brunt of all the changes afoot and many of us had no idea what a mighty blow we were going to have to take.

When I worked on Black Women in the Media the common theme amongst the women we featured, (household names like BBC Broadcaster Brenda Emmanus, ITV Anchor Charlene White and UK Children’s Author and Laureate Malorie Blackman MBE) was that they were all brought up to believe they had to work three times as hard as their White Counterparts to get ahead.

New Talent now should not have to go through this. We should be judged on a level playing field and if they are not they will simply find their own avenues to show their Creativity. BAME audiences already watch 5 hours less TV and if that trend continues and they do as has been suggested by groups such as The TV Collective and boycott the license fee, it won’t just be the BBC that has a problem. Channel 4 and other broadcasters will all feel it and the TV landscape will be the poorer for it.

Before the British Film Institute was given responsibility for lottery funding for film, this job was originally done by the UK Film Council. Neither the UK Film Council nor, to date, the BFI, ever bothered to require those companies – who are getting millions of public money – to even carry out equality monitoring of their crews and performers, let alone show anyone the figures. Ofcom did require the companies it awarded licences to, to carry out equality monitoring and send the results to the regulator, but in 2005 OFCOM decided that they weren’t going to either enforce this licence condition nor publish the licence holders’ equality monitoring data.

So with OFCOM withholding their statistics and production companies commissioned but not required to submit monitoring to reflect their BAME staff it was clear we had a problem. With Broadcasters like the BBC monitoring their permanent staff, but not their Freelancers, there was even more invisibility and lack of accountability because we could not see how many other staff were being used and not reflected. I started to wonder if the UK Media, with all its liberal and PC protestations really was the Western World’s next Civil Rights crisis.

The only Black people doing well in TV seemed to have either been to America to reboot their careers, be working in BAME Television which is funded by Black churches or are on the Capital’s newest ‘Hoodie on the block’, London Live, where they are at least able to have their ideas seen and make a name for themselves.

The stats look bad and the situation is a downward spiral for BAME who’s CV’s are continually passed over for their White Counterparts whose careers have not stalled, managed to gain “mainstream” experience and who do not suffer from the dreaded ‘eclectic‘ CV. Diversity and Flexibility are key to surviving in the fast-paced world of TV, so why is this the very thing that Commissioners and Talent Managers seem not to like?

Back in the Eighties and nineties I grew up with shows like The Real McCoy and Desmonds and my first break, as a researcher, was on the A Force, made by BBC Youth and Entertainment. This late night strand featured new talent from the world of Black Entertainment, Drama and News with highlights such as Blouse and Skirt, and Brothers and Sisters which went on to be scheduled in its own slot. This Black strand propelled the careers of entertainers like Curtis Walker, Robbie Gee, Eddie Nestor, Richard Blackwood, Marcus Powell, Sandra Bee and countless others, into the public arena and made sure that we, as a culture, were at least seen on TV. Yes, it was ill-supported, had the tiniest budgets and was in a graveyard slot of 11pm-1am on Friday nights; but at least it was there. Black Producers and Execs like Marilyn Comrie and Dele Oniye were able to give hungry upstarts like myself a chance.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and I returned to Salford, working for Children in Need, last November. This time, I was shocked to be in the same company, the BBC, but see the startling lack of Black faces. At the Annual North West Leaders Group, a group of the top executives from all over England and the North West, I was the only Black speaker let alone Black female to address the crowd and update on my activities for the National Charity. As a freelancer, I was on a short term contract. Five weeks to be exact. I spoke on the Thursday and by Friday I was gone! Was my speaking a token gesture? I hoped not. Many lamented the fact that my time there was so short and they seemed impressed that I was able to speak and present so effectively, but they should not have been surprised. I had had to work harder, be faster, get stronger.

So what is to be done? Yes, some people have mentioned Quotas and, yes, some have mentioned the ‘Rooney Rule’ and Lenny Henry mentioned ‘Ring-fencing Funds’ but will that make lasting change? Today we speak to some key decision makers about what they think the issues are about recruiting BAME professionals and what will make a difference and then we’ll discuss what their plans are for the future, to ensure we have real change for BAME in Television and Film. We are also going to hear how BECTU, our union, is responding and taking a new lead.

So what about twenty years from now?   Will there be a new breed of Freelancer in the industry? They will be taking control for themselves; content will be produced for the masses online and it’s up to TV and Film if they want to be left behind.

Performed Friday 6th June 2014 at the BECTU Freelancer’s Fair, Ravensbourne.

Michelle Brooks is the Founder and MD of ShowPatrol Productions which offers Cultural Consultancy and fully Diverse Programming solutions. Michelle is also the Series Producer of OHTV’s “Black Women in the Media”, a Diversity Advocate, a Member of BECTU’s Writers Producers Directors Branch and Black Workers Group.

NB: All views expressed here are entirely my own and neither the Union nor any other affiliation bears any responsibility  for the ideas expressed.



About Brooksy

Writer, Producer, Broadcast Journalist, Director, Actor and Presenter Michelle Brooks. I love to research, write and talk about the topics of the day and main passions are the fascinating worlds of relationships and dating in the Digital Age. See my other site Brides and Prejudice if you still need convincing.
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