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Lenny Henry: onscreen TV diversity is ‘fake’

Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Lenny Henry has said the BBC will continue to demonstrate “fake diversity” unless it is forced to improve off as well as onscreen representation.

The actor and comedian argued that broadcast watchdog Ofcom must set minimum standards for black, Asian, and minority ethnic diversity behind the camera.

Addressing a panel in Westminster, called The urgency of representation in UK media, Henry said the number of BAME people behind the scenes is at “crisis level” and urged Ofcom to “do something about it”.

His comments come four months after the regulator completed a consultation on how it will measure the BBC’s progress, which concluded that targets would be set for onscreen diversity but not for offscreen.

He said: “This suggests that as long as we have a BAME person on the TV screen giving the appearance of diversity, then it is absolutely okay, peachy, fine and dandy, even if those who create and make the content remain un-diverse. This is fake diversity.

“It’s all very well to say ‘look this show has a mixed race family or an Asian antagonist or a gay second lead’, that’s great, but who is the commissioner, the producer, the script editor, the head of casting, the director? If the pickers and deciders remain the same, then nothing has really changed.”

Henry argued that “what gets measured gets done” and when regulators set targets, broadcasters are forced to meet them. By not setting a requirement for off-camera diversity, Henry said Ofcom’s approach “will lead to more fake diversity”.

He said: “Every single broadcaster has its own definition of diversity.

“Those definitions are so broad, including gender, disability, sexuality, race, class, even height, that as long as programmes can tick three of those boxes they are diverse. But once you make it that broad almost any programme can be made to fit that definition.”

“The BBC recently stated that 14.5% of its workforce are black, Asian or ethnic minority. That’s good,” he added.

“However, a large number work in the business and finance department, who are not directly involved in programme making, and the figure also includes all the staff employed by the World Service in often specialist departments, which are not broadcast in English and not aimed at a British audience.”

Henry said that if you remove these people, around 9% of the people making programmes would be BAME.

However, the actor argued this estimated 9% only comprises people on BBC contracts, whereas about half the broadcaster’s programmes are made by independent companies, so the true number of BAME BBC programme makers is unknown.

Henry said: “While the BBC’s official figures say 14.5% of their workforce is BAME the number of people actually responsible for making the programmes I watch is probably closer to 1.5%.”

He added: “Diversity is not a luxury, it is essential. This is a fight about who is and who isn’t considered British. A fight about whose voices do and do not matter. Our voices matter, our stories matter, our lives matter.”

The BBC is also part of an initiative called Project Diamond that was launched in August 2016 to monitor on and off screen diversity.

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