Ryerson Roundtable Diversity in the Media Production Industry

My personal journey in the media industry began in 1986 when I joined the BBC as researcher in the Music and Arts Department, working on a weekly Arts Magazine programme. I joined the industry at the age of 30 when most people are considering either leaving or consolidating their 7-10 year career. I moved from a very successful career in Arts Administration working with MAAS, Commonwealth Institute and Greater London Council where I managed a budget of over £4 million for Ethnic Arts.

Within six months of joining the BBC in 1986, I was able to develop my research skills and learn about the production process, through delivering items for the weekly arts magazine show and a documentary series about Artists in Exile. In this short time, I also knew what I wanted to do in the industry:  Tell stories and to produce.

But I also learned a lot about the industry from the inside. It is ruthlessly competitive, informal where who and not what you know matters, the executives to whom I was reporting were incredibly insecure, always second guessing their superiors.  That it was dominated by metropolitan, largely liberal, white, middle class and largely Oxbridge educated elite.  The decision making power was concentrated with controllers and commissioning editors who were all white males. There was no job security and ideas could not be protected. It is by no stretch of the imagination glamorous, you have to work long hours for little pay. I was looking at not just a glass ceiling but a concrete ceiling and had to make decision: do I stay and hope that my hard work would yield rewards or leave.

Recognising that the opportunity to develop my producing skills was in the independent sector, I chose to leave the BBC just six months after joining. I enjoyed researching stories, generating ideas and putting together teams. This is what excited me about working in the industry. In 1987, I set up my own independent production company, Formation Films, pitched an idea to Channel 4 and got my first commission. Exit No Exit, a dance drama set on the London Underground, was my first independent film production. It also became my entry into independent television production.

From 1987 to 1996, I travelled the world, producing documentaries and drama for national and international channels working with filmmakers from what was then called the “Third World”. In 1995, I produced 10 documentaries with 10 directors from Africa, Asia, Latin America, UK and Europe. By 1997, I had secured £2 million for Babymother, an all black cast reggae musical set in West London.  Following the completion and release of my feature film Babymother, in 2000 I joined Carlton Television as a full time Executive Producer/Diversity Advisor.

Move to Cultural Diversity in 1996:

In 1996, my feature film was delayed as it required further development and television had changed, it was no longer interested in international stories told by filmmakers from outside the UK. Left with no choice, I closed Formation Films Production office, put filing cabinet full of programme ideas in a shed at the bottom of my garden and went looking for work.

In May 1996, I was engaged as diversity advisor and produced a 12 month plan on how they could improve on and behind screen employment of minority talent.  This included:

  • integrated casting;
  • building talent database;
  • marketing the graduate, drama writers and directors training schemes to minority talent;
  • producing minority talent led programming;
  • hosting networking events and
  • Researching US model.

Within 12 months, Carlton Television had launched the MOBO Awards, recruited culturally diverse talent for its training schemes and agreed to adopt an integrated casting policy for its existing dramas.

  1. Historical perspective – How and Why it was possible to launch CDN in 2000. 

In September 1999, I discussed the idea of bringing together other broadcasters around the issue of embracing cultural diversity as a business case which had been so effectively made with Carlton Television with Clive Jones, Chief Executive Carlton Television.

The establishment of Cultural Diversity Network was possible in 2000 for several reasons including:

  • Critical mass of Black and Asian talent working in the media in significant positions with a collective desire and will to break the “glass ceiling”.


  • Enlightened “white senior executives” committed to change – Clive Jones CEO Carlton TV agreed to provide leadership and resources for the CDN. He also used his influence to get buy in other broadcasters including Director General BBC, Chief Executive of ITV, Granada, Channel 4 and BSkyB.


  • Political leadership led by Secretary of State, Chris Smith who was committed to diversity. He challenged the broadcast sector to reflect UK multicultural diversity on and behind screen.


  • Thriving economy and a Government committed to investing in media, creative and cultural industries as the second largest contributor to the economy.


  • We also had a thriving media industry with the growth of pay TV, strong ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5; and BBC. The adverting spend was at all-time high. The film industry and wider creative industries were also attracting capital investments.


  • There were many Black and Asian media success stories: Bend it like Beckham; East is East, Goodness Gracious Me, Tate Prize winners; Writers, Theatre, Music, and Dance.


  • It is important not to forget the significance of the history of political activism, uprisings, equal opportunity and anti discrimination campaigns which won us many concessions in the media post 1980’s. The direct employment of black talent – Trevor Philips, Samir Shah, Diane Abbott, Julian Henriques. Introduction of Specialist Programming such as Black on Black, East LWT, BBC Ebony and Asian Unit and the occupation of Channel 4 led to the setting up of the Multicultural Department led by Sue Woodford; Farrukh Dhondy, Yasmin Anwar and Pat Young. Black political leadership like Darcus Howe, Tariq Ali, and Dhondy were all co-opted into the media.


  • There was a strong emerging black and Asian middle class with huge disposable incomes, young demographics and highly educated. In 2000, ethnic minorities accounted for 5.5% of the UK population as a whole, 10% of them under 30. Conservative projections predict 40% of the under 25 age group in London will be Black, Asian and or of mixed race within 10 years. The minority audiences in the UK also represented a significant cultural and consumer force. In 2000, Ethnic consumers were estimated to spend £12-15 billion per year, the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities, two of the largest groups, had disposable income of £7 billion and £5 billion respectively. The combined contribution of Ethnic minorities to the gross domestic product was estimated at £36 billion.


  • Research on the viewing patterns of ethnic minorities in 2000 also revealed they were watching less terrestrial television but had higher than average take uptake of satellite and cable channels. So not only were they the fastest growing population, they were also deserting terrestrial television in record numbers. Cultural diversity for Companies like Carlton television was not only an intellectual necessity but an economic urgency.  Britain is a multicultural society, and both audience and advertisers expect to see this reflected on the screens.


  • It was against this context and background that the business case for embracing cultural diversity on and behind the screen was made to the broadcasters.

Cultural Diversity Network History

Cultural Diversity Network aims to modernise the portrayal of ethnic minorities in mainstream programming so that racial diversity on and behind screen reflects today’s multicultural Britain. The founding members of the CDN included the BBC, ITV Network Centre, Carlton Group Communications, Granada Media, GMTV, Channel 4, Five, BSkyB and ITN, Pearson Television, as well as the ITC, BSC, PACT, RTS and BAFTA. All the broadcast companies signed up to six core objectives:

  • Set targets for ethnic minority employment, including at senior executive levels;
  • Establish a database of ethnic minority talent, which will be an essential tool, and a way of taking away the excuse – “I don’t know where to find the talent”.
  • Modernise the casting and portrayal of ethnic minorities in mainstream programming.
  • Sensitise the Broadcaster, network executives, controllers and commissioning editors so that they call for diversity in content and employment.
  • Raise the profile of multicultural issues through a series of events.
  • Monitor the progress of key objectives set by CDN and commission cross-industry research.

Each channel, broadcaster and trade organisation produced their own three-year action plans spelling out how they would meet these challenges. These were launched at a press conference on 12thOctober 2000.


Following the merger of Carlton Television with Granada to form a single ITV, with the exception of a few senior executives, all Carlton Television staff were made redundant including me as the Executive Producer/Diversity Advisor in 2004. Going forward, ITV chose to locate cultural diversity as part of the Human Resources department and took the process approach. Many saw this as the “kiss of death” for cultural diversity.

However from 2000 to 2005, CDN did make considerable progress to develop a number of cross-industry initiatives including:

  • Diversity Clause: The adoption of the Diversity Clause by all the broadcast companies which required programme proposals submitted to the major broadcasters to indicate how they will be appropriately multicultural in terms of content, production talent and screen talent. Diversity will become one of the criteria against which a programme proposal will be evaluated for commission.
  • Monitoring Portrayal: CDN members produced common Portrayal and Production monitoring forms. Every producer will be required to fill out this form on completion of a programme. The information will be collated by each company and shared with CDN. This will be used to assess progress and identify problem areas. We believe the Monitoring Forms will assist the programme makers in making diversity a natural process.
  • Research: CDN developed cross industry research projects to track portrayal on annual bases. The research was used to inform and advance the CDN shared objectives of modernising the portrayal of ethnic minorities in mainstream programming.
  • Training Audits:The CDN has conducted an audit of the Training initiatives and practices related to promoting or managing cultural diversity in the television industry.
  • Casting:CDN made progress with series like Clocking Off, Holby City, Perfect World and EastEnders where Black and Asian Actors were cast regardless of race or colour. New programmes such asCrossroads, Night & Day, Othello, The Vice, Single Voicesand Babyfatherembraced integrated casting to reflect today’s Britain.
  • Networking Events:Members of the CDN organised a wide range of events including networking dinners, seminars, workshops and master classes. They also sponsored events such as the MOBOs, EMMAs, RIMAs and the Carlton Multicultural Achievement Awards celebrating cultural diversity.
  • Talent Database: CDN established a shared talent database to plug the gap in knowledge.

Having established the CDN as vital catalysts for change by Carlton Television, in January 2002 the CDN Secretariat was passed to Channel 4 with Mark Thompson, Chief Executive as the chair. In December 2004 this was assumed by BBC with Greg Dyke as the new Chair of the CDN for 2004 and ITV with Simon Shaps as the Chair in 2005.

By 2005, while the industry had begun to engage a diversity of freelance talent there was still considerable more work to do in the employment of senior black and Asian executives across production and technical areas especially studios, camera, sound, design and engineering departments to reflect diversity in their workforce. To remain a modern and relevant the terrestrial channels still need to change the “snow peak” senior management and board level representation in their companies.

We still need to halt the “revolving door” syndrome and focus our attention on recruitment, retention and development of the creative and business management talent from the Ethnic minority communities.

  1. Tell us about the state of visible minority in front of and behind the camera in the UK (producers, firms and representation).

My direct involvement with CDN ceased in November 2005 following the production of its annual conference Diversity making it pay. In 2006, CDN chair was passed to BSkyB. The CDN Secretariat was outsourced to Acona, consultancy dedicated to providing advice on Corporate Responsibly.

In 2008, CDN commissioned a research report on investigating the Career Pathways of Black Minority Ethnic (BME) Production Professionals in the industry. Its findings concluded that while the recruitment of BME people into the media has improved in recent years, there is some evidence that BMEs may face additional difficulties in progressing their careers. That many may choose to leave the industry for work which offers a steadier income or clearer career path.

They interviewed BME’s working in the industry and here are some of their findings:

  • Knowledge of production was low prior to starting work.
  • None had a clear idea of what it would be like to work in the industry
  • Most thought glamour/excitement/fun. Office hours/an easy life

BME: the reality for many was somewhat surprising:

  • Large broadcasters described as corporate / ‘old school’
  • May not be glamorous in some areas of production
  • Hours were considerably longer than expected, work was harder
  • Surprising lack of diversity within the production workforce
  • BMEs mainly found in admin / office / support roles

Feedback suggests need to bring to life the reality of working in production for potential new applicants. Employers are not perceived to be accountable; people described an industry where there is no clear system/ procedures for promotion. Nearly all current staff interviewed, have contemplated leaving the industry for various reasons:

  • Poor rates of pay and/or lack of a steady income
  • Long hours
  • Personal circumstances e.g. wanting to start a family
  • Boredom/no longer feeling challenged
  • Feeling undervalued / overlooked / not getting anywhere
  • Lack of creative input – seniors don’t listen to ideas from juniors
  • This was true for both BME and white production staff

Some of the reasons why might ethnic minorities be more likely to leave production?

  • Lack of job security may be a particular issue for BME families – 1stgeneration parents come from a cultural background where job security is important
  • Industry is built on ‘who you know’
  • May not be active discrimination, but BMEs are unlikely to have the contacts of their white peers
  • Demanding working culture suits young, single people
  • A couple felt that lack of diversity might also prompt ethnic minorities to leave
  • Ignorance shown towards BME cultures and issues
  • Lack of senior BME role models in the industry

All agree (BME and white) that production is not ethnically diverse. But a few also pointed out that production is not diverse in any way e.g. by class, gender (at senior levels), age, disability.

Many feel that the current lack of ethnic diversity feeds itself. Lack of on-screen diversity may lead BMEs to rule themselves out of production roles.

But wider diversity behind the scenes might help to boost diversity on-screen (casting guidelines currently ignored). Respondents believe that the lack of BMEs in senior roles is due to:

  • The nature of the industry i.e. based on networking…and nepotism
  • People like to work with who they know
  • Social class and economic factors rather than race e.g.
  • It is currently quite a middle class workforce and ‘like attracts like’
  • Fitting in can be important in media circles e.g. playing rugby, going to the pub (NB: some Asians may not drink)
  • Lower level (runner) jobs are often unpaid so new starters need to have family money behind them to survive
  • Several questioned whether the industry sees the need to change – Is the commitment really there to help ethnic minorities progress?

All believed that diversity is very important and the workforce should reflect the diversity of society.

Diverse workforce they said would provide a range of role models for young people and will help to break down ignorance and ‘old school’ thinking.

Some comments that those BMEs who do reach senior positions are middle class, affluent, British born and bred.

When asked what benefits would diversity bring to the Industry?

Answers included: greater cultural understanding to programme makers; more accurate reflection of British BME culture in the 21stCentury and a different perspective in   terms of class/social background. Cultural diversity would also help with issues of language/ translation in a global media market and contribute new programme ideas which better reflect youth /new thinking.

The research report made recommendation for future including:

  • Formal recruitment practices;
  • Virtually all were against the idea of positive discrimination. BMEs want to be judged on an equal footing with white applicants. Also, positive discrimination tends to cloud how BMEs are viewed in the workplace. One person gave an example of how BBC discussed the issue of quotas in ‘Ariel’ and letters flooded in against the idea. She was shocked that people assumed positive discrimination would mean taking on low calibre applicants; saw this as a racist assumption
  • But work placement schemes which encourage diversity were generally applauded. But there must be the chance of a real job at the end of the scheme.

Other suggestions for improving BME Career progression included:

  • Flexible working
  • Mentoring
  • BME Talent hunters
  • Industry regulation to improve employment practices
  • Bursaries
  • Networking Events
  • Financial incentives/penalties for employers
  • Raise the profile of the CDN, perhaps through networking events etc.

Skillset Annual Survey and Diversity, 2010

Skillset is the Creative Industries’ Sector Skills Council (SSC) which comprises TV, film, radio, interactive media, animation, computer games, facilities, photo imaging, publishing, advertising and fashion and textiles. Since 2005, Skillset had conducted an annual survey on the wider diversity of the workforce including gender, age, disability, sexuality, class and social backgrounds. Here is summary of its findings with regards to BME’s in the industry:

  • Diversity remains a concern for the sector, with just 5% of the workforce coming from Black and Minority Ethnic background compared to 9% across UK economy.
  • Entry routes into the industries remain less formal.
  • BMEs are more likely than others to have undertaken unpaid work since entering the industry.
  • But more BME’s are likely to contemplate either broadening the scope or changing the direction of freelance work. Reasons: low pay rate and lack of promotion or career development opportunities.

Arts Council England

Arts Council England responsible for funding and developing the Cultural Sector launched Creative Case – a new approach to diversity, in September 11. The development of the Creative Case approach has been informed by a Third Text report entitled Beyond Cultural Diversity – the Creative Case, commissioned in 2010 by the Arts Council.

Higher Education Sector:

Diversity in higher education shows that universities have not been adopting BME staff. There are just 50 black professors which is not even 1 per institution. There is only one BME Vice Chancellor in the UK and he comes from South Africa! While the BME student population is 20%. Research identifies key issues: gap between policy and practice, poor recruitment practices and few sector initiatives.

  1. Reflections on 10 years of the CDN- What was gained? What would you do differently in 2011?

From its launch in 2000, CDN did help to focus the minds on the issues affecting BME’s entry into the industry. The Industry wide buy-in did provide a momentum for change which did lead to increase in number of BME working in the sector both on and behind the screen. CDN was right for its time but nobody predicted the impact of 9/11 and how it shifted the focus in the UK from Black and Asian representation to Muslim Community and Global Terrorism.

We underestimated the impact of technology – Facebook was not the third largest country in the world. Internet, mobile had not disrupted the broadcasting and film industries.

Neither did we anticipate the crisis in commercial television, the fall in advertising revenues, the crisis of leadership in the BBC following the Hutton inquiry and the dismissal of Greg Dyke, fight for survival by Channel 4 and Channel 5.  In 2007, Channel 4 lost its credibility with the BME audiences over the Shilpa Shetty and Big Brother international racism controversy. They bought in Trevor Philips and his consulting company to advice on diversity in 2008.  In 2009 they appointed Ona King as Director of Diversity!

Some well known former black and Asian media workers such as Trevor Philips and Samir Shah and entertainers like Lennie Henry and Meera Syal gave annual lectures on Diversity in 2007, 2008, 2009 to keep the issue on the agenda.

In closing the CDN Conference in October 2001, I said “in 10 years time, my daughter wants to be the fashion editor of a leading magazine. I expect her to be able to walk through a door, which says that she is valued part of British society. There are a lot of us in the audience who have children and have aspiration for our children. For me this conference is dedicated to them and their futures. No doubt they will have their challenges, but we will have set some kind of a platform and some kind of initiatives that will make it easier for them to continue the struggle”.

The positions of real creative power in British broadcasting are still controlled by metropolitan, largely liberal, white, middle class, cultural elite – and, until recently, largely male and largely Oxbridge. This power-elite in broadcasting excludes not just ethnic minorities but people from working class backgrounds, middle England conservatives, the disabled and many “invisible” minorities seem equally disqualified.

Parminder Vir OBE

Ryerson Roundtable Diversity in the Media Production Industry, Toronto Canada, December 9th2011.

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