British historian, producer and presenter David Olusoga has delivered an excoriating assessment of race and racism in the UK television industry in a deeply personal address at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
The A House Through Time presenter delivered the MacTaggart Lecture on Monday, the centerpiece address for the entire festival, which is being hosted online this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Olusoga opened up about his own experiences of racism and inequality, including seeing Black colleagues being served food after their white counterparts while filming on a reconstructed slave plantation in Jamaica. He also offered his vision for change.
When reflecting on his 20 years in the business, Olusoga said he considers himself a “survivor” rather than a success story, having had to overcome the “loneliness” of “always being in a minority of one, fighting every fight alone, seeing what others don’t see.”
He explained: “I’ve been so crushed by my experiences, so isolated and disempowered by the culture that exists within our industry, that I have had to seek medical treatment for clinical depression. I’ve come close to leaving this industry on several occasions. And I know many black and brown people who have similar stories to tell.”
The Uplands Television founder described his peers as “TVs lost generation” of diverse storytellers and decision-makers. “They left because our industry failed to support their careers and nurture their talents. They left because they never got the next contract, because they no one championed them or help plan their careers,” he added.
Had this lost generation remained in TV and progressed through the ranks of the industry, Olusoga said, the BBC could have avoided “damaging missteps,” such as defending two uses of the N-word in its output during the same week it hosted the CDX diversity conference.
He also recounted two specific experiences of racism, including his story of shooting a drama-documentary in Jamaica. Olusoga did not name the show, though he did film in the Caribbean nation for the BBC’s 2015 series, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, which was made by BBC Studios.
“As we were filming in a remote location we set up our own catering and on the first day cast crew and extras queued up for lunch,” he recalled. “Without informing me it had been decided that the actors and the crew were to eat first, the extras would get their lunch afterwards. Standard procedure perhaps, but the unintentional effect was that white people ate first and black people only after they had finished.”
He added: “So beside a recreated 18th-century slave village, on the actual site of a former slave plantation, in the hills of a former slave colony the extras, themselves descendants of enslaved people, queued up and waited for the white folk to finish their lunch.”
In another example, he remembered being “patronised and marginalised” while talking about the sensitivities of Black history and sounding a warning about racial tropes in a conversation with a white colleague. “I was, they told me, too political, too sensitive, too difficult. But – my colleague had a solution. What I needed to do, I was told, was to be more like another black person they knew,” Olusoga said. “Be the sort of black person I’m comfortable with. Be more like my drug dealer. That is what I was told by a colleague in our industry.”
Beyond his own experiences, the historian said a culture of unpaid internships, short-term freelance contracts and the “invisible nexus of old school ties and Oxbridge networks” have made it harder for Black, Asian and minority ethnic people to break into the industry.
“Even when Black people overcome those barriers and scale the high walls of TV they are, too often, caught in a trap. They are the victims of a way of thinking that contains within it the same twisted logic of a witch trial,” he said. “They are said to be lacking the experience to land the big, career-advancing, reputation-enhancing jobs, which means they rarely get those jobs, which in turn means they never get the experience to dispel that portrayal.”
Speaking to an audience of thousands of British TV executives, Olusoga added: “There is willingness to accept black people as performers, in front of the camera, but unwillingness on the part of the industry to make space for them behind the scenes, in the rooms where the decisions are made and the real creativity happens.”
The decades of false dawns and unfulfilled industry pledges to tackle inequality has meant that diversity commitments following the Black Lives Matter movement have been met with skepticism. “Proving that this time such skepticism is not warranted is among the biggest challenges facing the UK broadcasters and the indie sector,” he added.
In a clarion call for change, Olusoga called on a white-dominated industry to “share power.” He explained: “No industry training scheme and no amount of monitoring will lead to real change unless we accept that merely having black people in the room is not enough.
“The industry also needs to listen to us, to value our perspectives and our stories, to understand that we come from a different place, consume different culture, read different books, and see the world from a different perspective. And that that perspective is valuable. When TV accepts this and listens to the creative visions of people like Michaela Coel and Steve McQueen audiences are enthralled.”
He said the industry must be held to account by UK media regulator Ofcom, which too often gives broadcasters a “clean bill of health, or at worst a cursory note that they could do better.” He added that independent producers must also step up. “They need to recognise that many of the young black and brown people who have got a foot in the door of our industry have already climbed mountains of disadvantage that their more privileged peers have never encountered and know little about,” he said.
Among his concluding remarks, Olusoga argued that there is reason for optimism. “There is, I honestly believe, real reason to be hopeful. This time it does feel different. The response of the UK broadcasters to Black Lives Matter are different in multiple respects, distinct from the initiatives of the past. There is a new determination among the broadcasters to drive diversity into senior management, at board level and critically in commissioning,” he said.
“In the end it comes down to this, does our industry have the will to genuinely share power with those who have, for so very long, been marginalised and silenced.”