The U.K. film and TV industry has made headline-grabbing commitments to improving diversity in recent years, but two landmark studies have found that the sector is falling dangerously short of monitoring and evaluating its own initiatives, and is losing an older generation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (“BAME”) workers by focusing too intently on “fresh” talent.
Commissioned by the London-headquartered Film and TV Charity, the studies examine, respectively, racial diversity initiatives and anti-racism in the U.K. industry. They suggest that “creative diversity” agendas have shied away from heavy-hitting interrogations of racism within the sector and, worst still, that there is “no formal accountability” on racism in the industry.
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“Many of the commitments made by large institutions in the U.K. point to ‘diversity schemes.’ There are strong and very mixed views as to whether these are valuable or simply performative,” says Sasha Salmon, a senior public policy advisor with expertise in anti-racism and equality who was seconded by the Film and TV Charity to carry out an anti-racism review.
In an examination of film and TV diversity initiatives over the last 20 years, media scholars Dr. Clive Nwonka and Professor Sarita Malik — who were commissioned by Salmon — looked at the trajectories of programs including Channel 4’s FilmFour Spirit Dance, the U.K. Film Council’s New Cinema Fund and the BFI Diversity Standards, through to Project Diamond and ViacomCBS’s “No Diversity, No Commission” policy.
Their analysis reveals a “knowledge deficit” within the sector, resulting from a failure among the institutions responsible for diversity funding and training to be transparent about their impact. This has contributed to a “stagnation” in diversity initiatives over the last 20 years, as there’s a dearth of reliable data on how effective these programs have been historically.
The report also highlights a “lost generation” of off-screen talent that’s older than those supported by current training and development initiatives, and who struggle to sustain positions in the field. They fall through the cracks of talent schemes, which constantly renew themselves by focusing on new groups of BAME talent instead of helping those who are further along in their careers.
“There’s a strong link between the idea of diversity being something modern and new — and it’s not,” Malik tells Variety.
“There is a long legacy and history of Black and Asian communities involved in cultural production, and yet when you look at training and skills, it’s focused on the younger generation and skilling up,” continues Malik. “The emphasis lies in training, when actually there is a skillset there that hasn’t been historically invested in and drawn on.”
Salmon, in a separate think piece, conducted her own qualitative work, interviewing 55 people from different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds in a variety of positions in film and TV about their views on anti-racism in the industry. The majority of her interviewees had, at one point, taken part in a diversity scheme or been commissioned through a diversity drive.
“The emotional and facial response to just hearing the word ‘scheme’ was notable,” writes Salmon. “Several had strong negative reactions, dismissing schemes as ‘performative,’ ‘tokenistic,’ ‘non-impactful,’ ’embarrassing and humiliating,’ a ‘photo opportunity’ and ‘box-ticking exercise.'”
Salmon also said the responses to her interviews overwhelmingly pointed to a lack of accountability in tackling racism and discrimination in the U.K. film and TV industry.
“A commonly used phrase was that big institutions are ‘marking their own homework,'” writes Salmon. “Many claimed a lot of diversity and inclusion wok is performative, designed to minimize PR risk and ‘respond’ to complaints, with institutions doing what they think they need to rather than what’s effective.”
Many respondents highlighted the lack of meaningful body holding the institutions to account about their lack of progress, with some questioning where they go to report racism, and noting the challenge of reporting anonymously if you’re one of the few people of color on a production or in a company.
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Film sector falling short
Nwonka and Malik’s research, which examines several film schemes in addition to television initiatives, points to a sharp lack of accountability in the film sector, and an over-reliance on inclusion policies and the temporary alteration of on-screen and off-screen racial composition over any serious response to racial inequality in the film industry.
“There is a notable absence of an account, analysis or explanation from the various institutions and organizations as to why such schemes and initiatives have produced stagnated or in many instances regressive outcomes for Black and Ethnic Minorities in the film sector,” write Nwonka and Malik.
The BFI’s Diversity Standards are especially problematic, as they employ “loose and fluid” mechanisms that, currently, allow a film production to easily pass the standards without any significant reference to race/ethnicity. “There are massive problems with [the program’s] mechanisms and the way it’s been uptaken by the industry,” says Nwonka, who allows that the org is now looking at ways to make the diversity terms “a bit more rigorous and harder to attain for certain productions.”
The television sector has fared better, with a stronger level of engagement across British broadcasters, which have set internal targets for diversity across their workforces. Nonetheless, even in television there’s still a deficit of publicly available diversity data, which media regulator Ofcom, monitoring body Diamond and industry org ScreenSkills are trying to remedy.
Next steps for industry
“There’s a really important point that comes out of Clive and Sarita’s work around accountability that, for me, is essential and non-negotiable,” says Alex Pumfrey, CEO of the Film and TV Charity.
The lack of data on the progress of diversity initiatives has “hindered cumulative learning,” says Pumfrey. “That’s what we should have been doing — we should have been learning cumulatively about what works and what doesn’t. The lack of accountability means it hasn’t ever felt like an upwards trajectory of progress; it’s felt like an up and down.”
Pumfrey notes that the U.K. film and TV industry should have a “massive headstart” compared to other sectors, given programs have been in place for 20 years. “But it doesn’t feel like that because we haven’t been doing that cumulative learning.”
Juliet Gilkes-Romero, a writer and trustee at the Film and TV Charity, has spearheaded much of the organization’s anti-racism work alongside fellow trustee and filmmaker Joseph Adesunloye.
Notes Gilkes-Romero: “The insights we gained show that there have been over 100 diversity schemes in the last 10 years and yet there remains no robust public evaluation of their impact. I find this troubling. Why is this missing? How can there be measurable, demonstrable change without it? The industry clearly needs to put infrastructure in place where Black, Asian and Minority Ethic professionals have access to jobs, and training that unequivocally leads to industry jobs. This data needs to be formally tracked.”
The Film and TV Charity has ringfenced 30% of its future grant spend for Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic workers in the industry. The org has also set aside £1 million to support under-funded anti-racist community leaders and groups — an initiative that will be distributed across three years.
Elsewhere, Nwonka and Malik have suggested a host of changes in the industry, including an independent external review of anti-racism policies and approaches at BBC Films and Film Four — with data made publicly available. They also call for nuanced and expansive data sets that yield more granular information, complemented by qualitative analyses of the sector and anecdotal evidence.
Crucially, film and TV organizations should be “robustly evaluated” at least annually, with findings made easily accessible. In addition, the industry must also carry out a holistic rethink of skills and training programs, with more consideration for the age ranges of participants, among other factors.
Elsewhere, the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) are advised to take a more dynamic role in the industry’s racial equality agenda. For example, they could ensure that film organizations receiving public resources are fully transparent with data collected across their schemes and programs.
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