Hello. I’m Krishnan Guru-Murthy and how good it is to be included in an inclusion festival?
Not a conference or a debate – but a festival. A thing of celebration. A thing of joy. For that, surely should be our natural reaction to the idea, the goal of a society and industry in which everyone is valued, has an equal chance to succeed and where the whole – of every different view and experience - creates something greater than the sum of the parts.
I wonder whether inclusion is something we can be quite confused about. Is it our natural state of being? For us all to want to be together, to all succeed, pulling in the same direction? Or is it unnatural and something we must strive to achieve against the odds – in a world in which the truth is we compete, there are winners and losers, prejudice and ignorance and where we are inevitably tribal? Is inclusion in fact something we must work at everyday to get better at and stop ourselves going backwards?
I was born in Liverpool and grew up in Lancashire. My Dad’s a doctor - a refugee in World War 2, an orphan who knew what it was to be hungry, who made it thanks to the lift of education. Who didn’t have a pair of shoes until he went to medical school – and even they were the cast-offs of a classmate. So being the child of someone who’d made a quantum leap in his own life I grew up being told I could in theory achieve anything I wanted. But like most immigrant families who arrived in Britain in the early 1960s when racism was blunt and the landlords’ signs barring blacks and coloureds were legal, my parents were pretty clear with me : You’ll have to work harder and be better than the person next to you, because the person next to you will be white. In fact they didn’t say ‘white’ they said British – because their identity was Indian. And for their children the way to succeed in Britain was not to be an Indian in Britain but to be a British Indian. We were outsiders – there was a sense in which we could flourish and succeed but always a question over how much we’d really be accepted. And all the language of the time seemed designed to keep you outside : I was a second generation immigrant even though I wasn’t an immigrant at all. There was no conversation then about diversity and inclusion. So I had no concept of being included by others – I joined in, included myself, and didn’t spend too much time worrying about it. Like any kid who grew up as a minority, even in a relatively well off, middle class life, I’d been called racist names, pushed around and picked on by a racist bully, had NF for National Front written on my blazer and school books. My Religious Education teacher – a Church of England vicar - asked me to do a talk to the class about what he called “Idol worship”. I remember my mum bristling when I asked her what to say – “They’re Gods not idols” she replied.
I did a lot of debating at school and would always toss around my speech ideas with my Dad – who read a bit of philosophy. I think it was probably his natural scepticism that I picked up – that “Human nature” is flawed and weak and full of contradictions and that explains the illogicality of prejudice. “Human Nature” was just something we had to live with – a proportion of people you would encounter would be unreasonable, or racist – and you just had to negotiate it. It was an acceptance which I am pleased to say I see none of in the young generation of journalists I work with now, or even my children. And of course it was a naïve way of thinking because we never considered the idea of racism being something which consciously or unconsciously keeps power with those who hold it.
And yet when I was starting out in television in the late 80’s I was never aware of prejudice directed at me at all. If anything quite the opposite.
That school debating I had done led to me being chosen to go onto a youth TV discussion show on BBC2, called Open to Question when I was about 15. Made in Glasgow, and part of the BBC’s Youth Programmes department, an audience of teenagers would grill politicians and public figures from around the world. Everyone from the King of Jordan to Neil Kinnock. It was a bit of a bear pit – wonderfully blunt questions from young people who didn’t care about the niceties of conventional TV interviews. I was invited back – as somebody they could bank on to have a blunt question to ask. When I was leaving school and taking a year off before medical school I wrote to the BBC and asked for a research job, just for a bit of fun. No, they said, we don’t hire school-leavers but you can come and do some work experience. At the end of two weeks the head of department called me in – and said he wanted to put me in the studio for a screentest to see what I was like. Almost on the spot he offered me a two series contract to take over that show Open to Question. I was 18. It was a week before my A level results. The inclusion being shown by that Head of Department had little to do with my ethnicity and everything to do with my age. The BBC had never hired anyone as young as I was to host a serious current affairs programme. The fact I was brown wasn’t a problem – it was a bonus.
And so it continued – for me personally – through most of my early career. This is television. It is full of people who want to make the world a better place, who think of themselves as creative, liberal, open-minded and free of prejudice. Who want to expose unfairness not reinforce it. In my lifetime most television has generally felt like an essentially progressive industry, which thinks about diversity, representation and the need to serve the audience with something that reflects the nation we are. But of course my experience is just mine – and probably not typical. I am certainly at the easy end of being a diverse hire. I speak white, straight, metropolitan, male, Oxbridge elite almost as well as the next guy. But just because I have risen up the ladder and am relatively insulated from everyday racism by being pretty well known it doesn’t mean I haven’t been on the end of obvious bigotry or unconscious bias.
Like every industry the George Floyd case in America and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed had what felt like a profound impact on broadcasting and people working in it. Black people especially, but all ethnic minorities – and Jews do count – started talking about the trauma of years of not making a fuss, of feeling open racism and subtle discrimination, of their true identity after years of fitting in. It took so many people back to whatever their most upsetting experience was – perhaps from childhood, perhaps from adulthood - with one thing in common : a sense of being powerless. A powerlessness many people still felt at work. For those in power tough questions were asked about the need to understand, to deliver change and big promises were made.
So we have to ask ourselves some hard questions. You might say all of that was just two years ago. But this isn’t something we only noticed because of George Floyd. Consider these words about diversity in a speech written in 2008 by the television executive Samir Shah for the Royal Television Society :
"The difficult truth I want you to accept is this: the equal opportunity policies we have followed over the last 30 years simply have not worked.
"Despite 30 years of trying, the upper reaches of our industry, the positions of real creative power in British broadcasting, are still controlled by a metropolitan, largely liberal, white, middle-class, cultural elite - and, until recently, largely male and largely Oxbridge……
Shah went on to claim that on screen there was a danger of over-representation or inauthentic representation and that in senior management the problem remained that those in power were still too often hiring people in their own image.
"The search for comfort can take precedence over the search for the best, because cultural cloning carries no immediate cost,"
Fourteen years after that speech, how much has really changed? It would be unfair to say nothing. There are plenty of initiatives. And I believe they are sincere. Entry and mid level hiring have meant the percentages have gone up. The big companies have hired senior HR people to deliver diversity. There is a diversity industry. On Screen percentages are relatively healthy – but they are always the easier problem to solve. And percentages can mask where the on screen talent is focussed. Is it prime time? Is it the biggest shows? Is it paid at the same rate as white counterparts?
And at the very top management levels – those holding the power – what do we think about the pace of change? There have been Jewish leaders – but still no black or Asian people running our biggest broadcasters. Now that may mask something else going on – that ambitious minority talent may increasingly see its power and earning potential in making and owning content and running their own production companies. But are we really happy to just live with the idea that the gatekeepers – the people companies are selling to – may never truly reflect the audiences they serve?
We have, I have argued before, already seen what happens when you get a lack of diversity in broadcasting management. It gets judgements wrong, or doesn’t appear to know how to react. We saw it to some extent at Channel 4 fifteen years ago during the Big Brother racism row, we saw it at the BBC in 2019 when Naga Munchetty was asked by her co-presenter how she felt about comments by Donald Trump widely regarded as racist. Without a diversity of thought at the top you are inevitably going to end up sometimes taking the wrong decisions.
And on screen portrayal may have a much wider significance than we have thought until now. A study by academics at Stanford, Zurich and Colorado into the effect of Mo Salah joining Liverpool football club may hold some extraordinary insights. The researchers wanted to find out whether exposure to celebrities from a stigmatised group (in this case Muslims) reduced prejudice towards that group at large. Based on crime reports, social media and a survey of Liverpool fans the study found that hate crime in Merseyside dropped by 16% after the arrival of Salah at the club and Islamophobic tweets from Liverpool fans were cut by half. So on-screen decisions can have a wider impact beyond representation towards how marginalised groups are seen by viewers.
Of course inclusion is not just about race – it’s about gender, religion, disability, sexuality, social class, age and education. It’s about everything. And because television portrayal on screen is so much better than off screen others have looked to us for leadership and ideas.
In the early 2000’s I was asked to speak at the UK Ministry of Defence conference for diversity in the armed forces. At the time there was a massive problem getting ethnic minority recruits and there had been well publicised cases of racist bullying. The forces had taken some steps to try to tackle it – and the diversity conference was one of them. Everyone was there – ordinary soldiers, minority staff networks, the top brass and all the ministers. The previous year’s speaker had been General Colin Powell – who had led US forces through the Gulf war and went on to be US Secretary of State. The hope was probably that I might have some thoughts on how to reach out to Asian parents to encourage their children to join the armed forces. And I did. But I also decided it was a good platform at which to address the question – as we called it back then – of “Gays in the Military”. There was a still a legal ban - which meant expulsion if found out. The European Court of Human Rights had just ruled against that and the law was about to be changed – but it was uncomfortable, and despite all the progress on gay rights of the time this was one area where change was not easy. I challenged the audience – what happens if gays in the military are bullied the way black and brown soldiers have been? Will you root it out the same way? And stand up for equality which genuinely applies to everyone : male, female, black, white, gay and straight? The speech went down well with the crowd – with the members of the armed forces who’d come. But the ministers were not all impressed. One of them was cross – “Well I think you mixed your messages there”, he said gruffly. “what do you mean?” I enquired. “Well on the one hand you’re telling Asian parents they should send their sons to the army. Then you’re telling them it should be full of gays when they get there. How do think that’s going to go down?” His assumption was that British Asians were homophobic. “Well that’s the thing about equality” I replied – “it has to mean everyone”.
Inclusion ought to be uncontroversial. Because it ought to make everyone feel valued. But there are big pitfalls. We tend as an industry to tackle inclusion in categories, which always runs the risk of minorities competing, or of some being picked off as less of a priority than others. And what about the majority? The group who stand to lose as the workforce becomes more representative? There is already no shortage of white, middle-aged men in television who – right or wrong - feel their career progression is hopeless, that the promotions will go to minorities. There is a danger that inclusion will be contested, especially as economic conditions become more depressed. So the case for inclusion will need to constantly be made, and every day we need to ask are we representing the nation as it is? And what new ideas can we bring to what inclusion means?
At Channel 4 diversity is key to our remit - to champion unheard voices, to inspire debate and challenge established thinking. It is one of the biggest reasons I love being part of this public service. Thanks for watching.