Henry Bonsu - Colourful Radio Director (United Kingdom)
23 March 2009
1. How do you assess the level of discrimination in Britain ?
It depends on who you are, your level of education, where you live, how old you are and how long you have been in the country.
For someone like me, born and raised in Manchester with a decent level of education and with a middle class lifestyle living in a diverse part of London , I get very little overt discrimination. I travel around the country fairly fearlessly.
If I was a much younger person in an area of greater disadvantage and under-educated, I might be more at the sharp end.
I would echo in broad terms what Trevor Phillips, leader of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission said: It's probably better to be a person of colour in this country than anywhere else in Europe .
2. How would you asses the level of national acceptance of cultural diversity?
There are lots and lots of people who are very uncomfortable with this trend towards diversity in advertising, in popular television and in the mainstream news. The picture is one of increasing diversity in some areas but lots of blind spots. If you listen to BBC Radio 2, 3 and 4, you would think that much of Britain was living as it did in the 1950's.
3. How have cultural organisations and political groups responded to the challenges of diversity?
Some cultural organisations have responded very powerfully indeed. The Arts Council has run a range of programmes to try and support African – Caribbean and Asian work. It's not faultless and they have made major errors but efforts have been made.
The Victoria & Albert Museum , the Museum of London and the Natural History Museum are running outreach programmes to get more African-Caribbean people and Asians through the door. But these schemes tend to be sporadic. There isn't much of a long term or consistent strategy. It's ad-hoc. They will bring in a cross –cultural curator and their job is to present work that will attract a broader range of people. Usually, that person is working in isolation, is under-funded and is not necessarily working in an integrated way with the rest of the institution. That has to stop. It has to be about making sure the whole organisation is on board and realises that cultural diversity is not an add-on and is part of the whole organisation. Institutions, especially if they are accepting public money will have to accept this and respond to it.
All the political parties are scrambling to find their Barack Obama. Both of the main parties are trying to put people of colour into more serious seats.
If you look at many of the uniformed services, where the pamphlets speak very well of diversity and the need to make their organisation more representative of the general population , many of the rank and file are sick of all this stuff. They say ‘best man or woman for the job without any tokenism.'
What they don't realise is that there was already a tokenism of sorts before all of this started. It placed individuals from the ethnic majority in posts where they were unqualified but because they were white, it was not seen. It was invisible.
4. What role can the media play in promoting diversity?
The media has an enormous amount of power with the responsibility to use it wisely and carefully. The media can change the mood of a country on important public maters like race, diversity, tolerance and relations between men and women.
There was one poll I saw in which the majority of the people thought that 30% of the country was African-Caribbean and Asian when it is about 6%. That's because of distortion and the undue prominence given to certain stories.
5. Does the media's professional culture make it difficult for black and ethnic minority employees to sustain careers?
The brightest and best of the African-Caribbean community often steer clear of media. They do not take it seriously. They go into law, banking, finance and medicine where it is more meritocratic.
Print media is eons behind broadcast media. National newspapers look like 1960's Britain . The culture is years behind television because broadcasters are under so much pressure.
The vast majority of jobs in the media are not advertised. Where there is a vacancy, it is normally filled internally. That's why you don't get the throughput that you need to change an organisation.
6. What advice would you give to a young black graduate interested in a television career?
They need to watch the news, read the serious bits of the newspapers, read political biographies and they need to write so they know what is required. Otherwise they will not understand what they are letting themselves in for and why they are not progressing.
Media is not as much of a meritocracy as other professions. When you are a person of colour, you often do not get a second chance in this industry. People say ‘they are not ready, not experienced enough, don't have enough pulling power or the audience will switch off.' Even though it wont be said openly, behind the scenes, this is what people are saying and thinking.
It's unfair but complaining about it is like complaining about the weather. If you get into this industry, you've got to learn to collaborate, get out of your comfort zone and develop as many strings to your bow as possible.
It helps if you want to enter the TV industry to know which part you want to go into. You can waste huge amounts of time by not doing enough research. Do as much work experience as you can as early as you can. That way you can decide if you think working on a BBC costume drama is really more exciting than producing on Channel 4 News, or presenting on Childrens TV. You also need to demistify the industry. TV is not rocket science, no matter how much people try to pretend it is. There are a number of highly skilled technicians, but most of the rest of us dream up ideas, then call on others to try and make them happen! You've just got to decide which one of those you are...then network like mad!
7. What can Europe learn from the British experience?
We've been at this for some time in this country and we've made some progress. MP's , public officials dare not say things that are foolish and wildly untrue in the way that they would have done some years ago, whereas in some European countries, it's not the case.
Britain has been more willing to listen and respond to the shouts and protestations of visible minorities whereas other countries have been more stubborn.
No apologies should be offered for pushing through legislation which is aimed at fairness. A lot of the ethnic trouble that exists is because the ethnic majority think its about giving favours to people who don't deserve them. Europe should be honest about who gets what in terms of resources.
Legislation has to be backed up by monitoring. There should be full enforcement of the law so that everyone understands that the government is serious and will use its power.
Sporting institutions and football in particular have helped to take the message of difference to corners of the country that politicians have failed to reach.
8. What are the prospects for an improvement of community relations in Britain ?
There is every prospect. We are becoming more intolerant of people who set out to cause offence. We have come too far to say multi-culturalism is over. People are working alongside each other, making children together and forging alliances when it comes to culture and creativity. There's more and more interaction.
Find out more
Network: Colourful Radio