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Race, Class and Black Flight - How the Middle Class Runs UK Media

06/02/2014 12:15 GMT | Updated 07/04/2014 10:59 BST

A concerned awareness of the proportional lack of ethnic minority representation in UK media is not something new, but the surprise is that in these supposedly meritocratic times, it seems to be getting worse and not better.

Firstly, a glance at the new team behind London Live, the soon to be launched 24 hour channel, is startling. London is 40% non-white, a detail that the ethnic make-up of the production team reflects. However, a look at equivalent teams in newsrooms etc over the last 40 years across the rest of UK media would have told the depressingly familiar story of a body of people who were not only almost uniformly white, but who have been drawn from a restrictively narrow socio-economic background. One change that will have been noted during the progression of that period is that more women started to occupy jobs other than just researcher or, occasionally, presenter. The truth of the matter is that the barrier preventing ethnic minorities getting either in front of, or behind, the camera is equally present for white working-class Britons. The uncomfortable fact is that well-meaning liberals have unwittingly made the media the most visible area in which a potent mix of class - wearing the right clothes and going to the right universities - has led to a homogeneous industry, ironically one where creativity, diversity and inclusion are often loudly trumpeted.

The same warriors of liberalism would absolutely deny any taunts of racism if they were thrown their way and it's not a case of overt racism that has led to this "whitewash". Like many industries, the media is a glorified guild that has its own rules and regulations for those who want to enter it and to get on. For example, it helps greatly, although is not essential, to have gone to Oxbridge, as this creates access for life to a network of people who will be more likely to assume positions of authority post-graduation. Secondly, if your diction is perceived as being Standard English without too strong an accent, this will open doors and keep them open for the next thirty years. Thirdly, the ability to talk effortlessly about travel, the "right" books, the "correct" films and, increasingly, the right fashionable Scandinavian drama, will not only gain you entry into this club but help you in your career path as you inexorably glide to its summit. These dog whistles are the essentials. Without these basic skills, you will "scare the horses" in an interview for a media job. If you have any doubts about the monoculture, in terms of the profile of people who work in the media in London, attend any dinner party where more than two of the guests work for the BBC or the Guardian - you are likely see these very same people who would appear to be interchangeable racially, class-wise, and intellectually. You'd think that these towers of liberalism would embrace and exude diversity, but no, you'd be wrong.

This lack of diversity at the core of UK traditional media leaves not only ethnic minorities but other British groups struggling to not only find roles, but also a voice in shaping programming and commissioning as they are always seen as a minority interest groups who are "different". With commissioning editors, programme makers, and directors who are not able to view modern British society as a place of class and urban poly-cultural diversity, we get TV schedules that produce Benefit Street, Broadchurch and Out Numbered. A search for well-rounded black roles on UK TV will only reveal health or care workers, and it is just as hard to find genuine and believable working class characters outside of soaps and Reality TV. When a sitcom, for example, does manage to buck the trend and break through to portray a family whose concerns are not overly driven by those of the middle class and the angst of bringing up kids in modern Britain and sending them to the right school, these are intellectually and critically sneered at as '70s relics. Such is the stranglehold of the London media elite over the nation's cultural mores, that portraying "ordinary" people on TV are now means, middle class, southern and white. Every other group has to be "qualified" somehow.

At the heart of the problem is the lack of true social mobility in the UK and the overwhelming dominance of London on the country economically, politically and culturally, but this does not pardon production company managers, who are happy to staff their companies with clones of their social circle. The widening wealth gap in the US in the last 30 years has not lead to the same uniform portrayal of American culture on its small screen. For every series of Girls, you have Justified, or if it's Modern Family, you have The Middle, but things are slowly reversing in the States too, with Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo Boo again reducing the working class to curiosities from Barnum's circus, as Channel 4 did with Benefit Street.

The exclusion of large swathes of the UK populous in the media has ramifications other then a lack of TV screen time for these groups. These ramifications are seen economically, and with the rise of alternative media channels. Simply put, there is a wealth of anecdotal testimony from recruiters that minorities and those from working class backgrounds in the media often earn less then their middle class colleagues. This is the area where more subtle forms of prejudice come into play. Ethnic minorities and the working class, when asking for pay increases in a highly deregulated and less unionised industry like the media, are often taken as being overly assertive, lacking the social skills to make their point with tact and politeness. They hit the glass ceiling very quickly if they do happen to get through the door.

The difficulty ethnic minorities have in trying to forge a career in London has led to some black Brits leaving the UK to work in the US. While it's hard to determine how big the flight of production talent is, the exodus is undeniable. In America, these Brits can use their own distinctive accents to open doors and, if they have talent and a little luck, they can star in projects that are not open to them over here. The paradox is this: Idris Elba is popular because he left, Steve McQueen could not have made 12 Years a Slave here, Chiwetel Ejiofor could not drive a UK financed movie, but BAFTA will lap up their achievements as evidence of Brits taking over Hollywood. The same people who can use their influence and positions to help diversity here in the UK, but are unable or unwilling to do so, are the ones that are so eager to bask in the glow of Brits they initially exclude.

Diversify, the BAFTA initiative to improve diversity in film and TV, is well meaning but may be ten years too late. If you are young and feel excluded from the mainstream media and want to get into production, scriptwriting, acting and the connected skills, YouTube offers as valid a route as any. A look at the traffic to the SBTV Network channel attracts will convince anyone that there are strands of British talent who are not finding their way onto broadcast media. If nothing else, traditional media should be looking in these places for new social media talent to poach, as TV viewing continues to decline and eyeballs migrate to other ways of consuming programing. Maybe as TV viewers become older and whiter, TV producers can justify, on demographic grounds, the reasons to ignore and exclude the rest of us.