Tim Tate

Author, Film-Maker & Investigative Journalist


The Truth Shall Make You Free Fret


This week, Sir Lenny Henry appeared at a television industry conference discussing diversity.   Speaking during a debate entitled “How Far Have We Come”, held at Channel 4, Sir Lenny said:


“It’s wonderful to see everybody here. It’s great actually to see everybody moving in the same direction on this issue, because it needs to be moved on, doesn’t it?”


Channel 4 has positioned itself in the vanguard of a campaign to increase representation of BAME people – that’s “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”, in case you didn’t know – both on screen and in television production. In time for the conference C4 congratulated itself for hitting 24 of the 30 targets it set itself last year in its 360° Diversity Charter.


That charter covers more ground than BAME: it aims to include disability within its scope, for example.   But it specifically committed the Channel to putting diversity front and centre in its commissioning priorities and improving its BAME quotient was a key stipulation.  Producers wanting to do business with Channel 4 were required to a pass ‘two-tick’ process: the first tick showed that their programme ideas included a diversity element, the second that the production team also passed the diversity test.  In Channel 4’s own words:


“The aim of diversity policy in broadcasting is simple: to include and nurture talent, and to reflect contemporary Britain on and offscreen.”


It is, unquestionably, good news that both programmes and production teams are becoming more representative of Britain’s diverse population.   And where C4 led, other broadcasters have scurried to follow. Both the BBC and ITV are working to improve their representation of minorities, both on and off screen.


But are all minorities equal in broadcaster’s eyes ? Are some less deserving of recognition than others ?   Recent experience suggests that the answer might be an uncomfortable ‘yes’.


I run a small and successful independent production company. We make documentary films for all the main British broadcasters as well as international networks. Several of the films have won major awards.   Last autumn my colleague and co-producer developed a history documentary idea which investigated the experiences of the oldest minority ethnic community in Britain.  What happened to that proposal raises questions about the integrity of broadcasters’ commitments to diversity.


Chinese communities have been established throughout Britain for more than 150 years.   Today, the British-Chinese population exceeds 247,000: that represents 0.5% of the overall population, and approximately 5% of the total non-white demographic.


This is, of course, far smaller than the other two main “minority ethnic” groupings. The number of “south Asian” people – those whose ethnicity stems from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sir Lanka – is more than 3 million, accounting for more than 8% of the overall UK population. While, according to the 2011 UK Census, there are1,904,684 UK residents who self-identify as “Black/African/Caribbean/Black British” – a total of 3 per cent of the country’s population.


But the British Chinese community has two unique and notable traits. It tends to produce high-achievers – economically and academically; and it tends not to trouble the police or authorities with complaints about experiencing racism.   And yet, as we discovered, that racism is a very real problem.   A new police unit set up in the north of England has discovered evidence that British Chinese were frequently the victims of racially-motivated crime. However, they rarely reported it.


We wondered why.


One answer may well lie in the history of the British Chinese experience. For more than 100 years that community has been the subject of vicious racial prejudice, wild public scare stories, and wicked press-driven hatred. But what was truly shocking was the discovery that in 1947 – having risked their lives on the Atlantic Convoys of World War Two (the vital lifeline which kept this country fed and powered in the darkest days of the war) at least a thousand Chinese British seamen were brutally rounded up, flung on to coffin ships and dumped in China.


That China was then in the midst of a vicious civil war and that these men who had served Britain so well were – at the very least – being put in harm’s way had not mattered. Nor had the fact that many had wives and children in Britain – families from whom they had been quite literally snatched. The government wanted rid of this minority group – and had forcible repatriated them.


This story had remained secret for decades. That it was beginning to emerge was due to the efforts of a remarkable member of the British Chinese community who had unearthed official papers in the National Archive showing what had happened to his father, one of the deported seamen.


It seemed to us that this story was both important (the resonance between the rabid anti Chinese press campaigns and today’s Islamophobia was uncomfortably close). It was genuinely revelatory, and it also helped explain both the experience and contemporary position of one of the least understood of all the UK’s “minority ethnic” populations. It plainly delivered the first ‘tick’


It also completed the second. Not only were both presenters we put forward British Chinese, but so is my colleague and co-producer who developed the story.


The broadcasters’ response was curious. Channel 4 pronounced that it was “too straight down the line” for its history output, which more routinely concentrates on digging up downed Spitfires or positing ludicrous theories about Ancient Egyptian tombs.   The BBC (which has just announced a substantial new series on the well-trodden ground of Black History of Britain) said that it didn’t “fit the outline of the kind of project we are expected to deliver”, and that audiences “rarely come to stories like this”.


What both decisions actually come down to is that these two broadcasters think audience figures are more important than reflecting “contemporary Britain on and of screen” (to use Channel 4’s wording); and that ratings trump the commitment to genuine diversity.


It could, of course, also be that the oldest “minority ethnic” community in the UK is deemed not sufficiently ethnic to be pulled up on the BAME bandwagon.  In other words, (to borrow from Orwell) that some minorities are more equal than others – though that would surely be politically rather difficult to state publicly.


But in either case, turning a blind eye to the experience and history of the British Chinese community seems to sit badly with the self-congratulatory sprit of the broadcasters’ promises of diversity.   Perhaps Sir Lenny might care to take a closer look at the backdrops and scenery through which we are all, in his words, “moving in the same direction”.  They might, just might, be no more than a Potemkin set, designed to impress more than deliver.

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