Editor Robert James Peacock explores whether discrimination in the media isn’t really going away, just changing…
Yesterday, I was listening to my favourite radio show, Shaun Keaveny on 6 Music Breakfast. I was only half-listening while reading the paper. An unknown voice came on – a guest, I missed hearing who. It was a female voice. A grating (to my ears) London voice. Vaguely husky as if after too many post-work craft beers in Shoreditch. There was some talk of a lack of women in theatre (that one again!), a reference to Fresh Meat (the comedy vehicle of tedious tosspot Jack Whitehall – no wonder I had zoned out) and then I heard the topic change. She started talking of “women of colour”. Who was this person I was listening to? I clicked to expand the show info on iPlayer…
It was writer/actor Zawe Ashton (pictured), a woman of colour. She was on the radio being interviewed about her work, because women of colour can write and star in plays nowadays, and even appear on the BBC without a warning announcement, and it was all great, and liberated, and feelgood, and boo-to-the-haters, and hooray-for-Zawe-for-getting-to-where-she-is, and it’s-not-black-it’s-woman-of-colour-these-days-because-that’s-what-the-Americans-say. All fantabulous. This sort of thing is allowed to happen unimpeded and unquestioned nowadays, on a regular basis, because the BRITISH MEDIA IS NOT RACIST. Did you hear us? Have you seen our equality stats? NOT racist.
…unless you’re poor, that is.
Zawe Ashton was talking of being a woman, and a woman of colour at that, as if these were the defining discriminatory barriers of our age. The truth is, being born in Hackney to a Dad who worked for Channel 4, going to drama school in Islington, being acting buddies with Marlborough College alumnus Whitehall, her road to success was more smoothly paved than if she had been, say, an orthodox muslim girl from Dewsbury. These days, skin colour alone won’t hold you back in the media, as long as you sound and act like “one of us”. And Ashton certainly acts and sounds like “one of us”.
Because like their forefathers before them, white public schoolers in the media love a hint of the exotic (emphasis on “hint”). As do the rioja-swilling sofa-dwellers watching or listening at home. It has to be safe exotic, though: an RP accent, good manners, smart dress. Nothing too African, as great-grandpapa was bally well nearly skinned alive by those beastly natives in his Rhodesian days.
Thus we have a growing list of hugely successful black British actors – Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, David Gyasi. Great performers all. But close your eyes and hear them speak – Ejiofor here, Oyelowo here, Gyasi here. Skin colour may be all that separates them from the old Etonian/Harrovian brigade of Cumberbatch, Redmayne, Lewis et al. Ejiofor’s Dulwich College, for instance, is hardly a less elitist alma mater. If they betrayed an accent or suggestion of a non-metropolitan upbringing off-screen (as opposed to on-screen, where for black actors that is heartily encouraged) one assumes their ascent to the height of their profession may have been somewhat more difficult.
When Idris Elba gets talked of as the first black Bond, and that is hailed as progress, it’s not because our concept of Bond has undergone a radical shift, it’s because Elba, in one of his acting guises, has assimilated the character’s key characteristics – rich, handsome, suave, well-spoken, well-dressed, refined, unflappable – in other words, the textbook English hero. Riz Ahmed as a British Asian bond though? “He’s a bit jihadi don’t you think? Won’t play well across the pond.”
Similarly, in the parade of jolly-hockeysticks head-girls/middle-aged businessman corporate awayday fantasies that are our female BBC newsreaders, we have a couple to suit neo-colonial tastes – Mishal Husain and Naga Munchetty. The kind of ethnic eye-candy you could leave the wife for, but she’d still know how to behave down the golf club. Find someone (of any colour) who’s equally good at the job, but whose accent and demeanour suggests they may know what the inside of a Lidl looks like, and they are pilloried. See the abuse Steph McGovern got when she started on BBC Breakfast.
Media diversity boxes are certainly getting ticked. I’m sure the BBC and other organisations have the figures ready at the drop of a hat to show how wonderfully “rainbow” their staff is. That doesn’t mean systematic prejudice doesn’t still exist. It is just shifting from outward prejudices based on skin colour and gender, to more insidious ones based on culture and class. It’s not as easy to hashtag – #BritsSoWhite is simpler to grasp and uses fewer characters than #NewsreadersSoMultiCulturalSoLongAsYouComeFromTheHomeCounties… AndArePreferablyPrivatelyEducated – but it’s there. When the only way to get on in a chosen career is to *become* them, surely the prejudice remains?
A postscript: A few months ago, in my hometown of Bradford, one of the oldest and most famous woollen mills burnt down. The local news programme dispatched a young British Asian woman (head covered, and with a strong Bradford Asian accent, which as anyone who’s heard it will tell you is very distinctive) to report on it. She interviewed an older Asian fella who spoke of how devastating the fire was to *our* heritage, meaning him as a Bradfordian, not him as a British Asian. Fed a diet of mainly London-based TV, I was taken aback, in a good way. It made me very proud that Bradford seems to understand what London completely fails to, and is acting on it.