Three-D Issue 26: Diversity, minorities, pluralism and the future of public service broadcasting

Anamik_SahaAnamik Saha
Goldsmiths, University of London

As part of the recent Puttnam Enquiry into the future of public service broadcasting (PBS), the British Academy hosted an academic workshop, chaired by Professor Georgina Born that was tasked with deliberating over and outlining key normative arguments for the future of PSB. The discussions on that day have informed the final report (2016), covering issues including journalism, impartiality, independence; new digital platforms; governance, regulation and independence; and children and young people.

After an introduction delivered by Professor Born on the challenges facing PSB, the workshop began with a discussion on diversity, minorities, and pluralism. To be frank, issues of race and cultural identity usually appear further down the agenda of critical media studies, but the fact that this topic opened the discussion shows the centrality of these issues to the current political conjuncture. The question of multiculture and living with difference is the key issue of our time, and arguably, the biggest challenge facing PSB.

PSB has historically played a key role in managing or indeed, imagining, the nation’s relationship to multiculture, through articulating the substantive contents and boundaries of the nation’s cultural life. Put more simply, PSB creates a sense of national community. As the Enquiry report states1, it provides ‘a means by which all social groups are able to speak, to be portrayed respectfully and accurately, to have equal employment prospects and, finally, to have access to a wide range of content’. But in recent times PSB has been hindered in its ability achieve this. This is due to the challenges of deterritorialized media and fragmenting audiences; minorities are not as reliant on PSB as they used to be. (Speaking from personal experience, my parents have switched their viewing almost entirely from the main terrestrial channels that they used to watch throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to a range of satellite channels from the Indian sub-continent.) But crucially, the marketisation and increasing competitive environment of the broadcasting industry as well as hostility from a Conservative government has meant that the BBC in particular has been more concerned with legitimating its status though stressing its commercial success rather than cultural relevance.

Indeed, Sarita Malik outlines a historical shift in policy approaches to minorities in the context of PSB, from multicultural policy (programming that caters for specific minority groups) to cultural diversity policy (‘mainstreaming minority’ programming, where racial and ethnic diversity are just one of many diversities incorporated into mainstream programming) to creative diversity policy (‘diversity’ reconceptualised in terms of the ability to produce innovation, originality, excellence in output). For many this shift is a positive development. Multicultural policy tended to ghettoise rather than include, and in light of this, minorities themselves have welcomed the ‘mainstreaming of diversity’. The fact is, due to self-regulated quotas more minorities appear on television more than ever, even on prime time.

But once again, quantity does not equal quality. While we see more minorities on screen this is often in incidental roles. The reality TV formats which dominate schedules rely on having a variety of social tropes and its in this context that racial/ethnic variety becomes an attribute. The key point is that while we may see more black faces on TV, how much do we learn about actual black experiences? Ofcom reports2 that the majority of minorities are dissatisfied with the way that they appear on screen. The problem with current debates on diversity and PSB is that it is focused mostly on training initiatives (placing the problem on black and Asian folk) and increasing the number of minorities in workforce. Yet less is said about strategies that will improve the quality of representation.

My own research has shown that employing more people of colour won’t necessarily improve the representation of minorities. Not least since they will be working within a high pressured, highly commercial environment, with its emphasis on ratings or generating ‘noise’ that places constraints on their ability to tell the stories that they want to tell. These stifling conditions might even steer them into reproducing racial tropes; employing common-held assumptions about race are more likely to see productions through to broadcast rather than those producing more challenging narratives. In addition, increasing participation from people of colour is often based on an assumption that they will then work on minority-orientated programming. The problem of ‘pigeon-holing’ was a problem that many of my respondents expressed during my research.

In light of these challenges, my own approach advocates changes to PSB which focuses on how better to open up representational practices. This includes committing to a remit that is focused on covering different aspects of minority experience alongside a commitment to presenting them to the mainstream, i.e. at prime time, on the main channels. It entails forms of regulation and management that protects producers/commissioners from market pressures, allowing them to take risks. It recognises also that commercial channels are capable of producing excellent forms of programming on racial and ethnic experience (I am thinking of streaming services and how the emphasis on subscriptions rather than ratings has enabled certain types of risk taking), and as such broadcasters should be exhorted, whether by regulators or advocacy groups, to facilitate the work of non-white filmmakers on the basis that it can be profitable as well as culturally enriching. After all, one of the paradoxes of the cultural industries is how while it tends towards standardisation, bureaucratisation and rationalisation, especially in commercial environments, audiences fundamentally demand originality, novelty and difference. This is where non-white filmmakers can thrive.

Theoretically-speaking, my approach draws from Nancy Fraser’s notion of subaltern public spheres, and calls for a multifaceted approach that employs multicultural policy, which recognises race and racism as a structural force that needs dismantling, combined with the mainstreaming strategies of cultural diversity policies so that minorities don’t feel ghettoised. Georgina Born’s own work is helpful here when she proposes a model for PSB and cultural diversity based on different layers of inclusion and facilitation, including 1) a space where the majority is committed to hosting divergent and contesting minority perspectives, 2) a space where the minority speaks both to the majority and to other minorities where PBS acts as a theatre/forum where cultural diversity is worked out, displayed and represented and intercultural exchange is mounted, and 3) a space where minority speaks to minority (intracultural communication), which, far from parochial, have the potential to contribute to the ‘mainstream’ public sphere. A set of overlapping spheres such as this is the best way to ensure that the full range of minority experience – its pains, its beauty, its traditions, its innovations, its pasts, its futures – is captured.

To reiterate, a new PSB approach to multiculture needs to focus on not just increasing the numbers of minorities in the workforce, but creating the conditions of production that allow them to flourish. As such I am encouraged that the report from the Puttnam Enquiry articulates two strategies that readdresses the ‘problem’ of diversity, one that focuses on increasing investment following Lenny Henry’s call for a large pool of ring-fenced money specifically for minorities, and second, and more significantly in my view, building a culture of production that supports ‘innovation, experiment, risk-taking and the right to fail, conditions that arguably undersupplied in the current PSM ecology’3. What makes precisely PSB unique is precisely this condition of the right to fail. But such strategies would not be a failure if they result in programming that represents minority experiences that challenge racist, ant-immigrant sentiment, in the process producing new progressive forms of multiculture and Britishness itself.


1 Puttnam Enquiry. 2016. A Future For Public Service Television: Content And Platforms In A Digital World – A report on the future of public service television in the UK in the 21st century. Goldsmiths, University of London, p104

2 Ofcom. June, 2015. PSB Diversity Research Summary, pp. 7,9, 15, 20, 34.

3 Puttnam Enquiry, p112

Posted by Einar Thorsen