Three-D Issue 33: British film & television’s diversity problem

Shelley Cobb
University of Southampton

In this moment when key players and activists in the UK film industry appear to agree on the importance and value of fair representation of different social groups on screen, as well as in filmmaking and television production, diversity as an idea and ideal is wearing thin in places and not engendering real or lasting change. A forthcoming special edition of The Journal of British Cinema and Television titled ‘Diversity in British Cinema and Television’ (January 2020), investigates the problems, limits and origins of diversity policy and rhetoric. Co-edited by Clive Nwonka, Jack Newsinger, and me, the edition includes six articles tackle everything from New Labour’s formation of creative industry policy to contemporary policy tweaks that attempt to fix the apparent lack of ‘diverse’ persons in the industries’ pipelines to the wider imposition of neoliberal economic and cultural policy. Our contributors interrogate how diversity rhetoric, in the context of government austerity policy and the hostile environment can participate in the deflection of the racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and discrimination of LGBTQ in the British film and television industries. 

There are three key areas where creative media production in the UK needs reform and a reinvigoration of public democracy: First, there is debate about whether diversity targets are legal under the 2010 Equality Act (all agree that quotas are illegal), with many lawyers arguing that the law prohibits affirmative action of any kind. Whatever the make-up of the next parliament, we must press for a change to the law so that more institutions and companies can be more proactive in tackling equality and diversity in the workforce. Second, many public bodies are only partial contributors to film and TV productions alongside money from private financiers, Hollywood studios and production companies, meaning that productions funded with public money are often subject to the self-interested multinational companies who invested more. The public needs more awareness of how British screen productions may not be creatively independent when not financially independent from corporate interests, and that the ‘business case’ for diversity isn’t enough incentive. Third and finally, all of the above is exacerbated by UK tax relief for film and television productions that effectively allows foreign companies to be relieved of all UK taxes. This means the British public is often subsidizing Hollywood productions. Recently tax credits have been discussed as possible levers for wider diversity targets in a campaign led by Sir Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder who have presented their proposal to Downing Street and parliament, but they are unlikely to be implemented by a Conservative government.

Government can do a lot to change the entrenched homogeneity of the creative media sector, but independent bodies and institutions, as well as individual players in the industry, will continue to perpetuate (wittingly or not) inequality and a lack of diversity. Media scholars’ critique of diversity and equality policy and rhetoric and our continuing challenge to new modes of neoliberal rationale will still be necessary no matter who is in power on December 13th.

Shelley Cobb is Principal Investigator of Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK and associate professor of Film at the University of Southampton. She has recently published research on gender, diversity and data in the film industry and is currently writing about the role of celebrities in media discourses about equality and diversity.

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