Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Diversity and the ethnic desert

We need to open the door to real diversity, writes Bonnie Greer

Recently I joined Tottenham MP, David Lammy, along with two senior media professionals, in a meeting with representatives of Question Time.

We wanted to talk about the flagship political programme’s lack of diversity. We were mainly concerned about: the dearth of black women; non-Muslim members of the Asian community; and members of the Chinese-British community.

It just seemed to us that Question Time thought that all black women are Diane Abbott and increasingly all black men are Chuka Umunna (Diane, by the way, is appalled by the situation and gave us her blessing. And I know Chuka would feel the same).

Any guest on most political programmes is asked and you say either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Bookers (those who make contact to see if you can do it) usually go with people they know. Political television may look easy but it’s not. Question Time (which is shot ‘as live’, that is, in real time and then broadcast-taped) is especially hard. You have no idea what the questions are and the formidable David Dimbleby calls on who he wants when he wants. That’s his job. You have to answer. Quickly. So you have to listen very hard; be spontaneous, but of course not too spontaneous. That is why it’s taped. In case something has to be bleeped out.

Stay on top of the news; don’t get nervous; answer quickly and succinctly, and that’s the gig. Hard to believe that there’s a dearth of black women, for example, who can’t do that. But that’s what you’d think by looking at the show.

It took a long time to get this meeting, which I find interesting since David is not only a senior MP, long-time equalities champ, and author – he was a former culture minister. But maybe they were too busy planning the new season. I can understand that. We were glad it finally happened.

At our meeting, the Question Time reps could not quite seem to grasp our problem. And while they were very accommodating, friendly, helpful and genuinely listened, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been here before: in the late-1980s to mid-1990s. That’s a long, long, long time ago in the media. The equivalent of ‘When Dinosaurs Walked The Earth.’

Two things stuck out to me during the meeting besides that feeling of deja vu. One: the phrase, ‘… but the numbers …’ This was explained to us as meaning ‘the ratings’; audience reach; televisual bums-on-seats; et cetera.

Now all of us on the other side of that meeting are television or radio pros. I think that they knew that. So I guess what they were telling us was: ‘This show is a success, so …’ The other thing that stuck out was: the Question Time reps couldn’t quite see our problem. They couldn’t see that lack of diversity was their problem – and the BBC’s problem, too.

I’ve recently discovered what a lack of diversity can do. It can create a strange phenomenon that I call ‘ethnic desertification’.

An example: I’m stopped on the street from time to time (I live in the West End of London) and told how much my ‘performances’ on Question Time are enjoyed. This happens with 75 per cent of the black people who talk to me. This is very strange because according to David Lammy’s research I haven’t been on Question Time for a long time.

That’s not the point. This is: the people who stopped me thought that I had been on very recently. This happened so often that I got curious and decided to ask around. I talked to other – mainly black broadcasters, familiar faces – and asked if they, too, had encountered this strange anomaly.

And they had! Quite a few are told that they are enjoyed on radio, TV; their columns are read assiduously. None of this stuff exists. It’s a bit like that scene in Lawrence of Arabia when Lawrence thinks he sees the sea, but it’s only a mirage. Lawrence’s mirage was not only a literal phenomenon, but indicative of his physical need for water.

I think that a silent ethnic mirage-effect could be happening. Because of the dearth of representation.

We human beings need to see and hear ourselves. If we don’t, sometimes we invent.

What we see on our screens and hear on our radios is an increasingly small bunch of folks, a kind of chumocracy. The French call this ‘copinage’, or mates working with mates. This copinage is becoming what we consider our political press and commentariat. And with this generation of professional politicians, namely, largely Oxbridge PPEs; or former Spads – no wonder there’s a stampede in the direction of ‘real world’ politicians on the left and the right.

Frankly, I don’t like the term BAME or BME much. I know what it means and I use it because it’s easy. It allows me to carry on with the main conversation. But it’s policy-wonk talk. It does not and cannot describe a growing and powerful and complex demographic. Ethnic millennials, for example, are diverse within themselves. We have to give them something in our politics and our political programmes which reflects that. Labour made a major mistake during the general election in not reaching out to them; empowering them.

I recently appeared on Sky News. The anchors were Gillian Joseph and Gamal Fahnbulleh. And, breaking news: we weren’t talking about race or ‘problems’. We were just three people Sky News thought were the best ones to do what we were doing. And anyone else could have done it too.

That seems to me a lot of what diversity means.

Diversity doesn’t just mean ethnicity. It also means disability, age, transgender. It means the nations and regions. It means white males who are not The Establishment, guys who have lived experience. Diversity makes them possible, too, gives them a voice, too. And they don’t have to be Nigel Farage nor George Galloway.

Really opening the door to diversity erases cosmetic do-overs; tick-the-box reactions. Diversity creates inclusion. Inclusion aids democracy itself.

African American millennials, for example, are largely supporting Bernie Sanders. To say I completely get that would be patronising. But way back in 1968, I supported an older white, male anti-establishment candidate (Senator Eugene McCarthy) when I was a card-carrying member of the Black Students’ Union. I think that the Sanders phenomenon might partly be about this: the need to not be ‘assumed’. Categorised.

Diversity can bring us this kind of insight; make our political programmes better informed, wiser.

Let’s see what diversity can do, what it can tell us that we might not know; see how it can expand our knowledge; deepen our understanding. We need people who can be a part of making us all feel like the citizens we all are.

As I wrote this, Boris Johnson was shuffling into No 10 for a meeting with David Cameron about the upcoming referendum.

I suspect that it’s always been about Boris and Dave within the Conservative party and the moderate right. You can see something of it in that Bullingdon Club photo. There’s a young Cameron, posing like a pound-shop first Duke of Wellington, his face tilted up slightly into the superior distance. Boris sits on the steps below, lunging a bit forward, his face intently staring into the lens. Quite clearly A Man With A Plan.

Diversity has a plan, too.

It’s called: real world.


Bonnie Greer is a playwright and author


Photo: BBC Question Time

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Bonnie Greer

is a playwright and author

1 comment

  • ‘Nations and regions.’ I assume that means Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the nations while England is the ‘regions’. Let’s bury this divisive term. I thought Labour was about unity and solidarity, while the Tories played the divide-and-rule game. It seems I was only half right. Get it into your bigoted skull – England is a nation, just like the other parts of this kingdom.

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