Lenny Henry has announced his plans to lead the public in a mass protest of Parliament at the lack of diversity in British television amid wider calls for a general boycott of the BBC licence fee.
Mr Henry, who has been campaigning for six years for better representation of black and ethnic minority (BAME) people on TV, issued his “call to arms” as he revealed that he has been having private talks with ministers and senior broadcasting figures to address the issue.
Calling on the general public to join his campaign, he said: “There will be a call to arms. Nothing happens without conflict and this is our time to stop moaning to ourselves and to take the argument public.”
The comedian and actor said he had held talks with Ed Vaizey, the Culture minister, and senior broadcasting figures including Lord Hall, the BBC Director General and Peter Fincham, chief executive of ITV, and was hopeful change was imminent. The diversity issue is to be discussed at a key meeting convened by Mr Vaizey for around 50 TV industry figures, including Mr Henry, which is being brought forward to reflect the importance of the matter.
But Mr Henry said he wanted the viewing public to put pressure on politicians to force the pace of change. “All of those people in the audience who watch those shows and complain that there aren’t enough black and Asian (people), and gay and women and people with disabilities and transgender…they need to start lobbying, to start writing letters, they need to start emailing,” he said in an interview with the influential broadcast industry group The TV Collective.
“At some point soon there’s going to be a campaign and we want everybody to get behind it, write letters to parliament, write letters to government, write letters to your MP and say we think it’s time there was a change.”
Mr Henry argues that black and ethnic minority people should be treated by the British TV sector in a similar way to regional minorities such as the Scots and Welsh and given ring-fenced funding for specialist programming.
Simone Pennant, founder of the TV Collective, which has many black and Asian TV workers among its membership, said that if no progress was made on the Henry Plan to improve representation of BAME people in TV, both on and off screen, then those communities should consider boycotting the BBC’s licence fee, if it becomes decriminalised.
She said: “You cannot continue to invest in something you don’t get anything back from. If there’s not something on the table after those talks and Lenny Henry’s paper has not been acted on, the stance we would be taking is to launch a campaign to start boycotting the licence fee. The question is ‘Are we getting value for money?’ – maybe it’s time we stopped paying the licence fee.”
The BBC is already deeply concerned about the financial implications of the proposed decriminalisation of the licence fee, a measure which has cross-party support but is subject to a review.
If groups within the BBC’s audience decide to boycott payment over lack of representation, the broadcaster could face a crisis in funding. “The issue of ethnic diversity is a really hot one in broadcasting at the moment,” said Tim Dams, editor of Televisual magazine. “If the licence fee is decriminalised then the BBC is going to have to work harder to ensure that it does represent every single kind of person, faith and group in the UK to make sure they and their lifestyles are reflected.”
Mr Henry, who made a passionate speech on improving diversity in television at Bafta last month, said he wasn’t advocating non-payment of the licence fee. But he said “it’s a move isn’t it?” and that it was the “prerogative” of individuals to consider such action. “There’s a degree of black and Asian eyeballs that are moving away from terrestrial television. Broadcasters should be worried about that.”
He also said he had been encouraged by his talks with Mr Vaizey and senior broadcast figures and a meeting on the subject planned for July had been fast tracked. “When I met Tony Hall at the BBC he said ‘Let’s talk at the end of April’,” he said. “Tony Hall wants to be seen as leading from the front and the BBC needs to lead from the front because they’re the main game in town. If the BBC decide they are going to do something everybody’s going to follow.”
Last night Mr Vaizey told The Independent: “More must be done to improve the numbers of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds working in film, TV and the arts. Industry leaders need to be more accountable for driving up the numbers employed in their sectors. I met with leading figures from the industry in January to facilitate a discussion on what can be done to break down the barriers that still exist. I look forward to hosting a follow-up roundtable before the summer to see what progress has been made.”