When the BBC launched Free Speech, a topical debate show giving young people the chance to quiz politicians, they surely needed to look no further for a presenter than Nihal Arthanayake.
Known as DJ Nihal, the broadcaster has progressed seamlessly from Radio 1 presenter to 5 Live and the Asian Network, where he grills Cabinet ministers and hosts phone-in debates on topics ranging from Muslim extremism to the “shame” of Asian women having children before marriage.
The Free Speech role, however, went to Rick Edwards, a choice which did little for the BBC’s expressed target that one in six people (15 per cent) on-air should be from black, Asian and other ethnic minorities backgrounds by next year.
“To be honest, I was angry at the BBC that I didn’t get the chance to do that,” said Nihal, who is a member of Director-General Tony Hall’s working party on diversity. “I’ve done Radio 1 for 12 years so I understand that audience. I host debates on a daily basis on the Asian Network. When I didn’t get that, it’s the first time I’ve really gone ‘that makes no sense to me how they didn’t give me that gig?’ Because I can talk to people from so many different backgrounds.”
If the BBC is inching towards convincing action over diversity, it is in part due to the candid comments of Nihal, 44. A one-time rapper from Essex, who broke through presenting the award-winning Asian Beats show on Radio 1 in 2002, Nihal infuriated his former bosses when he criticised the “silos” on the corporation’s eighth-floor music stations, describing Radio 1 as “all white” and calling 1Xtra “all black”.
Since then Clara Amfo has become the station’s first black female daytime presenter and Yasser, who hosts new, unsigned British-Asian music on the Asian Network has been offered slots covering when Radio 1 regulars are absent. “It can’t just be people on at the middle of the night,” Nihal said. “But Radio 1 is changing. I see more black and Asian production staff coming in. I’m pleased about that.”
“The days of saying ‘we tried to be a bit more diverse but it’s hard’ are over. It’s an economic necessity for any media organisation to show how diverse you are and to show you are representative of a whole plethora of different ideas and experiences. If you’re not going to do that at management level then you need to find someone else who can do it. When I sit in diversity meetings with Tony Hall I know he shares the frustrations but things are creeping forward.” Now Nihal, who is of Sri Lankan descent, is returning to his DJing roots. Sony Music asked him to compile the first compilation by a major label to span the variety of Asian styles from Bollywood and Bhangra to cutting-edge R&B chart hits incorporating Indian musical tropes.
Nihal is proud of The Asian Collection, a 50-track CD which opens with Panjabi MC featuring Jay-Z, and features artists including AR Rahman, Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney, Jay Sean and Missy Elliott. “The Asian community contributes greatly to the arts in this country but musically it has been under-served,” said Nihal. “We think there is a big market for this album which should be the first of many. For the first time ever they are going to sell a CD in the world food aisle at Asda.”
Asian musical breakthroughs haven’t received sufficient credit. “Jay Sean [London singer] knocked Black Eyed Peas off the top of the US Billboard chart. I don’t think that was applauded enough. Asian music isn’t a fad, the Indian diaspora is huge and these sounds spread to millions of people.”
Is 1Xtra, the BBC’s “urban” station, which privileges hip-hop, dance and grime, sufficiently open to Asian music? “There’s still a cultural perception that black people are ‘cool’ but Asians aren’t, that Asians shouldn’t do ‘black music’. 1Xtra has to work a little bit harder to find Asian acts but Asian acts have to prove themselves too.”
He adds: “I don’t think Asian artists take enough risks. Often you have the guy who can sing or dance brilliantly but doesn’t have the whole package, the physique and so on. They need to think of themselves not as ‘the next Jay Sean’ but the next Usher or Michael Jackson. It’s the songs, stupid. You’ve got to be good enough.”
Whatever his occasional frustrations with Radio 1, Nihal is a passionate defender of the service against suggestions that the station could be sold off. “How many British acts get their first break on Radio 1’s specialist shows after 7pm? Commercial stations would not support two young grime MCs like Krept and Konan. All of us at the BBC need to be more robust defending what Radio 1 does. We just have to make sure we’re not just playing Taylor Swift again in daytime and all those big hits.”
“The problem is if you’re 50 or 60, sitting in the House of Commons and went to boarding school and perhaps your youth is too far away to remember, you might not understand the value of Radio 1. Put it in terms of soft power and the export potential of new British music and they get it. I know for a fact that John Whittingdale [Culture Secretary] supports what Radio 1 is doing for new music.”
By his own admission, Nihal is the only BBC presenter who has the “swagger” to attend a board of governors meeting at the Southbank centre, have an on-air chat with rapper Giggs and then debate the funding of counter-extremism think-tank The Quilliam Foundation on the Asian Network.
“They have very little credibility with people in the Muslim community I speak to,” suggested Nihal.
His listeners called the Prime Minister’s recent speech on extremism “finger-pointing” from Western politicians refusing to face up to their role in creating the toxic pool from which Isis fishes for its recruits, through unwise military interventions.
After presenting the BBC’s Sunday Politics in the London region, Nihal, who has fronted the BBC2 Culture Show, sees no reason why the hot seat on Question Time or a role on Newsnight should be out of his reach. “There is a perception that people who used to work on Radio 1 can’t grill politicians. I think I can engage young people in politics and I’ve made a semi-successful transition.” An Asian DJ succeeding David Dimbleby on Question Time? That really would be a breakthrough.
“We don’t want to be just picking from the same pool of Oxbridge, public-school people. I want my kids, aged six and seven, to grow up in a world where it’s normal to see people like me. All we want is for the diversity agenda to become irrelevant.”
The Asian Collection is out on 31 July via Sony Music
FT must assert itself early with new owner
The dispassionate reporting of global takeovers, regardless of the ensuing downsizing and disruption that often follows for those at the sharp end, is the business of the Financial Times.
But consternation over their own futures suddenly consumed staff at the Pink ’Un following confirmation that Pearson had finally offloaded the paper – without the more profitable Economist – to the Japanese firm Nikkei, for £844m.
Nikkei looks like a soft landing for the FT. An employee-owned company led by former journalists, Nikkei owns the world’s largest-selling financial daily and operates a complementary business spanning broadcasting and digital media.
In an email to FT staff, Nikkei promised to invest in the title – reversing Pearson’s previous reluctance – and said it shared the paper’s belief in a “free market economy that is private-sector driven and business-friendly” and a conviction that “government should be limited to an appropriate size”.
Some scribes at the FT, which has backed the Labour Party in the past, may not sign up entirely to that mission statement.
Michael Woodford, the former boss of Olympus ousted for blowing the whistle on fraud at that Japanese company, warned that Nikkei had “acted as the press office for [Olympus]” when the scandal broke and accused the firm of soft-pedalling on reporting Japanese corporate misconduct.
Expect the FT to assert its editorial independence early lest this meeting of East and West results in a culture clash.
BBC looks to its audiences for support
Licence-fee payers will now get their say on the future of the BBC after the Trust launched a public consultation on the corporation’s future through its website.
The BBC is banking on an avalanche of Bake Off and Sherlock viewers signing up to say how much they appreciate the current offering and how little desire they have for existing services to be axed.
Despite the hysterical reaction in some quarters, the idea that the Government wants to stop the BBC making entertainment hits is fanciful. Ministers do want to see more distinctiveness and less copying of commercial formats, however.
Distinctiveness is a disturbing concept for the BBC which, as a result of the licence fee squeeze, is forced to fill schedules outside of prime time with mediocre fare. For every Wolf Hall there is a Hair, the BBC3 crimping show “promoted” from BBC3 to the once highbrow BBC2.
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