Occasionally, cool air blows through Westminster and wakes it up. As with today’s appearance before MPs of Lenny Henry and the former and present, respectively, black senior BBC executives Patrick Younge and Marcus Ryder, talking about making broadcasting more diverse. And gracefully but decisively winning their argument.
The BBC director-general Lord Hall’s new £2.1m diversity training and development fund had the “greatest of intentions”, said a bespectacled, bearded and professorial-looking Henry. But, with “massive respect”, it was an initiative – one of 29 already launched by the BBC – “based on an old model that doesn’t work”. Henry, who got his own “break” on the talent show New Faces, added: “Idris Elba didn’t need training to be a great actor. He just needed a break.”
Enter the “Henry Plan”. This would emulate for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) productions the “extraordinary” success of a 2007 BBC project to increase programme-making in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To qualify, a programme would meet two of three requirements: 50 per cent BME production staff by cost; 30 per cent BME control of the production company; and 50 per cent BME on-screen talent. This was not about “Chinese people making a documentary about the Chinese new year every now and then”, he said. It could apply to anything “from Dr Who to Question Time” and would ensure “that the best talent is in front of and behind our cameras”.
Inevitably there was Tory scepticism. Wouldn’t this mean “you won’t get the best programmes”, asked the Culture Committee chairman, John Whittingdale. But that hadn’t happened with the nations, said the persuasive Younge. BBC Northern Ireland had failed to produce its quota of commissionable programmes and the money had been rolled over. Younge disclosed that, industry-wide, there were just five non-white programme commissioners. He recalled an online dialogue with a newspaperman about a London Live black comedy show he had enjoyed, including an Emile Heskey gag about a man failing to score with girls. “Who is Emile Heskey?” the newspaperman had asked. Younge added: “If you don’t know who Emile Heskey is, you’re not going to get that joke… There are lots of parts of the black and Asian experience which are just not known to the commissioning cadre as it is now.”
There were naturally Henry moments. “Are you from Liverpool?” he asked, in feigned surprise, during a question from Labour’s unmistakably scouse Steve Rotherham. And when Younge asked why, in the “fantastic” Idris Elba series Luther, the hero had “no black friends”, Henry repeated, mock solemn: “Who are his friends? Why doesn’t he go to meet his dad in Nando’s?”
But he was mostly serious, telling MPs that to “have a pluralistic narrative for this fantastic country of ours, then something needs to change with the people who pick and decide which narratives get told”. And, he might have added, who select MPs, all of whom at the hearing happened to be white. As were the journalists covering it.