UK media tokenistic in its attitude to diversity, says Trevor Phillips

Former broadcaster and politician says TV in particular is ‘self-congratulating’

Trevor Phillips has said diversity in the British media can be generously described as “tokenistic” and that its failures have affected the knife crime debate.

The former broadcaster and politician, who also headed the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said television in particular was “self-congratulating” regarding its diversity drive, while efforts lagged way behind what was being done in the US to tackle the problem.

Phillips said a lack of minority ethnic representation in decision-making roles at broadcasters had diminished the knife crime debate and steered it clumsily away from issues of race.

He said coverage of race either presents black people as the “exotic other” or takes an ironic swing at prejudice and, in efforts to avoid accusations of racism, ends up doing “the opposite”.

Speaking at the Institute for Public Policy Research convention in Oxford, Phillips said progress had been made since he began his career in journalism, but he remained critical of British media companies.

He said:

“Our efforts, I would be generous to describe them as tokenistic. The gap between the self-estimation in this field and its actual reality is probably wider than in any other sector I know. TV particularly thinks of itself as trying really hard, but it hasn’t really begun. At least the bankers know they are useless.”

Phillips said a lack of diversity had led to an industry-wide awkwardness and mishandling of race issues, which filters into news coverage.

“The lack of diversity at the top of the industry has created a very specific thing, particular in the arena of race,” he said. “The broadcast industry completely lacks confidence and that means it does stupid things and makes big mistakes. The coverage of race is really two things: anthropological, or ironic. Let’s try and unsettle the bourgeoisie with people of colour.”

Phillips said the media’s awkwardness in covering race had led to a skewed presentation of knife crime and the demographic factors behind the rise in violence. He said: “No journalist has mentioned race as a factor. It means debate is focused on police numbers. This is about race. This is about people of colour.”

Phillips said knife crime predominantly affected communities with low white populations, and larger refugee populations.

He said Oxford University was not inaccessible, but rather was unappealing to people from minority ethnic backgrounds: “The problem is not that Oxford doesn’t like black students, it’s that black students don’t like Oxford.”

Phillips welcomed the scholarships offered by the grime artist Stormzy, but said they would help “only two kids” out of many.

First Published 18.03.19:

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