Media nepotism is holding back diversity

The creative industries have a worse record on diversity than most of the organisations they rail against, says Sathnam Sanghera.

by Sathnam Sanghera
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2016

I’m not complaining, but I’m not sure I understand why race is suddenly a big story. Some of us having been campaigning on the issue for years, to little response, but nowadays you can’t open a newspaper or watch a news bulletin without reading or hearing about the appalling state of diversity in Silicon Valley, or Beyonce’s civil-rights-inspired performance at the Superbowl, or the side-lining of black actors.

Perhaps news organisations have genuinely had enough of things never changing. Or maybe they have realised, cynically, that race is a subject that routinely generates large numbers of hits. However, there is an awkward contradiction at the heart of it all: the British media, whipping up the storm, has a worse record on diversity than many of the institutions it rails against.

Officially, Britain has eight million ethnic minorities, making up 14% of the population, with some estimates predicting that so-called BAME (black and minority ethnic) communities will account for 20 -30% of Britain by 2051, but a recent report Creative Skillset found that the number of BAME people in the creative media industries actually declined from 7.4% in 2006 to 6.7% in 2009 and just 5.4% in 2012.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations recently found that 93% of people in the PR industry are white, while according to the NCTJ the figure for journalists is 94%. TV is not much better. Steve Hewlett recently wrote in The Guardian that 'truth be told, diversity… especially in relation to people from BAME backgrounds… has been one of television’s dirtiest little secrets for a very long time'.

Why are things so bad? Well, another aspect of the sudden interest in racial representation is that there are suddenly loads of theories around. In recent weeks I have read variously that  diversity in business everywhere isn’t improving because it is left to toothless HR departments , that white men feel alienated by initiatives and never really get on board, and that diversity initiatives are seen as 'liberal' and 'PC'.

The authors of 'Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference' added that 'more often than not, the person appointed head of diversity in an organisation comes from a . . . historically disadvantaged group' because a member of one of these groups 'will presumably be most passionate and most motivated to change things', but they are 'also likely to have less power or technical knowledge to do so, because of . . . inequalities already inherent in the system'.

Very little of which applies to the media, where HR departments traditionally have little sway, liberals dominate and heads of diversity don’t really exist. So why does it remain stuck in the mid 20th century? Well, my theory is simple: nepotism. Media organisations have for decades recruited from a pool of work experience people working in offices for free, and, unfortunately, this free labour invariably comes from the friends and offspring of individuals who already have contacts in media. No one else stands much of a chance.

Which is why, Creative Access, the media charity I chair, and which is jointly funded by HM Government and the media sector, was set up by talent agent Michael Foster. It arranges paid internships for students from minority ethnic backgrounds in more than 200 different companies, from HarperCollins to the National Theatre and The Daily Mail, enabling hundreds of students, the majority of whom are also state-school educated, to get their foot in the door. And there was an important moment in our three-year story yesterday evening: it was announced, during an event at Google, that we have now placed 500 young people in six month or year-long internships.

Our interns’ stories not only show how they have the power to change the face of the media, but how the media faces up to certain stories. There is Sabbiyah Pervez, a Hijab-wearing practicing Muslim and mother of two, for instance, who was selected as a Creative Access intern to train with the BBC team in Leeds. And our 500th intern, Hila Mayvand, who has just begun a six-month internship at TV production company Mentorn Media, and whose parents are from Afghanistan. Though more important than these individual stories is the simple fact that 80% of Creative Access interns have gone on to secure employment at the end of their placements.

There are organisations doing similar work in other sectors across business: website Graduate Fog, for instance, has been campaigning against unpaid internships across industry for some time now. Our experience suggests that they are onto something – that if you give young people half a chance, they will thrive.  

Sathnam Sanghera is chair of Creative Access, a writer for The Times and an MT contributor. 

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