Aspirations vs. the reality of diversity progression in media production proved to be an indispensable conversation at Soho Media Club and Outernet London’s collaborative event, BE YOU Festival which took place in London this month, reports Sheryl Hickey.
The BE YOU Festival covered challenges and successes in D&I across the industry, through breakaway sessions, new talent advice, tech sessions, Q&A’s, wellbeing workshops, and a presentation on the IBC Accelerators from an R&D perspective: How Inclusion & Accessibility come first in Innovation.
Audiences and speakers also debated the cardinal topic of generative AI, is it an existential threat to creativity and jobs, or just a novel plaything? In a talk on AI bias in data sets – i.e. AI being a reflection of our own bias in terms of our own images, proved that we are still a long way off an accurate reflection of society. Sarah Beranek, Automatic Speech Recognition/Machine Learning Scientist at AppTek advised it’s time to “embrace and try out AI – it’s not going away – we’re just at the beginning.”
Sir Lenny Henry set the scene for discussion on the ways in which media production has attempted to be progressive and where roadblocks have appeared. The topic was expanded throughout the day when panel chats and audience questions – from a mix of over 200 industry heavyweights and newcomers - circled around accessibility on sets, tech for change, upskilling, and taking a chance on someone new - someone who ‘doesn’t look like you.’
Sir Lenny Henry – Voicing Change through Generations
The day led with a fireside chat with Sir Lenny Henry, who emphasised why every production set needs to be inclusive, both in front and behind the camera. Henry also addressed why everyone in the industry is responsible to springboard towards change, and to make that change happen is by “being aware, and being curious.”
“There has to be a moment when you’re brave… It’s scary to speak out. But it does release you and it does empower you. And that’s when everybody goes, ‘oh thank god somebody said something.’”
Henry was joined by actress and content creator Fauzia Boakye, who raised the point that while sets are striving for more diversity, the issue remains that within executive roles this is still not visible: “There’s a lot to change but what people don’t realise is that just because there’s more people of colour in entry roles, our voices are not getting filtered to the top because no one (at the top) can understand our voices. Once we change the top then diversity is happening in the industry.”
Henry agreed, referring to a pivot point in his career - when he started his own production company, Crucial Films: “If you want something to happen and you’re in charge, you can just say, ‘can we have a more diverse set, please?’ And it’ll happen,” he confirmed that change happens when you “utilise the voices of authority from the top.”
Upskilling the Gap: Moving up
The point was echoed later with speakers from major broadcasters, in a panel discussion: Authentic, Inclusive Representation Matters - Are We Nearly There Yet? Managing Director of Douglas Road Productions Angela Ferreira expressed her irritation with schemes only focussing on getting a foot in the industry door, instead of helping mid-role talent progress:
“Once you get in, is that the end of your career? It shouldn’t be - you should be able to move up… I think there is a place for entry level schemes but it’s not the be all and end all of our industry. I think that people are understanding that a lot more.”
She reiterated that the decisions on diversity and upskilling “have got to come from the top. Because I can’t make that change. What I can do is within my own productions… And the truth of the matter is that anybody who’s in charge - my co-speakers will agree - that you are not going to hire anybody who’s not going to make you look good, and who can’t do the job - that’s just impossible,” going on to mention organisations such as Mama Youth and Wonder Women who aim to upskill – in levels other than just entry.
Commissioning Editor, Youth Strand, News & Current Affairs Channel 4 told the audience that it’s about leading by example, such as adapting the interview process to welcome people with disabilities, “How you recruit – it makes your content better.”
Sir Lenny Henry warned how sticking to the people you’ve worked with before can stagnate diversity: “Go beyond your little black book. Give someone else a chance or an opportunity. Take a ‘risk’ with newcomers to the industry.”
Emma Hindley, Lead Commissioning Editor of BBC Storyville, added on the same note that it’s also worth “remembering to pull everyone else up with you.”
Counting on Allies - When to Speak Out
Presenter Muki Kulhan, Chief Innovation Officer, XR Producer & Creative Technologist called upon the need for allies, “to help future proof our industry,” which sparked shared concerns about when is the right time to act, to speak out against a lack of inclusivity.
Speakers and audience members throughout the event agreed that the key for calling out lack of diversity in the industry, was finding support from allies and above all, trusting your instincts.
“There are really brilliant people out there. And there’s lots of reasons as to why they’re not (working in various roles). Mostly it’s because they’re not being given the support that they need in order to do their jobs.”
As Sir Lenny Henry put it: “There has to be a moment where you’re brave – overcome the shyness… It’s scary to speak out. But it does release you and it does empower you. You’ve just got to know that if your instinct says ‘this is wrong,’ you’ve got to say, because it’s not just you it’s for everybody behind you. And that’s when everybody goes, ‘oh thank god somebody said something.”
Overlooked Talent and Disability
As focus for the festival shone light on all corners of diversity, accessibility and disabled representation was also high on the agenda.
The panel discussion, Seeing Ability in Disability, asked the question, does our industry offer enough opportunity for the deaf and disabled community? Speakers answered that to ensure the presence of accessible postproduction facilities, companies need to factor in the budget from the get go. James Rogan, Creative Director, Rogan Productions commented that the issue with ability-diversity in production was often down to “high costs and low options for accessible studios.”
Bryony Arnold, Drama Producer & Co-Director, Deaf and Disabled People in TV (DDPTV), which currently has 1,800 members purely from the deaf and disabled community, highlighted the immediate need for these facilities because these members are “all wanting to work.” She advised on checking out DDPTV, the extensive disabled community on Twitter, and following guidelines from the TV Access Project, which ensure the full inclusion of Deaf, Disabled and/or Neurodivergent Talent in the industry.
“There are really brilliant people out there. And there’s lots of reasons as to why they’re not (working in various roles). Mostly it’s because they’re not being given the support that they need in order to do their jobs. And sometimes that can be really, really small things such as extra time or flexible working hours. Or it could be simple things like having an interpreter, or for me having ramps and having the accessible toilets,” she shared, being a wheelchair user all her life.
James Rogan spoke of the hurdles in the nature of recruitment for productions and why it’s essential to “widen your pool… I think it’s a real challenge, the difficulty that we have often is that you work so hard to get the commission and then at the moment that it’s commissioned, the commissioner says, ‘Okay, who’s going to do it?’ and they’ve got a checklist in their head of what they want. And so you suddenly feel that the whole commission is vulnerable if he makes the wrong decision. And that promotes a rush - kind of knee jerk hiring, and also it perpetuates the sort of cycle of non-inclusivity as a result. I would say that the work that we have to do in order to get past that is quite considerable.”
The solution? For individuals to speak to diversity and inclusion officers, to give opportunities to everyone - outside of your usual go-to list, to research those organisations that offer guidance. It just takes forward thinking, as Arnold pointed out, “It can pay huge dividends in the long run because you’re going to be creating incredible stories that haven’t been seen before.”
“Intersectionality – it’s crucial in every spectrum”, she concluded.