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Channel 4’s 'Black Takeover Day': A bold move or tokenism?

03 Sep 2020  |  Stephen Arnell 
Channel 4’s 'Black Takeover Day':  A bold move or tokenism?

Pictured: comedian Mo Gilligan, who will host a one-off return of The Big Breakfast

Broadcast consultant Stephen Arnell worries that Channel 4 has struck the wrong chord with its plans for a Black Takeover Day

I should preface this piece by saying that as a middle-aged white male I fully acknowledge that my opinion is possibly not one people think especially relevant to this issue, although on the other hand, Channel 4’s director of programmes Ian Katz and deputy Kelly Webb-Lamb are in a similar position.

Firstly, I applaud the timely actions of UK broadcasters to acknowledge the justified outrage at events in the U.S surrounding the murder of George Floyd, and closer to home, the continuing and often overlooked inequalities faced by multicultural communities in the UK – not least the shocking Covid-19 disparity in deaths.

Channel 4’s Black Takeover Day for example is part of a wider effort by Katz to bring diversity to our screens, but I admit to having misgivings about this particular idea.

To some, especially those in the right-of-centre press, the title 'Black Takeover Day' will set them off with the usual harrumphing, indignation and calls for Channel 4 to be sold off.

Channel 4 may like ginning up Daily Mail outrage, but it could also be interpreted as egging it on for the sake of coverage, which belittles the serious aim of the exercise - to amplify the conversations around representation and diversity.

The broadcaster has form with what some could call a juvenile desire to shock - witness the abandoned ‘Wank Week’ and the channel’s recent slew of sex-themed shows such as Mums Make Porn, Naked Beach, Vaginas, Gay Pets and the upcoming porn industry drama Adult Materials.

Other linear broadcasters seem to be taking diversity more seriously.

ITV for example, despite its commercial remit to appeal to the masses, rather than niche audiences has announced the period drama series The Confessions of Frannie Langton, and this October’s Black History Month, alongside the recent Unsaid drama shorts.

Ben Frow at Channel 5 with Viacom’s ‘no diversity, no commission’ policy and Sky with its ‘racial injustice pledge’ have also both made strong, mature commitments to increasing diversity, although there’s still much to be done, especially in the higher levels of management.

And then there's the BBC.

The Corporation’s unerring ability to step on its own message was confirmed once again last month with the inexplicable decision to allow the transmission of a racial slur on Points West and the BBC News Channel on 29 July.

The BBC compounded the problem when it at first stood by the broadcast, before the inevitable climb down.

Not a great note for Tony Hall to be retiring on. Hopefully incoming director-general Tim Davie will be more fleet of foot, but one has to note that this privately educated, ex-PepsiCo marketer was formerly deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party in the 1990s, which to some may denote a certain worldview. Although in fairness, this was some time ago.

Putting the Points West/BBC News Channel controversy to one side, the BBC has shown a renewed commitment to diversity in the light of the racial injustices Stateside and in the UK, which have been headline news over recent months.

Witness BBC2 controller Patrick Holland’s welcome but not entirely full-throated call for his successor to be Black or Asian British, this summer’s Creative Diversity Commitment and last year’s appointment of June Sarpong as the BBC's first director of creative diversity.

Director of programmes Katz’s understandable desire for Channel 4 to stand out in a crowded marketplace and draw disproportionate (relative to channel budgets) attention to itself may turn out to be a double-edged sword.

There's already a Talk Radio YouTube video doing the rounds that asks 'Is Channel 4's "Black Takeover Day" racist?'

To some, Black Takeover Day could also smack of condescension if seen minus the overall context of Channel 4’s much broader initiative – one day and that’s it then? Job done?

Although it may not grab as many headlines, a more organic, considered approach would probably benefit Channel 4 - and give less ammunition to critics.

Did you know for example that to ensure the Takeover project drives significant and sustainable change within the industry off-screen, Channel 4 has asked The Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity to help it shape ambitious and meaningful off-screen commitments to leave a lasting legacy? No, because Channel 4 is keeping that part of its messaging quiet.

Coming off the broadcaster’s rather tin-eared crowing over audience figures at the height of the pandemic, there does appear to be a disconnect in some areas of Channel 4’s communications strategy.

In the case of black British communities, Channel 4 would be best advised to steer away from the stunts and give the matter more serious consideration.

 

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