Historian, broadcaster and writer, David Olusoga OBE, used his MacTaggart Lecture at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival to take aim at a TV industry culture that isolates and disempowers BAME people.

Olusoga gave a stark warning to the television industry in his address that it should share power with those who have been marginalised or risk losing the entire next generation of viewers.

In the first MacTaggart lecture as a digital address, delivered from Bristol City Hall, Olusoga said: “Looking back at MacTaggart lectures of the past it’s almost compulsory, in the first couple of minutes, to say something along the lines of ‘this has been a year of incredible change’, or ‘we stand on the threshold of a new era for our industry’. But in 2020 I think claims like that have never been truer. 2020 has been a historic year, a year of terrifying and bewildering events that have affected all our lives. And the impact of the past six months on our industry has been serious and troubling… But the other seismic event of 2020 of course was the brutal murder of George Floyd and the global movement that has coalesced under the banner of Black Lives Matter. These events – the pandemic and Floyd’s murder created a chain reaction. A new virus made manifest and obvious some of the oldest and deepest inequalities in our society… In the spirit of Black Lives Matters, in the spirit of an age in which millions of people have come to recognise that silence on these issues is a form of complicity, I am going to say what I really think about race, racism and our industry. And I’ll discover if, at the end of it, I still have a career.”

Olusoga said his 20 years in the industry had provided success ‘making TV and telling stories – the best job in the world’ but has also caused great despair, depression and resulted in him almost leaving the industry altogether: “I have been given amazing opportunities, but I’ve also been patronised and marginalised. I’ve been in high demand, but I’ve also been on the scrap heap. I’ve felt inspired, and convinced that our job – making TV and telling stories – is the best job in the world. But at other times I’ve been so crushed by my experiences, so isolated and disempowered by the culture that exists within our industry, that I have had to seek medical treatment for clinical depression. I’ve come close to leaving this industry on several occasions. And I know many black and brown people who have similar stories to tell.”

In the lecture Olusoga shared stories and experiences of what it is to be a person of colour in a predominantly white industry; the disparity of the audience demographics compared to those who make and commission the shows and how marginalisation is leading to people of colour leaving the industry, losing vital talent and voices. He said: “For as long as I’ve been in this industry we collectively have been aware that the people who make and commission the UK’s television programmes do not look like the population at large – our audience. In 2016 Directors UK reported that just 2.22% of TV programmes were made by B.A.M.E. directors. And of the directors on their dataset just 3.6% were B.A.M.E., which means even though the industry has long claimed to be crying out for black producers and directors, many of those already in the industry were then not getting work. Then there is the problem of retention. In their Submission to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Film and TV Charity reported that even before the current crisis 73% of BAME production talent had considering leaving the TV industry.”

He went on to say: “I stand here today not as one of the TV industry success stories, but as a survivor. I am one of the last men standing of TV’s lost generation. The generation of black and brown people who entered this industry fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years ago with high hopes. I’m a survivor of a culture within TV that failed that generation. I’m here because a handful of people used their power and their privilege to help me.”

Jon Creamer