The BBC’s latest pay data reveals that, after last year’s gender pay scandal and a campaign spearheaded by presenter Carrie Gracie, it has started treating its female presenters more fairly. Gracie won a legal dispute in 2018 against the broadcaster after discovering she was being paid less than her male counterparts.
Of its 75 highest-earning hosts, nearly half are now women (although they do still tend to earn less than the men). But if the gender pay gap was a scandal, the ethnic pay gap is a disgrace.
Ethnic minorities are very well represented at the BBC as cleaners and canteen staff; less so as top earning stars. Minorities within minorities, like British Muslims, are even more invisible. Shunned by their national broadcaster, this often leaves them with no choice but to self-produce their own projects, as I have. In 2001, not long after I’d graduated, the BBC Director General described his organisation as “hideously white.” Eighteen years later, nothing has changed, certainly not at the top.
This matters because the media in general – and public broadcasters in particular – have an important mission. In an increasingly fragmented, divided and sometimes even hostile culture, shared cultural experiences through the media are one of the few unifying forces.
This is perhaps the ultimate purpose of national broadcasters: to give a nation or region a singular voice and identity.
There is a further obligation for public broadcasters to be representative because of their public funding. TV licenses and similar payments that are effectively obligatory taxes mean that many citizens are in a situation where they are forced to pay the salaries of a broadcaster’s management and staff, while they refuse to recognise or fairly represent many of those who pay their wages.
“Representation” is perhaps overused as a goal in these conversations. This creates the impression that all that is required is a tokenistic gesture on screen. However, just as important than including Muslims and other minorities on screen – if not more – is the work behind the camera. The producers that make the programmes and the commissioners who decide which programmes get made are in fact much more important to change than just the on-screen talent.
There are many instances at the BBC and other broadcasters of “diverse” talent being brought in on-screen and given a script to work from, to the neglect of the decision-making roles behind the camera. Many BBC news anchors, for example, are from ethnic minorities, giving the broadcaster the appearance of diversity whilst in reality they are reading verbatim from a teleprompter. By contrast, presenter-led documentaries where the host is also a consulting producer (and hence shapes the story itself) are more likely to be the preserve of establishment figures like Louis Theroux. All too often, new faces and names are used to serve old agendas and biases.
And those biases come at a cost. This isn’t just about what is ethically right, it is about what is creatively strong and commercially viable. Producers from different backgrounds will have access and ideas that others simply won’t.
For example, my 2017 feature film ‘One Day in The Haram,’ involved protracted negotiations with the Saudi authorities to gain unprecedented and unrestricted access to the Great Mosque in Mecca. Aside from the obvious barrier that non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca, someone with a different background would have found it more difficult to gain the trust – let alone the filming permits – required for a production of that type.
My background and life experience has again been an advantage with my latest project, ‘One Night in Al Aqsa,’ which meant working closely with the Jordanian trust that administers the Al Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – in Jerusalem.
As well as building trust and providing access, minorities including Muslims can open up huge global commercial opportunities to national broadcasters. ‘One Day in the Haram’ was screened and distributed around the world and has been watched by over 30 million paying viewers. At a time when the BBC and other public broadcasters are facing funding pressures, preserving the status quo is a luxury they can no longer afford.
With their talents and projects side-lined, it is no surprise that many of the brightest Muslim broadcasters and producers in the UK, rather than stay with their national public broadcaster, go to foreign-owned competition, like Al Jazeera, TRT or even RT.
The only other option for those who want their ideas and ambitions to be recognised and nurtured is to self-produce, which is the route I eventually decided to take. It’s been a long and difficult journey but with the choice between career stagnation on the one hand, and forging our own paths on the other, it is a journey that many Muslim filmmakers will continue to make.
_Abrar Hussain is Creative Director of Red Face Films. ‘One Night in Al Aqsa’ premieres at Vue Cinema Leicester Square on 2 August