Time Out – 23/30 April 2003

Report Rebecca Taylor Photography Darren Regnier

The Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards were set up six years ago to celebrate cultural diversity in the media. And attitudes have a come a long way since. But have they come far enough?

Ten years have passed since the murder of Stephen Lawrence while he waited for a bus one night in April on a south London street. In the ensuing decade, the nature of the debate about racism in British society has changed irrevocably.

For Bobby Syed (left), founder of the NatWest Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards (EMMAs), the Lawrence murder was a turning point. “It had a phenomenal impact on me. I was saddened by the media focus on the negative representation concerning ethnic minorities, and wanted to create more of a balanced reflection of the contribution we make here,” says Syed, who is launching the month-long festival focusing on diversity in the arts that will run throughout May, prior to the EMMA ceremony.

Syed, who is half Arab and half Pakistani, grew up in Dulwich, down the road from where Lawrence was murdered. He set up the EMMAs in 1997 to celebrate diversity across all aspects of the media. This year finalists include Ms Dynamite, Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Dirty Pretty Things”) and ITN newscaster Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

“When I set up the EMMAs, I found it absurd that minority issues were handled by the mainstream without having enough minorities working within the industry itself. All that EMMA was about was creating role models. It was the only way to take on the conservative media industry on its own terms,” says Syed.

So, has anything changed in the way the media handles race issues since then? In the wake of the Macpherson report on institutional racism that followed the Lawrence murder, in 2000, the major broadcasters set up The Cultural Diversity Network to tackle ethnic minority representation both on and off screen. But a report by the Broadcasting Standards Commission in November 2002 found that while the proportion of programmes on the five channels containing people from ethnic minority groups had increased, it was largely confined to black African-Caribbean representation. According to the survey, the portrayal of people from the Indian subcontinent has not improved. It also found that those within the industry still considered achieving diversity in the workplace the biggest challenge the broadcasters were facing. These conclusions are supported by the latest figures from Skillset, the skills council for broadcast film and video media, which show that in London, although ethnic minorities make up nearly a quarter of the working population, they account for only 8.6 per cent of employees and 7.3 per cent of free lancers in the audio-visual industry. According to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) print journalism lags even further behind.

While household names such as Trevor McDonald, Ali G, Rageh Omaar and ‘The Kumars at No. 42’ are proof that we have moved on from the sort of ‘Mind Your Language’ stereotypes of the past, there is clearly still a long way to go.

‘No one can doubt there is better representation than there was 30 years ago on TV and film,’ says Kanya King, founder of the MOBOs. ‘But those changes are few and far between.’ Following on from the success of the MOBO music awards, King will launch her latest venture, MOBO Screen, later this year. Apart from aiming to provide more opportunities for diversity in film and TV, the award is an attempt to counteract the fact that UK film talent (such as Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Jimi Mistry) is forced to work overseas to gain industry recognition.

‘Awards such as the EMMAs and the MOBOs highlight the ethnic minority contribution to the British culture and economy,’ says Denis Fernando from the National Assembly Against Racism. ‘They are the best way to attack stereotypes, especially in the present climate, where things like rap music are blamed for gun crime.’

The EMMA and MOBO awards provide role models and celebrate diversity at the top end of the spectrum, but what is being done to encourage entry into the industry at the roots?

One of the most successful initiatives has come from within the industry itself. Set up in 2001, the Skillset Millennium Awards offer funding and BBC training for up to 40 individuals from ethnic minorities to develop their own media projects. Media experience is not necessary, but applicants must propose ideas that will serve their community. Winners have 12 months to develop their projects before they are showcased to an audience of top industry figures. The first intakes of award winners have already gone on to pursue careers in web production, film-making and news journalism.

But ultimately, any real change must be implemented by those at the decision-making end of media organisations. ‘I can’t see white executives employing Muslims in any great number,’ says Syed, while attending the CRE’s Race in the Media Awards held this month (in which Time Out won Best Consumer Magazine Title). During the awards, CRE chairman Trevor Phillips specifically pointed the finger at the boardrooms and executives teams, from which ethnic minorities are still largely absent. He added: “The stakes are high; racism is not all the media’s fault or responsibility, but the media can promote change or stand in its way. So writers and broadcasters have a responsibility – to paint the complete picture of Britain that exists now, including all kinds of Britons.’ Let’s hope it doesn’t take another ten years to get there.

The EMMAs ceremony will be held on May 31. To vote for finalists call 0906 273 2000 or visit the website at www.emma.tv. For details of the EMMA festival call 07002 255 3662.

For details of Skillset visit www.skillset.org.

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