Sir Lenny Henry has called for tax breaks to increase diversity in the UK television industry, which he says is in “a critical condition”.
The actor, comedian and campaigner addressed diversity during his keynote speech at annual trade show MIPCOM (International Market of Communications Programmes) in Cannes.
In his speech, he said money can play a major part in boosting the number of people from a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) background in the business, either in front of or behind the camera, in order to represent the “social fabric of society”.
But, he added, on-screen parts must be “key roles” and to have “a black assistant researcher and ’exotic’ best friend of the lead actor” would not be enough for a diversity tax incentive.
Sir Lenny said that while politicians are taking the issue very seriously and there is more awareness around it, “the lack of diversity in television is still a huge problem”.
He said: “Just 9.5% of people working for BBC Studios, that’s the part of the BBC that actually makes programmes, are black or Asian. And when it comes to people in senior positions that number drops to 6.1%.
“But it is not just a BBC problem. In Britain the TV industry has rolled out a scheme called Project Diamond to monitor the diversity of who actually makes the programmes.
“But right now there’s an argument between the trade unions and the broadcasters. The trade unions have requested statistics on the diversity of prime time TV; the broadcasters say they can’t do it.”
Sir Lenny said that the numbers cannot be published because “there are so few black and brown people working on these programmes that it will inadvertently identify them and therefore breach their privacy in law”.
He added that the current state of diversity in television is “in a critical condition” because “the number of non-white people working on prime time programmes in the UK is so low” the data cannot be published.
Sir Lenny proposed “tax breaks for diversity”, because TV is a business and that “nothing focuses the mind of a business person more than money”.
Citing examples of tax incentives in the US, which hope to increase the number of women and ethnic minority TV writers and directors, Sir Lenny said that a similar model can be mimicked elsewhere.
He said: “In July the British Government revealed that it paid out almost £600 million in tax relief last year to the makers of films and big budget TV productions that passed a ’cultural test’ that qualified them as ’British-made’.”
Sir Lenny asked for a similar tax break for businesses which pass a “diversity test”.
If a TV production is deemed diverse, he said, “you would not pay tax on that investment, or you’d pay at a reduced rate”, adding that “alternatively a diverse production pays less tax”.
Sir Lenny said: “Now I would stress that for any production to qualify for a tax break, it must have diversity both in front of and behind the camera, and in key roles.
“A black assistant researcher and ’exotic’ best friend of the lead actor is not cutting it.
“I still believe that the broadcasters should ring-fence money to produce diverse television, just as they ring-fence money for other important programme genres such as children’s or news.”