In light of the new Equality Act, the industry is again asking itself whether it is doing enough for diversity – both on and off screen. Lisa Campbell sat in on a debate at Channel 4 last week.

Around 30 senior broadcasting figures attended a roundtable at Channel 4 last week to discuss the many issues raised by the Equality Act 2010. Covering gender, age, religion, race and disability, it was broad-ranging and, at times, combative.

Pact chief executive John McVay organised the debate with C4, in collaboration with BBC, ITV and Sky, ahead of a major industry event on the impact of the Act on businesses, scheduled for 27 January.

New talent dilemma

There was much, possibly too much, to discuss but McVay kicked off the debate with questions around new talent, sketching out a familiar scenario whereby a commissioner says they want new talent, an indie duly delivers, only to be told: “We don’t know these people.”

He explained: “From an indie’s point of view, you may have absolute faith in your new talent, but he or she is not on the commissioner’s radar – or list of preferred talent. So what happens? Well, indies don’t always get the commission – at least in some cases – without first agreeing to the talent the comm ed prefers or wants.”

What happens next? Do producers keep on pitching new talent, or do they try to deliver whoever is on the wishlist?

This raises many more questions around the quality of programmes and the promotion of new talent, as McVay pointed out: “From a producer’s point of view, under these particular circumstances, what’s the incentive to nurture new talent – or to innovate?

“We might want to ask if, as an industry, we’re totally happy with this situation. We might want to ask too if this way of working is sustainable – and is it right?”

His views were supported by fellow panellist Helen Veale, managing director of Outline Productions, who said when it comes to roles such as series producer or series director, “unless you’re offering a candidate who’s already done almost exactly the same job, you’re on a hiding to nothing”.

C4 head of diversity Oona King backed this up. “Between 2009 and 2010, I saw around 60 indies. They all said the same thing: ‘We offered up a diverse slate and the commissioner didn’t take it.’”

The question of whether ‘we work with our mates’ was hotly disputed. Sky head of comedy Lucy Lumsden denied it happened, while BBC Academy head of public service partnerships Donna Taberer, also a former C5 commissioner, said it was fairly standard practice and we should be honest about it – a point acknowledged by Emma Cooper, C4’s new documentaries commissioner.

“I’m so aware that we have this reputation for commissioning our friends; everyone has been very upfront about that,” she said.

No one-size-fits-all

On the other side of the fence, producers were similarly divided as to whether they were guilty of being too narrow in their search for freelancers.

Juniper chief executive Samir Shah said: “We do have lists but it’s the people we think are the best for the job.”

Shed head of creative talent Susie Worster argued that, within larger  indies, there are extensive longlists for every job “and we could have a shortlist of 10 for the job of SP”.

Angela Chan, BBC independents and diversity executive, argued that there isn’t a one-size fits all approach. “I don’t recognise this black-and-white picture of ‘I want this or that talent’. You’re usually presented with a range of choices.” She added that a senior individual would often look to take responsibility for the person they were fighting for, and could afford to if they had a good team around them.

The BBC Academy’s Taberer pointed out that by working together, broadcasters could help to extend the range of talent available to production companies, who may not have the time or resources to dedicate to the task. In a recent initiative, The Finalists, the BBC Academy and C4 came together to showcase talent from prestigious trainee schemes.

A yearbook collated details of around 100 individuals – the idea being, according to Taberer, that “you don’t have to scout for the next JLS”.

Ways of removing barriers to entry were discussed in the three-hour debate – alongside methods of retaining talent, particularly women, given the brain drain of women over the age of 35 – plus disability, race and class.

The debate raised many more questions that will be explored in detail at January’s event. McVay concluded: “As an industry, looking at issues like this can and does make us a little uncomfortable. Yet, from my experience, this is how we develop.”

➤ To register for The Equality Act on 27 January, see www.pact.co.uk and click on ‘Events’