Racism in TV industry “crushed” me so much I experienced clinical depression, says David Olusoga in powerful MacTaggart lecture

Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga delivered a damning – but cautiously hopeful – speech about racism within Britain's television industry in the keynote address for 2020's Edinburgh TV Festival.

David Olusoga OBE, who gives the 2020 MacTaggart lecture

Broadcaster, historian and writer David Olusoga used his keynote MacTaggart lecture at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival to deliver a searing indictment of racism, bias and discrimination within the industry, telling the audience that 2020 was “not the year to avoid hard truths or pull punches.”

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In a speech broadcast from Bristol City Hall, Olusuga told his (virtual) audience: “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, 50, is best known for his TV series and documentaries including A House Through Time, Black and British: A Forgotten History, and the BAFTA-winning Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. He is also Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, and a best-selling author.

But in a powerful speech, he laid out the difficulties he had faced as a black producer, screenwriter and presenter within Britain’s TV industry.

Historian David Olusoga outside Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle upon Tyne (BBC)
Historian David Olusoga outside Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle upon Tyne (BBC)

“I’ve been given amazing opportunities, but I’ve also been patronised and marginalised,” he said. “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.”

Later in the speech, he added: “Marginalising the voices of non-white producers and directors risks inhibiting our industry’s ability to tell a wider range of stories. But it is also damaging non-white people themselves. There are consequences of always being in a minority of one. Always being in a minority of one, fighting every fight alone, seeing what others don’t see, all of this takes its toll. My own history of depression testifies to that.”

The MacTaggart Lecture was launched in 1976 as the keynote address for the annual Edinburgh TV Festival, serving as a platform for important and agenda-setting speeches. In recent years, speakers have included Michaela Coel, Dorothy Byrne, Jon Snow, and Armando Iannucci.

“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’,” Olusoga said. “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.”

Reflecting on the devastation wreaked on TV and the economy thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, he said: “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.”

Olusoga went on to share revealing stories and reflections of his experiences of being a black filmmaker and presenter in a predominantly white industry, including an incident when an unnamed colleague “complained endlessly” that he was “difficult” and should be more like another “laid back” black guy he knew. The man in question turned out to be the colleague’s cannabis dealer.

“Be the sort of black person I’m comfortable with. Be more like my drug dealer. That is what I was told by a colleague in our industry,” Olusoga said.

Other parts of the speech delved into systemic racism: the TV executivress who nurture people who look and sound like them, the unpaid internships that exclude people from lower-socio economic backgrounds from getting a foot in the door, the producers who believe unchallenged tropes about black people, and the impact of still not having black controllers and commissioners at the top.

“In all honesty, if I had known how lonely it was going to be being black in this industry, how much the deck was stacked against me – in terms of both race and class – I am sad to say that would have never attempted a career in television,” he said.

David Olusoga presenting Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners
David Olusoga presenting Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (BBC)

But Olusoga struck a cautiously optimistic note that this could be a moment of real change – despite all the false starts.

“Thirty years of failed initiatives and ineffective training schemes, and the constant haemorrhaging of BAME talent has left another legacy,” he said. “A lack of trust so deep that the announcements and initiatives of 2020 have been met, by many black and brown people in the industry, not with enthusiasm and excitement but with scepticism born of repeated disappointment.”

However, he said, “There is, I honestly believe, real reason to be hopeful. This time it does feel different. The response of the UK broadcasters to Black Lives Matter are different in multiple respects, distinct from the initiatives of the past. There is a new determination among the broadcasters to drive diversity into senior management, at board level and critically in commissioning.

“But is there a willingness for real structural and cultural change? And where will accountability come from? Who will determine if the money pledged is actually spent and if recruitment targets are met?”

Pointing towards the future, he added: “Both indies [independent production companies] and broadcasters need to find the same energy and apply it to diversity and inclusion, we have to fully own this problem and find the will to effect change. And we need to do this now because 2020 hasn’t just been one of those dramatic years in politics. It has been a moment of generational change.”

And with this new generation determined to challenge racism, embrace the values of Black Lives Matter and have those difficult conversations, Olusoga called for the TV industry to demonstrate its relevance or risk falling into obscurity.

“So in the end it comes down to this: does our industry have the will to genuinely share power with those who have, for so very long, been marginalised and silenced?” he asked.

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