OPINION: Should Channel 4 really move to Birmingham?
There’s a lot of drums being beaten in the West Midlands right now, and none louder than in Birmingham, where hashtagged calls for Channel 4 to make the city its new home have become almost deafening.
Between the Government pretty much forcing the iconic state-backed broadcaster to move out of the capital, and West Midlands mayor Andy Street suggestively ‘earmarking’ potential sites in Coventry, Dudley and Birmingham; you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s all but a done deal. Only it isn’t, not just yet anyway.
So the pressure, excitement and opportunity continues. Yet, it’s not just the push of legislative threats and the pull of an eager metro mayor attempting to influence the outcome here.
Joining the confident chorus of self-assured and self-congratulatory shoutouts are local newspapers, creative think tanks, arts organisations, media outlets, film production companies, educational establishments, local politicians and, of course, individual creatives; all waxing lyrical about how inclusive and representative the region is.
If this was an official bid, “Come and have a go if you think you’re diverse enough” would probably be the campaign slogan.
After all, the West Midlands is diverse, multicultural, young and very much entrepreneurial. Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe with under-25s accounting for nearly 40% of its population. It’s also the cradle of the start-up revolution, topping the regional league for founding new companies for the fifth year in a row.
Additionally, with Coventry being declared the UK City of Culture for 2021, Birmingham set to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and the envisaged convenience of the new HS2 rail line from the city into Euston; the West Midlands certainly has the appetite and appeal for pulling in the British broadcast giant.
Yet, in all this promising excitement, it would be naive to suggest Birmingham would be offering Channel 4 more than what the broadcaster would be gifting the city. It has been reported that a relocation from London to Birmingham by Channel 4 could create 3,412 jobs in the region, while accountancy estimations suggest the move could directly boost the local economy by £2.3bn between 2021 and 2030.
And while England’s ‘second city’ is a fantastic buzzing hub with a wealth of raw creative talent for C4 executives to tap into, it’s also a city where decision-makers in the mainstream media industry often struggle to identify, embrace and incorporate under-represented groups, which is primarily what inclusivity should be about.
Yes, at recent launch events to showcase the best of #WMGeneration as a hook to lure in Channel 4, an incredibly equality-positive selection of young artistic creatives were brought together as a reminder that many of the city’s newer media and arts initiatives are indeed helmed by under-25s of all genders, cultures and abilities.
And yes, these presentations are absolutely reflective of the evolution of Brum’s ever-changing technological, new media and social media landscape; but these unions of the ‘old guard’ and younger millennial creatives are relatively new, often scrambled together as and when required — sometimes as an exercise in ticking boxes — with no consistent and long-term overlap.
While it may be easy for politicians and established regional media to rope in academies, artists and organisations who already work closely with each other and have invested a great deal of commitment and time collaborating and building partnerships independently; it’s quite a different thing to genuinely dedicate and invest in upcoming talent and aspiring content creators.
This is no more evident than in the fact that most of Birmingham’s core media, arts and broadcast organisations are hugely lacking in fair and equal representation where it matters.
That is, in a city where around 42% of the 1.1 million population are non-white and around half of the population are women, nearly all of the top jobs in the media and entertainment sector belong to white men.
This is problematic. For nearly all of the executives, managers, producers, editors and directors heading the city’s mainstream multimedia platforms hail from the same exclusive demographic that appears to plague so many creative industries across the country.
There is only one non-white member on the Birmingham Press Club’s Board of Directors, no black or minority ethnic editors of any of the city’s main Trinity Mirror news publications including the Birmingham Mail, Birmingham Post and Sunday Mercury.
The What’s On Birmingham editorial team is mostly white, a pattern that is repeated across most of the What’s On Group’s Midlands publications. The editorial chiefs on many of the city’s lifestyle magazines are also white.
What about the majority of key players and producers pulling the strings at the region’s several major Global and Bauer Media Group owned radio stations? Again, white.
Local television? While there are reporters, presenters and talent of colour featured at the lower and more publicly accessible tiers of print, online and broadcast media, the truth is most of the decision makers at the helm of media platforms such as BBC Midlands Today, BBC Birmingham, ITV Central and Made in Birmingham are primarily middle-aged white men.
In fact, there appears to be only one non-white editor-in-chief across the entire spectrum of mainstream news media in Birmingham, and that’s me (It’s a lonely place, I can assure you).
Last month, in a bid to genuinely showcase the city’s “creative leaders” to Channel 4 bosses, The Birmingham Post compiled a list of filmmakers, animators and artists who just all ‘happened to be’ white, male and devoid of any women, people of colour or anyone under 30.
After the glaringly obvious omissions were highlighted by I Am Birmingham, Trinity Mirror’s West Midlands editor-in-chief Marc Reeves admitted they’d got it wrong.
“This was a clumsy oversight and it’s right that we’ve been called out on this. We put out a call for comments and used all that came back. But we failed to stand back to see if what we had was a fair representation of Brum — and it clearly wasn’t. We must and will do better.”
While I have complete faith in Reeve’s sincerity and rectification of the article since, the initial lack of reflection remains a cause for concern because it has a real impact on how creatives from different communities and backgrounds collaborate and work together to empower each other.
This kind of oversight, however, isn’t unique to any one particular media platform or publication. It happens a lot. Some might say they’re “colour blind”, that they don’t see racial and religious differences and so don’t focus on those aspects of the people around them; but when you don’t see colour, you don’t see the absence of it and neither do you acknowledge its missed potential. To not be able to see a problem renders one unable to prescribe a solution to it.
To not be part of the solution is how we end up with white male editors approving articles by white male journalists patting other white creatives on the back for leading the way in “diversity”.
What this dire situation essentially creates is a void where skilled individuals from minority groups are not only under-represented and under-valued in the mainstream, but are then forced to either limit their ambitions to niche markets such as the BBC Asian Network and BBC 1Xtra (which are both conveniently currently managed by another white dude) or to create their own platforms as a means of being heard.
In fact, for decades now, people of colour in this city have had to establish their own mediums in order to create inroads for others in their community. This is why Birmingham, along with London, has been the birthplace of so many of the UK’s most popular ethnic minority newspaper titles including The Sikh Times, The Phoenix, Asian World and The Asian Today. This trend is also mirrored in newer online news platforms that specifically cater for black and south Asian audiences.
For those who are acutely aware that the British journalism industry is 94% white, 55% male, 0.4% Muslim and 0.2% black in a nation where nearly 13% of the UK population is non-white, 5% Muslim and 3% is black; this may not come as a surprise. But in a city like Birmingham where many pride themselves on the misplaced notion that they’re ahead of the inclusivity game, it’s a reality that can’t be ignored.
It can’t be ignored because doing so can be detrimental to the artistic passions and outlook of neglected communities. It’s not good enough for big enterprise, government and corporations to simply throw some money and approval in the direction of run-down neighbourhoods and “inner city” areas and expect young talent to find its way within that particular framework.
While it may be a good starting point, without long-term commitment and progression, Birmingham projects like Hockley’s Muhammad Ali Centre and Aston’s Drum arts centre will (and did) close as quick as they had opened, left by the wayside and forgotten. This predicament shouldn’t be the furthest limit and potential of those who can’t break into grander boardrooms.
The key aspect of nurturing home-grown talent from more deprived areas is more than just opportunity and equality, it’s a complete overhaul and rethink of the way arts and media organisations are structured and the means by which they pool their talent. This more expansive thought process has already shaken up and benefitted traditionally ‘white middle class’ creative spaces like the Birmingham Hippodrome, but there’s still a long way to go.
In Birmingham, we do have some incredibly talented CEOs, founders, curators and directors within the creative sector; from the likes of Anisa Haghdadi, Anita Bhalla, Amerah Saleh, Aliyah Hasinah Holder and Immy Kaur to Mohammed ‘Aerosol Arabic’ Ali, Charmaine Burton, Mukhdar Dar, Vanley Burke, Vimal Korpal and Ammo Talwar. But in most cases, these individuals have actively and independently had to think outside the box rather than be afforded the opportunity to climb the ladder of success through that seemingly forever-present glass ceiling.
And despite achieving various levels of personal success, they will most probably still tell you that the industry is largely awash with white faces in cities with large non-white populations.
This today, as before, leaves local creative entrepreneurial minority-led set-ups like Punch Records, Beatfreeks and Impact Hub Birmingham the task of empowering and arming ‘their own’ with the tools required to shine in mainstream creative industry circles.
So when we say we’re the city and region for Channel 4 because we represent the diversity and modern change that it so desperately needs, are these simplistic claims merely a cheap attempt to entice the broadcaster before systematically assimilating it into our already under-representative local media industry? Or are we hoping that we can use the pioneering, open and radical approach that Channel 4 has carved out since its inception in 1982 to finally break down and restructure the media and arts landscape in Birmingham and the West Midlands?
I for one am a strong proponent of Channel 4 making Birmingham and the surrounding region its new base and home, but I absolutely believe that we need to accept that we are not where we should be as far as fair representation in media in concerned, and what we have to offer broadcasters migrating to our city is as much as what we have to learn and gain from them.
But it’s not just about established big corporations and brands in Birmingham joining forces with established big corporations and brands from London. Throughout this process, we mustn’t forget or alienate smaller and more independent creative initiatives that have for many years reached out to large sections of our under-represented population.
It’s not just about those individuals who have the contacts or those who have the funds. It shouldn’t primarily be about the same old select number of names and faces that keep popping up at every social shindig and awards ceremony. It has to be more than that. It has to include more skilled individuals who are black and brown, women, less-abled, LGBTQIA+, working class and those proficient by experience over academic qualifications.
Whether it’s by making sure that niche or specialist newspapers, ethnic and community radio stations or upcoming online channels are embraced in this process; it is our duty to ensure the inclusivity of media and arts organisations in the region is as wide as it can possibly be.
As an industry, we have to learn to allow new ambassadors to take their place and lead the creatives of the future. New opportunities, new openings and new possibilities deserve to be distributed to new talent. Only allowing established and popular professionals to roam fresh pastures is counterproductive and stifles the natural evolution of the creative process.
Birmingham has always celebrated ‘Forward’ as its motto. For “a city of a thousand trades” to keep this legacy alive in all it does, it really must continue to ‘pay it forward’.