My Celebrity Life

How the government’s legal requirement for ‘distinctively British’ programming is a dangerous blow for UK television

What does ‘distinctively British’ programming mean for TV? (Picture: BBC)

A Royal Television Society conference became national news when ministers announced new plans for public service broadcasters will have to fulfil ‘legal requirements’ to produce ‘distinctively British’ programmes.

The (now sacked) media minister John Whittingdale cited programmes such as Only Fools and Horses, Dad’s Army and Fleabag as ‘reflecting Britain and British values’.

Naturally, this somewhat strange assortment of programming raised eyebrows with many critics asking what exactly is the subjective definition of ‘distinctively British’?

We’ll wait with baited breath as TV watchdog Ofcom is now expected to draw up guidelines for channels to follow.

Many were quick to note that the programmes listed by Whittingdale, who also mentioned The Great British Bake Off, Downton Abbey and Doctor Who as flagship British shows, have typically white casts, writers and crew.

And his speech is a particular kick in the teeth, as it comes merely days after Channel 4’s historic Black to Front day of programming, which placed Black British talent both on and off-screen front and centre.

When approached by about Whittingale’s speech, a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport explained: ‘We firmly believe that TV should reflect modern Britain. These plans aim to make sure public service broadcasters continue producing shows which allow people from all backgrounds and every part of the UK to see people representative of them and their way of life on screen.’

Is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag ‘distinctively British’? (Picture: BBC)

And while Whittingdale himself said in his speech these measures are not ‘about waving union flags and a picture of the Queen in every scene’, his examples of shows that are ‘distinctively British’ has been a major cause for concern for people who think that the government may be equating what they perceive as Britishness to white Englishness.

This call for ‘distinctively British programming’ could be akin to a dog-whistle for a certain type of person that bristles at the mention of ‘wokeness’ and constantly claims they’re being silenced – when if anything, they’re more vocal than ever. While popular and acclaimed in their time, shows such as Only Fools and Horses and Dad’s Army don’t so much reflect ‘British values’ as much as they reflect a bygone era of Britain that never really existed in the first place.

Defining and then ‘scoring’ ‘Britishness’ on television may simply paper over the rich and woven tapestry of cultures that makes up the UK in its entirety, and supplement it for a tired and outdated ideal of what constitutes being ‘definitively British.’

It’s something Suki Sandu OBE, founder of Audeliss, an executive search firm that has placed talent across some of the UK’s largest television production houses, has expressed apprehension over.

Suki was baffled that senior figures in power believe the selection of shows, while popular, are an accurate reflection of Britain today.

‘To suggest that such programmes are representative of British culture in the 21st century demonstrates a clear lack of appreciation for just how far we have come over the last 20 years,’ he tells Metro.

‘There was no diversity on our screens back then and if there was, those within minority groups were mocked or typecast.’

It’s particularly troubling that Dad’s Army and Only Fools and Horses were included in Whittingdale’s list, and both were slapped with warnings over discriminatory and racist language on BBC iPlayer and Britbox respectively.

Suki agrees with the comments on social media that Whittingale’s comments are not necessarily aligned with Britishness, but rather a stuffy sort of marketed perception of Britain to the rest of the world.

He adds that it’s reductive to assume that even if you are white and English, you’d necessarily identify with a show like Fleabag – a programme about an undeniably posh woman who runs a hamster-themed café, engages in a frisson with a priest and feuds with her artist stepmother.

‘Whittingdale’s list of programmes pertained to white Englishness,’ Suki explains. ‘It is naïve to assume that those who identify as white English hark back to those shows. One thing that that Whittingdale undermines with his comments is that audiences don’t all engage with one type of content, but in fact engage with stories that belong to people who may be different from themselves.

‘This starts internally – by hiring diverse voices and empowering them, they are creating amazing content that is engaging British viewers rather than just one type of narrative.’

I May Destroy You was absent from Whittingdale’s list (Picture: BBC)
The media minister praised shows like The Great British Bake Off for having international success while still representing British values (Picture: Channel 4)

This call for a conscribed ‘Britishness’ quota could potentially alienate up and coming talent, who may feel they have to ‘prove’ or ‘adapt’ their behaviour to fit into a ‘box’ – or have their content filtered and watered down in order to appeal more to a ‘mass’ market.

There’s already a diversity problem on screens in the UK; a report by Bafta found less than five per cent of leading roles were Black, while Black stars such as David Oyelowo and David Harewood have gone on record about having to leave the UK to work in America.

‘People of colour will find it harder to thrive as their authentic selves working in the media industry if they believe that that industry is not welcoming of their voice and talent because they are a minority,’ Suki says.

‘I do not believe that you could consider the shows outlined by Mr Whittingdale to be at all-encompassing of modern British values and this shows the real disparity between those with positions in power in the media and the audience they serve.’

Instead, Suki points towards critically acclaimed series that are far more representative of Britain and the rich, varied cultures which comprise it. Small Axe, an anthology of stories looking at West Indian immigrants in the UK throughout 1960s to the 1980s, is a vital slice of history lesser told, while I May Destroy You has been widely praised for its innate Black Britishness.

‘These shows are more relevant and representative of modern Britain and Britishness because they retell stories of our past in new lights, aren’t afraid to shy away from difficult topics or simply tell new stories through a prism of diverse thought,’ he says.

‘”Britishness” is in of itself diversity. You only have to take a trip around the country to be met with a wonderful myriad of genders, sexualities, and races, all of which contribute to making our country the ‘Great’ Britain that it is.

‘It is a country built on a wide-ranging number of voices and perspectives, each of which bring something completely new to the table – even if it’s the retelling of an old story through the lens of somebody else’s experiences.’

While the term ‘Britishness’ is not immediately alarming, it’s what’s used to define the term where things can get potentially problematic.

‘The key question however is really “who is creating this definition?”’ Suki asks. ‘As shown by Whittingdale, if ideas of Britishness are being defined by just one type of person, then the definition will never be fit for purpose. If it comes from a process of really engaging with different audiences and their perceptions and lived experiences, then it may be possible.’

To Suki, media should be a reflection of every facet of society. By filtering out voices that may not help public service broadcasters hit a ‘Britishness’ quota, television could become stale – and only harm making successful and profitable British formats that can be watched and enjoyed worldwide.

‘Whittingdale’s comments are not what makes the difference here, but what does matter is ensuring that those making key decisions in the media are diverse and are representative of audiences,’ he says. ‘If this happens then programming will continue to diversify. But if this doesn’t happen, it will be an incredible loss to British media. Television will become stagnant, messages will become boring, and society will undoubtedly switch off.

‘If people, such as Mr Whittingdale, begin eradicating diversity of thought within our media, the role of minority groups will become diminished even further with terrible consequences.’

Credit: Original article published here.

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