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Diversity key to media future

marverine-coleAs the debate over diversity in the broadcasting industry continues, Marverine Cole, Sky News presenter and director of TV production company Funf Media, gives a personal take on the discussion

That old spectre has returned to the feast at the British TV industry’s dinner table again – diversity and whether there’s a fair representation of ethnic minorities professionals both in front of and behind the camera.

Recent comments by Pat Younge – the highest level black TV production exec in the BBC – reminded the industry not be complacent. His views made the industry’s magazine, Broadcast, and the Daily Mail.

Pat said the TV industry “is still disproportionately dominated by the white, middle and upper classes”, that “there was not enough internal pressure’ to change that picture and TV bosses should be “sacked if they fail to meet racial diversity targets”.

I’m not sure about the sackings but it’s clear that diversity in TV needs to be addressed. I repeatedly get asked my views on it all, so when this article hit the news, my phone was ringing again.

Why? I guess because people now think my perspective is a unique one: I’m one of only a handful of black newsreaders on national television – a freelance presenter (or to coin a US phrase, news anchor) for Sky News.

Five hours of live broadcasting, handling the breaking news of the Mumbai terror attacks, the Italian earthquake and other similar shocking international news events is par for the course in my sometimes terrifying, but also very fulfilling job.

I also run Funf Media, my own corporate TV production company in Birmingham, with my business partner, Austen Duffy – where we’re also developing several TV programme ideas for a range of UK broadcasters.

Some people confuse the term “diversity” with “positive discrimination” i.e. employing someone from an ethnic minority just to tick a monitoring box and fill a quota.

Positive discrimination is something I don’t support and is something I’m very proud to say has not been a part of my journey as a journalist and businesswoman.

Every job I’ve ever landed has been on my own merits. The toughest part of making headway in the media for me as a black woman was learning the right ways of approaching people for work to get that all important “foot in the door”.

I have no story of a “life on the streets” or “in the ghetto”. My story simply ain’t that sexy, I’m afraid! I was born and raised in Birmingham by hard-working Jamaican parents, Mum a nurse, Dad a builder.

I had a relatively middle-class upbringing, admiring Trevor McDonald and Moira Stewart on TV because quite simply they had the same skin colour as me and to my mind they were doing a very important job.

So dreaming of following in their footsteps, I set about finding out more about how to get into the media. And so I started a 22-year-long slog that’s finally paid off – one of working for little or no pay, and taking some calculated risks along the way.

The summer I turned 16, I locked myself in my bedroom with an A4 writing pad and a copy of the Yellow Pages. I wrote letters to all the TV and radio stations in the West Midlands asking for work experience.

A month later, I ended up answering phone calls from listeners to Nicky Steele’s show on BRMB and making tea for Ed Doolan’s guests on BBC WM radio! That gave me the taste for it so after my Business Studies degree I spent two years as a Radio Lollipop volunteer and radio presenter.

Whilst working as a secretary Monday to Friday, I spent weekends reading travel news on BBC local radio and presenting radio shows on stations in Stockport and Coventry. I then quit a well-paid PA job at Cadburys (to the amazement of my friends and family) to take a PgDip in Broadcast Journalism at BCU.

And then I got my invaluable on-the-job training as a reporter, producer and presenter with ITV Central News, BBC WM and BBC Midlands Today. None of it was easy, in fact there’ve been buckets of tears, plenty of tantrums and countless unposted resignation letters along the way.

But there’ve also been some fabulous times like getting words of advice from my idol Sir Trevor McDonald, from Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC and even interviewing the likes of Hollywood ‘A’ lister Will Smith.

Everything I’ve ever done – in terms of schooling myself on who’s who in the industry, what their role is, how they connect with others, who makes what decisions, how do I get to that person, how I should approach that person to get on their radar – has got me to this point.

I never sat on my laurels and hoped that if I applied for a diversity scheme I’d get scooped up and trained. BECTU and the TUC have already held some amazing networking events for ethnic minority media professionals in the past to help demystify that previously secretive world of the TV and radio decision-makers.

Now the Cultural Diversity Network is making even more headway by bringing to the table all of the big players in broadcasting you can think of, to back a mentoring scheme to try and address that ‘Who’s Who issue’ in the industry. I really think this is the best way to nurture new TV industry talent so that the programmes we watch are made from a range of perspectives, reflecting views from British people of all backgrounds.

By Marverine Cole

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