Sheffield ’18: Is social class the elephant in the room?

SHEFFIELD – When the issue of diversity is raised, unlike gender or race, class often falls by the wayside. Speaking on the “Not Another Diversity Panel” at the Sheffield/Doc Festival Sunday ...
June 11, 2018

SHEFFIELD – When the issue of diversity is raised, unlike gender or race, class often falls by the wayside.

Speaking on the “Not Another Diversity Panel” at the Sheffield/Doc Festival Sunday (June 10), Tom McDonald, head of commissioning, natural history & specialist factual at BBC, questioned if the issue of class made people so uncomfortable that it’s simply never discussed.

“Is it the elephant in the room?” McDonald asked.

The BBC commissioner, along with industry professionals including Rita Daniels, executive producer at Channel 4; Jaimie D’Cruz, creative director at Acme Films; Clare Richards, director; and Ramy El-Bergamy, commissioning exec at Channel 4, discussed the issue of class in the panel discussion moderated by Anne Morrison (WFTV).

With the rising costs of living and television wages remaining stagnant, McDonald noted that even if television execs wanted more social diversity amongst the ranks, the often precarious nature of the industry and its economic outlook might seem like an unattractive field for those who don’t have a safety net to fall back on.

Daniels said another issue preventing economic diversity in television is perception. For those who have to pay their bills, often they have to take any job that comes their way, leading to a patchwork CV. Therefore, the C4 commissioner said those in hiring positions might perceive this work background as “unattractive,” unlike those who come from more affluent backgrounds and can wait for the perfect job opportunity.

Even with internships being made illegal, El-Bergamy said there is still an industry habit of nepotism with coveted placements going to CEOs’ offspring, family members and friends.

“It’s still not a meritocracy, even at the bottom,” said El-Bergamy.

McDonald, who comes from a working-class background and attended the University of Oxford, said one issue that often arises from those who pitch ideas is that they include cultural references and touchstones that might not be universally understood.

“I am very aware that this industry feels like an echo chamber,” McDonald said.

Although there are hiring targets across broadcasters for gender, disability, or other markers, there isn’t for class, and because of this, the commissioner said there is an “invisible barrier” for the working class.

El-Bergamy noted that it’s tricky to measure targets for social class, but he does recognize the importance of addressing the issue. The Channel 4 commissioner explained that some people have a problem with targets, but he considers them a “necessary evil.” If they didn’t exist, he believes nothing would change for minorities in the industry.

Daniels said it’s important to celebrate differences and create diverse teams as a way to make organizations more equitable.

“I’m really interested in different. I appreciate it and celebrate it,” she said.

“As commissioners, we need to be much stricter about it and allow people to fail more,” Daniels said. “It’s interesting; if a diverse person fails once, they are written off,” she noted.

Another problem is that many young people don’t know how to find internships to help them get their feet in the door. McDonald said the industry should be less passive and do more outreach in schools to seek out different people than expecting them to jump through hoops to find industry jobs.

“We have to expand our net as wide as possible. That is the only way you are going to change the demographic,” said McDonald.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.