Sir Lenny Henry calls for tax breaks to increase diversity in TV

Sir Lenny Henry has called for tax breaks to increase diversity in the UK television industry, which he says is in “a critical condition”.

The actor, comedian and campaigner addressed diversity during his keynote speech at annual trade show MIPCOM (International Market of Communications Programmes) in Cannes.

In his speech, he said money can play a major part in boosting the number of people from a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) background in the business, either in front of or behind the camera, in order to represent the “social fabric of society”.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Sir Lenny Henry (Ian West/PA)</figcaption>
Sir Lenny Henry (Ian West/PA)

But, he added, on-screen parts must be “key roles” and to have “a ​black​ ​assistant​ ​researcher​ ​and​ ​’exotic’​ ​best​ ​friend​ ​of​ ​the​ ​lead​ ​actor” would not be enough​ for a diversity tax incentive.

Sir Lenny said that while politicians are taking the issue very seriously and there is more awareness around it, “the lack​ ​of​ ​diversity​ ​in​ ​television​ ​is​ ​still​ ​a​ ​huge​ ​problem”.

He said: “Just​ ​9.5%​ ​of​ ​people​ ​working​ ​for​ ​BBC​ ​Studios,​ ​that’s​ ​the​ ​part​ ​of​ ​the​ ​BBC​ ​that​ ​actually makes​ ​programmes,​ ​are​ ​black​ ​or​ ​Asian.​ ​And​ ​when​ ​it​ ​comes​ ​to​ ​people​ ​in​ ​senior​ ​positions​ ​that number​ ​drops​ ​to​ ​6.1%.

“But​ ​it​ ​is​ ​not​ ​just​ ​a​ ​BBC​ ​problem.​ ​In​ ​Britain​ ​the​ ​TV​ ​industry​ ​has​ ​rolled​ ​out​ ​a​ ​scheme​ ​called Project​ ​Diamond​ ​to​ ​monitor​ ​the​ ​ ​diversity​ ​of​ ​who​ ​actually​ ​makes​ ​the​ ​programmes.

“But​ ​right​ ​now​ ​there’s​ ​an​ ​argument​ ​between​ ​the​ ​trade​ ​unions​ ​and​ ​the​ ​broadcasters.​ ​The trade​ ​unions​ ​have​ ​requested​ ​statistics​ ​on​ ​the​ ​diversity​ ​of​ ​prime​ ​time​ ​TV;​ ​​​the​ ​broadcasters say​ ​they​ ​can’t​ ​do​ ​it.”

Sir Lenny said that the numbers cannot be published because “there​ ​are​ ​so​ ​few​ ​black​ ​and​ ​brown​ ​people​ ​working​ ​on​ ​these​ ​programmes​ ​that​ ​it​ ​will inadvertently​ ​identify​ ​them​ ​and​ ​therefore​ ​breach​ ​their​ ​privacy​ ​in​ ​law”.

He added that the current state of diversity in television is “in a critical condition” because “the​ ​number​ ​of​ ​non-white​ ​people​ ​working​ ​on​ ​prime​ ​time​ ​programmes​ ​in​ ​the​ ​UK is​ ​so​ ​low​” the data cannot be published.

Sir Lenny proposed “tax breaks for diversity”, because TV is a business and that “nothing focuses the mind of a business person more than money”.

Citing examples of tax incentives in the US, which hope to increase the number of women and ​ethnic minority​ ​TV​ ​writers​ ​and​ ​directors, Sir Lenny said that a similar model can be mimicked elsewhere.

He said: “In​ ​July​ ​the​ ​British​ ​Government​ ​revealed​ ​that​ ​it​ ​​paid​ ​out​ ​almost​ ​£600 million​ ​in​ ​tax​ ​relief​ ​last​ ​year to​ ​the​ ​makers​ ​of​ ​films​ ​and​ ​big​ ​budget​ ​TV​ ​productions​ ​that​ ​passed​ ​a​ ​’cultural​ ​test’ ​that qualified​ ​them​ ​as​ ​’British-made’.”

Sir Lenny asked for a similar tax break for businesses which pass a “diversity test”.

If a TV production is deemed diverse, he said, “you would not​ ​pay​ ​tax​ ​on​ ​that investment,​ ​or​ ​you’d​ ​pay​ at​ ​a​ ​reduced​ ​rate”, adding that “alternatively​ ​a​ ​diverse​ ​production​ ​pays​ ​less​ ​tax”.

Sir Lenny said: “Now​ ​​I​ ​would​ ​stress​ ​​​that​ ​for​ ​any​ ​production​ ​to​ ​qualify​ ​for​ ​a​ ​tax​ ​break,​ ​it​ ​must​ ​have​ ​diversity both​ ​in​ ​front​ ​of​ ​and​ ​behind​ ​the​ ​camera,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​key​ ​roles.

“A​ ​black​ ​assistant​ ​researcher​ ​and​ ​’exotic’​ ​best​ ​friend​ ​of​ ​the​ ​lead​ ​actor​ ​is​ ​not​ ​cutting​ ​it.

“I​ ​still​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​the​ ​broadcasters​ ​should​ ​ring-fence​ ​money​ ​to​ ​produce​ ​diverse​ ​television, just​ ​as​ ​they​ ​ring-fence​ ​money​ ​for​ ​other​ ​important​ ​programme​ ​genres​ ​such​ ​as​ ​children’s​ ​​​or news​.”

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