Raymond Snoddy on media: Minority report exposes production clique truth

The seminar held last week by Pact (the film, TV and interactive media trade association) and the UK Film Council could have counted as one of the most obscure ever produced by a self-regarding industry. It was held to consider whether 'minority ethnic-led' production companies were being unfairly discriminated against in the UK market. Naturally, there was some expensive research on the issue.

But leaving aside some tricky problems of definition, is this a case of a rather artificial search for a new problem? Isn't just about everyone discriminated against in the UK production market? What real chance do you have if you are based in Hull rather than Charlotte Street? Small independents are more likely to be short of a taxi fare to get to the Stock Exchange than to be planning a £45m flotation.

As for the film industry, that seems to be the ultimate self-perpetuating clique, with as much as 80% of the production team on a movie hired by word of mouth. If word never reaches you, it really doesn't matter what ethnic group you identify with.

If there is a problem, is it an employment problem rather than a question of who leads a production company?

At the seminar, though, something very interesting happened. People like Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television, turned up, as did Heather Rabbatts, Channel 4's director of education, film directors such as Margaret Matheson and senior people from Five and other channels. The only glaring absence was of anyone from ITV.

The research found that ethnic minority-led production companies tend to be pigeon-holed and crucially fail to get the second commission that helps to establish a reputation and track record.

The key moment came when Floella Benjamin, the broadcaster and independent producer with more than 20 years' experience, described how even she is often treated. Commissioning editors assume that all she is interested in, or capable of, is making programmes with ethnic minority subject matter. Other participants were so pessimistic about the chances of being commissioned that they did not apply, perpetuating a cycle of exclusion. Sky was particularly criticised.

Would the children of immigrants not be better advised to continue trying to become doctors and lawyers rather than tangle with the insane world of independent TV and film production? Maybe. But there is an issue of fairness here, and maybe self-interest.

On-screen representation of minority cultures has increased in recent years and efforts are being made to tackle discrimination in employment.

There is no justification for artificial barriers being set in the way of members of ethnic minorities taking their fair place running production companies. The self-interest lies in having the biggest pool from which to draw new ideas.

As to solutions, Jana Bennett was clear that she did not want any more targets: 'I've got 183 targets already. I'm targeted out.'

You could have awards, mentoring, or create producer alliances to take on more significant commissions. Modest development money could help smaller indies get that all-important second commission.

Most of all, the need is to challenge damaging preconceptions. That is exactly what the Pact/UK Film Council seminar did.

30 SECONDS ON ... PACT/UK FILM COUNCIL RESEARCH

- The Institute for Employment Studies' 'Researching the Independent Production Sector' survey, produced for Pact and the UK Film Council, covered 79 businesses, including 14 'minority ethnic-led' (MEL) production houses.

- Nearly one-third of the companies surveyed use large numbers of unpaid workers, and 42% had no ethnic minority staff.

- 29% of MEL companies felt they suffered from lack of industry contacts, while 54% believed they were pigeonholed.

- Only 25% of MEL film production companies are commissioned or financed, compared with 40% of white-led organisations. Although less marked, the disparity also exists in the TV sector, where 55% of MEL companies are financed or commissioned, compared with 63% of their white-led counterparts.

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