3). Putting The Black Into Britain

Professor Kurt Barling highlights the 'striking impact' of pioneering BBC current affairs series, Black Britain.

Examining what it's like to be black in Britain.

Steve McQueen’s 2020 drama series Small Axe on BBC One, and BBC Two’s 2021 Black Power documentary were rare forays into the mainstream experience of Black Britons. Sometimes, it feels that in every generation some commissioner or other suddenly ‘discovers’ there are real stories of Black contributions to this Island of Nations that we call home.

It’s hard to believe it is a quarter of a century since the BBC current affairs magazine series Black Britain (1996-2000) first graced our screens. It feels like yesterday, perhaps because I was a member of the production team that made it, and, uncomfortably, because it shows my generational point may be closer to reality than I would like to imagine. The root cause of this condition is amnesia: a collective forgetting of what has gone before and, as a consequence, the evaporation of important lessons that are starting points for remedial action, rather than regrets over what could have been.

The editors of Representology, in supporting this piece of research, have recognised the importance of restoring institutional memory about what is possible, but also how reinventing the wheel to increase equality in the media should be totally unnecessary. We already have credible answers.

Black current affairs programmes were rarely seen by programme commissioners as being successful. Ebony, Bandung File, Black Bag and All Black all followed Black on Black, which was broadcast on Channel 4 in the mid 1980s, to mixed reviews. BBC News and Current Affairs responded to the BBC Two Controller Michael Jackson’s expression of interest in Black current affairs programming.

A group was set up, which included Pat Younge, to understand those earlier offerings and what the BBC could do differently. The programme was able to build on the successful magazine format of Here and Now, and the resources of a well provisioned part of the BBC. Importantly, it found it had the autonomy to produce what the editorial team thought would work. The team had, and never relinquished, editorial power, and that was crucial.

The murder of the teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993, opened fresh wounds concerning the treatment of Black people across Britain, and refocused broadcasters’ attention on the reality that major journalism outlets, including the BBC, had failed to address the concerns of minority communities. Even whilst Black Britain was on air, an internal 1999 BBC memo from Tony Hall who, at that time, was Head of News and Current Affairs, recognised that: “The BBC receives more than £200m in licence fees from people from ethnic minority groups … but they don’t feel that the BBC connects with their lives” (Malik, 2001). Black Britain emerged as an attempt to break the mould, in the midst of another periodic and recurring crisis of confidence - what is sometimes referred to as a ‘watershed moment’ - ruminating on where Britain was heading as a multi-ethnic community.

At the same time, journalism’s foot soldiers, like the veteran foreign correspondent, George Alagiah (now a senior newsreader), described the BBC as being, “dominated by a white male culture. It has a certain way of working and networking” (Malik, 2001).

That was also my own recollection of BBC News and Current Affairs, which I had worked in, by then, for several years. Black Britain was a genuine antidote to that. I joined the BBC in 1989, fresh from completing my Ph.D. at the London School of Economics.

Shortly after entering the hallowed halls of broadcasting, I was accused by a manager of falsifying my CV. After a week in which I was left to stew, and during which I felt utterly demoralised, I was informed that it was all an elaborate joke to test whether I really was as bright and robust as my qualifications suggested. I never really trusted a BBC manager at face value again. 

A lack of trust, too, lay at the heart of the poor relationship between Black communities and those who endeavoured to cover their stories. Professor Stuart Hall was a pioneer in the interrogation of this vexed relationship, as illustrated by his television essay, It ain’t half racist, mum’, a transcript of which was reprinted in the first issue of this journal (Representology, Winter 2020). Misrepresentation and stereotypes were at the root of Hall’s analyses of the ways in which television presented minority communities (Hall, 1997).

Malik has described this as a ‘racialised regime of representation’, one that is typically characterised by the singular association of inner-city riots with images of Blackness. It is not ironic that, by stumbling into the Broadwater Farm uprising in North London in 1985, I concluded that I needed to make journalism my vocation, so disgusted was I at the reporting of that community by the media. Tottenham became stigmatised for decades by that event, which had been sparked by the death of a Black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, as a result of police action.

An important remedy was always going to be (and remains to this day) the ability of broadcasters to broaden their recruitment base and to offer a wider variety of diverse perspectives - ones that would be reflected in the words and pictures that are chosen to describe the lives of Black people in Britain. This is where the recruits to Black Britain played such an important role.

They came from a range of places, and they were not all of Black Caribbean or African heritage. Some were British Asian, and a number were white. Others, like myself, were of mixed ethnicity. Many journalists were in their late twenties to early thirties, and it was a truly ethnically mixed team, but one in which there was very quickly a strong sense of camaraderie and joint endeavour.

This was symbolically cemented on Fridays by abstinence from BBC canteen food. A quick trip to a Harlesden Caribbean takeaway brought about what was quickly dubbed ‘Black Food Friday’. It was, and remains, rare to assemble such a concentration of Black talent in one place on national television. 

Curiously, Black Britain was a programme on which many people who joined were warned by ‘concerned’ colleagues that it would be bad for their careers. So, we created our own production sub-culture of endurance and solidarity. It was just as well, given the ambiguity with which the programme was received. A review in the Independent on 6th July, 1996, three days before the first programme aired, read, “BBC tries to vault the ghetto walls with Black news”. I guess they thought the headline was clever?

At best, they were being insensitive to the aims of the series. It demonstrates the credibility challenge that was faced by the team. The series producer, Pat Younge, reminded viewers and critics who would listen that “it was a programme for Black people, and not about them” (Black Film Bulletin, 1997, p.8).

Black Britain had a striking impact on the way in which stories about Black people were told. For a start, it gave the lie to a sense that there was one ‘Blackness’, or to monocultural interpretations of what it was to be Black in Britain. One memorable editorial discussion very clearly illustrated this. The West Indies cricket team had played Kenya in the World Cup - and lost. This was little short of a disaster for Caribbean aficionados of the game.

The item, shot at the Oval with some celebrated Caribbean elders, lamented the demise of West Indian cricket to such depths that they couldn’t even beat an African side. The ‘Caribbeans’ on the team all felt the collective sorrow of sporting decline. Then up popped the Oxford-educated Henry Bonsu, a man never afraid to inject criticism into a conversation, and asked why this piece of journalism had simply dwelt on decline, and had singularly failed to celebrate the rise of a new African cricketing nation, like Kenya. BBC journalism prided itself in challenging normative views, and Henry had allies in the Black Britain newsroom. Others, including me, have African heritage, and we agreed. It led to a lively debate about how, even on a programme like Black Britain, it was easy to fall into lazy assumptions and group-thinking about how a story should be told. This mistake was not made again.

We were able to put other important stories, like the trafficking of African historical artifacts to the art houses of the global north, on to the agenda. We gained exclusive access to Pentonville prison to witness the conversions to Islam of young African-Caribbean men.

We even discovered new sporting talent: Lewis Hamilton was featured on the programme as a go-karting ace, long before he became the Formula One World Motor Racing Champion. In fact, his backers offered Black Britain an exclusive opportunity to follow the story, but even we failed to spot this future legend. 

Operation Black Vote (OBV) was launched in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. Its founder, Simon (now Lord) Woolley, credits the charity being featured in Black Britain with giving it credibility. One of the final programmes under the Black Britain brand was my obituary film for the, often controversial, Tottenham MP, Bernie Grant, who died in 2000. I find it significant that I have been asked every year by Black community groups how this film can be viewed, as it is unavailable from the BBC archive (See Dunkley-Gyimah, Representology, Winter 2020, for discussion on the importance of archives). Supply remains untailored to minority community demand.

Above all, the impact lay in the tone Black Britain set around stories. The team recognised that there was an imbalance in the news’s knowledge of Black communities, and how that shaped news agendas, and that also often fed into bias or misperceptions when approaching stories about Black people. Typically, when Black people appeared on screen, it was in order to explain a problem. Black Britain attempted to apply the same criticality to those stories that were expected of us in the usual course of our journalistic duties. The current Guardian print editor, and former Black Britain reporter, Hugh Muir, describes this as telling the audience that “our issues are your issues, because we are as British as you are” (Interview with author). 

For example, Black Britain wouldn’t ignore stories of deaths in police custody, but the programme would foreground the human and family contexts of these stories, and show how structural problems impacted on individuals. Above all, the stories were not framed by debates on race, but were narratives about people.

To begin with, the magazine format followed the Here and Now series, presenting pieces to reflect the light and shade of current affairs stories. It tried to mix serious journalism with topical treatments, and pieces that primarily had an entertainment focus. It also delivered single item current affairs programming - from elderly returnees to Jamaica being fleeced of their savings, to Queen Victoria’s love for a Black princess.  

The series lasted, in one iteration or another, until its demise in 2000. Having assembled such concentrated Black talent at the BBC, it was right that its people went off to pursue their careers elsewhere. It seems a pity that the programme itself had to end. The practical reality at the time was that there was probably an insufficient talent pipeline to sustain it, and failing to put one in place meant that the BBC missed the opportunity to make a sustained difference in this arena.

However, in other ways, Black Britain did create a pathway to sustainability through the talented folk who left the programme, but who moved on with greater confidence to ‘infiltrate’ other areas of journalism and the programme-making business.

Of the 28 people involved in the production staff, nearly half went on to fairly illustrious careers (see Table 1). Others, who I haven’t named, remain respected, successful and active in the business. Many recall Black Britain as a high point in their creative careers. Of course, this begs the question: how many more people could have benefited from this talent pipeline had the programme endured?

Successful black alumni

Samina Baig  

Playwright & Screenwriter

Kurt Barling 

BBC London Special Correspondent 

Henry Bonsu

BBC Presenter & Radio Executive

Brenda Emmanus OBE

BBC London Arts Correspondent

Gillian Joseph   

Presenter Sky News

Michelle Matherson

Creative Diversity Partner, BBC Commissioning 

Hugh Muir 

Print Editor, The Guardian 

Clive Myrie

BBC Correspondent. BBC News Presenter. Presenter Mastermind

Marcus Ryder MBE

Senior TV Executive and Diversity Champion

Fatima Salaria

Commissioner for BBC & Channel 4, MD Naked TV

Sandy Smith

Former Editor, BBC One Show

Maxine Watson  

BBC Commissioner

Pat Younge

BBC Commissioner.  US TV Executive.  ITV Studios Board

So why, you might ask, do we still have to discuss the lack of diversity in British journalism and programme-making? It’s a question for which there is no easy answer. What is striking, however, is that Black Britain had autonomy within the organisational structure of the BBC, it had its guaranteed place in the schedule and, in this sense, it had the independence to wield an unusual level of power with which to deliver programming without interference. Since it broadcast, the cult of the commissioner has emerged - a particularly powerful set of gatekeepers to programmes, and to the type of talent that appears on those programmes. Ironically, in a digital ecosystem that has become less certain where the audience will go for what it wants, commissioners have become more insistent on what the audience doesn’t want. The commissioners themselves lack diversity and this has worked against creating a diversity of stories and personnel.

In Access All Areas (Henry & Ryder, 2021), the question of ring-fenced financing has been floated as a remedy to this absence of access: to offer certainty to diverse production houses that they can make content which, because it is funded, will be broadcast. Good ideas cannot be refused once paid for. Of course, bad ideas can still be rebuffed and reworked, but good production houses know how to get the best from their product.

In one of her extraordinary BBC Reith Lectures, back in 2000, Onora O’Neill made an important intervention. It goes to the heart of the relationship between the media and the audience, and resonates well for Black and Brown audiences, in particular. O’Neill said, “To restore trust we need not only trustworthy persons and institutions, but also assessable reasons for trusting and mistrusting” (O’Neill, 2000, BBC).

The brutal reality in today’s media ecosystem is that the BBC is much diminished as a player in our broadcast environment. It no longer commands the attention or resource it once did, and it is even less relevant to younger audiences than it used to be, because of the alternatives that are now available.

However, it remains at the heart of British cultural production, and still has the ability to set the mood music for the industry’s approach to issues of equity. With Black Britain, there remain lessons of power, resourcing and recruitment which may not be applied in the same way now, but which offer us examples of what broadcasters must focus on in order to move the dial and tell a plurality of stories about our evolving nation.

Professor Kurt Barling is Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University, and former BBC Special Correspondent and Reporter on Black Britain.


Aitkenhead, D., (July 6th,1996). ‘BBC tries to vault the ghetto walls with Black news’. Independent, London. 

Black Film Bulletin, (Autumn 1996), Vol 4:3, pp.5-8.

Hall, S., (1997), Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. Sage: London.

Henry, L. & M. Ryder. (2021), Access All Areas: The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond. Faber: London.

Malik, S., (2001) Representing Black Britain: Black & Asian Images on Television. Sage: London,

O’Neil, O., (2000) A Question of Trust, BBC Reith Lectures, accessed online April 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2002/BBC

Representology, (Winter 2020) Issue 1.