Diversity has been a buzzword in the UK's creative industries for some time. There is a clear lack of representation of ethnic minorities in all areas of the arts – from acting and TV (which the #BAFTASsowhite hashtag touched upon), to the publishing industry where, The Bookseller found, that out of thousands of titles published in 2016, fewer than 100 were by British authors from non-white backgrounds. Journalism, too, has a problem. Most newsrooms are homogenous in the extreme – 94 percent of journalists are white.
Despite all that, this week Theresa May's government decided to withdraw £2 million in funding from Creative Access (CA), which is actively helping black, Asian and ethnic minority creatives break through, and is the only charity of its kind. Since 2012 it has helped secure internships for more than 700 people, with 82 percent ending up in full-time positions after they had completed their placement.
The demise of CA is directly connected to Brexit, explained Josie Dobrin, the co-founder of the charity. Starting as a grassroots organisation, CA was originally given a big chunk of government funding from September of 2013 through to March of 2015. After this came to an end they approached the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and submitted a proposal that was approved by the treasury and Nick Boles, then minister of state for business.
"After Brexit, Nick Boles and Osborne got the sack. Theresa May came in and she put all decisions on hold," says Dobrin. "It got to summer recess and we were told we wouldn't get a decision until September, but there were further delays. We got people like Rufus Norris from the National Theatre, Emma Tucker from the Times, Charlie Redmayne from Harper Collins and Tony Hall from BBC – all the leaders in their industries – to write in to tell them to get a move on. That was obviously the catalyst for them to come back last week and say that we hadn't got the funding."
There has been an outpouring of grief and anger over the government's decision. A petition started yesterday by journalist and producer William Njobvu already has over 1,000 signatories. "The closure of Creative Access will limit diverse young talent from growing in the media industry," says Njobvu. "Media companies are starting to become more diverse, which is great, but I still think more work needs to be done. Creative Access was the pioneering group for that, so it's upsetting to know they're being shut down."
Considering so few young people voted to leave the EU, this seems like yet another kick in the teeth for a subsection of society coming up more "woke" than ever before. That it was recently revealed that the government blocked the appointment of what would have been Channel 4's only black, female board member is equally as frustrating. David Lammy MP, a former culture minister who led a campaign for diversity in the BBC earlier this year, and who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on race and community, told VICE he is "really disappointed" that cuts have led to the closure of CA.
"It feels like a big step backwards after so much rhetoric on social mobility," he says. "I've been raising concerns about diversity across broadcasting, the arts and media. It's clear that for many people these professions are all but impossible to get into, and the government needs to think very carefully about what message this sends out the week after the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport blocked the appointment of Althea Efunshile to the board of Channel 4."
"The truth is that we all need Creative Access," says Lara Weisweiller-Wu, who landed a CA internship in 2015 that later became a full-time role. "The organisation's motto is that the media cannot reflect society if society is not reflected in the media. And it remains the case that those problems of access disproportionately affect BAME people, for many reasons – from statistically increased likelihood of childhood poverty in certain communities to unconscious bias among those who hire and fire."
Dobrin said one of the things that worries her most about the potential closure is how she will continue to support CA's network. At present, both as a current intern and alumni, there is access to regular masterclasses from industry experts and mentors, and a network of colleagues for support and collaboration. "There's one thing of bringing in people to the industry, but it's another thing staying there," she says. CA alumnus Luke Mills makes a similar point: things can still be tough for ethnic minorities, even once they're in secure jobs.
"Every day I still have encounters with people that suggest they are unsure of how to deal with me, whether it's people staring, people only wanting to talk to me about popular 'urban' culture or people who visibly have a minor internal meltdown when I say 'hi' and shyly scurry away without reciprocating," he says. "One afternoon my colleagues and I had booked a table to work in the Shard for a day – I was singled out by security at the door and was asked what business I had there. The situation was quickly diffused, however, when my white boss arrived."
Although CA has been condemned by the likely suspects – like Katie Hopkins, who wrote in the Daily Mail that it helps to promote a "very modern form of job discrimination", where it doesn't help to be white – most interns acknowledge that while the charity's approach isn't perfect ("Many white people from disadvantaged backgrounds face challenges of a similar kind," says Weisweiller-Wu), the intersections between race and class in the UK mean its model is still viable. There's no forgetting, for instance, that a black person born in Britain today is 12 times less likely than a white child to become prime minister.
"Coming from being raised by a single mother working class Bangladeshi background, no one in my family had ever even been to uni, let alone known what the 'media' was, so CA opened up so many doors," says Shabnom Khanom, another CA intern who is now in a full-time role at a PR firm. "I could never have taken back-to-back unpaid internships like you need to in this industry, nor did I know a soul in the media, so CA addresses a very important class problem too."
Although Creative Access is looking at other funding sources, they say that currently, without government support, it's likely they will be forced to close their doors.