New BBAF president Aaqil Ahmed on colour and class

Aaqil Ahmed Aaqil Ahmed wants more diversity of thought

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Aaqil Ahmed is seizing the moment. The new president of the BBC's Black and Asian Forum believes the media industry should up its game in attracting more people from diverse backgrounds. Radical thinking? Not exactly. But what is different is Ahmed's belief that diversity shouldn't always be about colour, but should also concern itself with that prickly issue of class.

'I think it would be very hard for anybody to suggest for one second that our industry has not become more homogenized and more middle class over the last ten or 15 years,' he argues. He judges 'monoculturalism' to be 'the elephant in the room' that few people want to address. Asked if the BBC is perhaps too middle class - a claim that has been made by certain quarters before - the BBAF president will only say that it's an industry problem.

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A working-class person from the north of England may have more to say ... than a posh, privately educated person from a diverse background from the south of England”

End Quote Aaqil Ahmed BBAF president

What he'd like to see in the media, and not just at the BBC, is more 'diversity of thinking'. By this he means people who have all sorts of experiences they can bring to the table and to programme making, not just those who come from the 'right kind of background'.

He reaches for an example that hits close to home: 'The working-class Pakistani bloke from Bolton probably ain't going to get on [in media] and that's the problem, because that's the person we aren't reaching out to and if we're not reaching out to that person, then what is the point of diversity targets if we've got it all wrong?'

'Great title'

Ahmed - who is Muslim, Pakistani and grew up in Bolton - admits that he wouldn't have wanted the BBAF presidency a couple of years ago. As the head of religion and ethics and a commissioning editor, he already has a full workload. On top of his day job, he's a board member of Mosaic, a Muslim mentoring organisation set up by Prince Charles; and a chair of the Creative Diversity Network, a forum that promotes diversity across the TV industry.

It was during a diversity conference at Bafta last year that he heard worrying statistics about the number of people from minority backgrounds working in the media. According to Creative Skillset's 2012 employment census, the number of people employed in media has grown by more than 4000 since 2009. But almost 2000 people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have left the industry in the same period. They now represent just 5.4% of the total workforce, according to Creative Skillset.

Aaqil Ahmed

  • Grew up in Bolton to immigrant parents
  • Appointed head of religion and ethics in 2009; he's also commissioning editor for religion
  • Commissioned: The Life of Muhammed, The Preston Passion, The Ottomans and Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve
  • Previously with Channel 4, where he commissioned Inside the Mind of the Suicide Bomber
  • Loved but didn't commission: Blood, Sweat and Takeaways and Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts on BBC Three
  • Listens to: Radio 4, 5 Live, Talk Sport, 6 Music and Xfm
  • Favourite comedy: Modern Family
  • On television: 'The person who loves The Following on Sky Atlantic or loves Mad Men or Sherlock or Top Gear isn't the person who is bothered about ethnicity or diversity. They just love good-quality TV.'

'If those numbers are going down, that's an issue and it's an issue I feel strongly about and that's why I decided to [accept the presidency]. It wasn't any desire to have what I can only describe as a great title,' he jokes, laughing to himself.

Only a short time into his reign, Ahmed has firm ideas about what he'd like to accomplish at the BBAF. Top of the list is mentoring for people who would like it, an idea that is being backed by director general Tony Hall (who also said he will be appointing a race champion). The BBAF introduced a mentoring scheme for its members in 2012, but he'd like to triple numbers - taking it from eight people who've received mentoring to 24.

He also wants the in-house diversity group to have a better presence outside of London, particularly in Salford and Birmingham. The president would like to stage events and get out to the regions this year, creating momentum and awareness among staff who might be interested in BBAF issues.

Colour blind

Certainly, diversity is a hot topic at the moment, with many articles in the press talking about 'lazy stereotypes' in the media and the exodus of black actors to the United States, where there are perceived to be better opportunities for those looking for meaty roles.

To battle this trend, director of television Danny Cohen recently announced the introduction of 'colour-blind casting' - using the best actors for roles, irrespective of their race or what was written into the script. Ahmed is cautiously optimistic about this. 'If you said to me that we are going to have colour-blind casting where we are going to end up with actors like Idris Elba playing characters like Luther, then I would say brilliant. But if you are just doing it for the sake of it, who cares.'

Idris Elba in Luther, season 3 The man for the job: Idris Elba as Luther

It's the same way he feels about quotas, arguing that there do need to be targets to increase the number of minorities working in media, but that they shouldn't be used just for the sake of reaching a number or ticking a box. Fewer people who are more diverse in thinking, he adds, are better than loads of people who think the same as everybody else.

'In my opinion, a working-class person from the north of England may have more to say ... than a posh, privately educated person from a diverse background from the south of England.'

That's why he'd like to analyse the numbers more closely. With 7% of senior management at the BBC from a BME background, he says, 'Let's analyse what they have done. What difference has it made to a specific subject area?'

'Good bosses'

As chair of the CDN, he's also keen to audit the number of schemes and internships being run in the media, to ensure that those being recruited are from all walks of life and are given the chance to progress. His 'gut feeling' after 20 years in the industry is that there are too many entry level, a few on the producer level and then nothing. 'Are these delivering for us enough diversity of thought?' he asks rhetorically. 'I don't think they are.'

The commissioning editor adds that he's never benefitted from a diversity scheme himself but has worked hard. 'The biggest thing in my career,' he says, 'was just some really good bosses. I had some really good colleagues who made a bit of a difference.'

Now he's determined to make a difference to others, although he readily admits that there are more questions than answers. 'My role is to help answer some of those difficult questions,' he smiles.

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