Speaking directly to the television industry at this year's Edinburgh Television Festival, David warned that that if change doesn't happen, they risk losing the entire next generation of viewers. He also reveals why he almost quit the industry altogether.
David has worked in television in front of - and behind - the camera for over 20 years and is a regular face on our screens as presenter of shows such as A House Through Time, Black and British: A Forgotten History and Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.
Born in Lagos, the British-Nigerian grew up in Gateshead, North East England, and studied history and journalism before starting his career in broadcasting, becoming one of the UK's foremost historians and ranked amongst the most influential Black Britons of 2019 and 2020.
As well as being an award-winning documentary make, he is also a professor of Public History at Manchester University and a celebrated and award-winning writer; author of The World’s War, co-author of The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and The Colonial Roots of Nazism as well as a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Black British History.
During his MacTaggart Lecture, he gave a stark warning to the television industry about the need to share power with those who have, for so very long, been marginalised and silenced. If they don't, they risk losing the entire next generation of viewers, and face obscurity.
As part of this year's virtual festival which continues until Thursday, David Olusoga OBE delivered his first MacTaggart lecture to the TV industry from Bristol City Hall. A lecture which reflected on an extraordinary year that has brought several of the industry’s challenges into sharp focus.
David began his speech by saying “Looking back at MacTaggart lectures of the past it's almost compulsory, in the first couple of minutes, to say something along the lines of 'this has been a year of incredible change', or 'we stand on the threshold of a new era for our industry'. But in 2020 I think claims like that have never been truer."
"2020 has been a historic year, a year of terrifying and bewildering events that have affected all our lives. And the impact of the past six months on our industry has been serious and troubling… But the other seismic event of 2020 of course was the brutal murder of George Floyd and the global movement that has coalesced under the banner of Black Lives Matter."
"These events - the pandemic and Floyd's murder created a chain reaction. A new virus made manifest and obvious some of the oldest and deepest inequalities in our society... In the spirit of Black Lives Matters, in the spirit of an age in which millions of people have come to recognise that silence on these issues is a form of complicity, I am going to say what I really think about race, racism and our industry. And I'll discover if, at the end of it, I still have a career.”
Sharing his thoughts on his 20 years in the industry, he acknowledged that whilst he has had success within the industry he also reveals how it has also caused him great despair, depression and admits that this resulted in him almost leaving the industry altogether.
“I have been given amazing opportunities, but I've also been patronised and marginalised. I've been in high demand, but I've also been on the scrap heap. I've felt inspired, and convinced that our job - making TV and telling stories - is the best job in the world. But at other times I've been so crushed by my experiences, so isolated and disempowered by the culture that exists within our industry, that I have had to seek medical treatment for clinical depression."
"I've come close to leaving this industry on several occasions. And I know many black and brown people who have similar stories to tell.”
Olusoga also shared his own experiences of working in a predominantly white industry, discussing the disparity of the audience demographics compared to those who make and commission the shows and how marginalisation is leading to people of colour leaving the industry, losing vital talent and voices.
“For as long as I've been in this industry we collectively have been aware that the people who make and commission the UK's television programmes do not look like the population at large - our audience."
"In 2016 Directors UK reported that just 2.22% of TV programmes were made by BAME directors. And of the directors on their dataset just 3.6% were BAME, which means even though the industry has long claimed to be crying out for black producers and directors, many of those already in the industry were then not getting work. Then there is the problem of retention."
"In their Submission to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Film and TV Charity reported that even before the current crisis 73% of BAME production talent had considering leaving the TV industry.”
“I stand here today not as one of the TV industry success stories, but as a survivor. I am one of the last men standing of TV's lost generation. The generation of black and brown people who entered this industry fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years ago with high hopes. I'm a survivor of a culture within TV that failed that generation. I'm here because a handful of people used their power and their privilege to help me.”
Olusoga also shared with festival delegates his thoughts on how the industry can make real change and how it is imperative to nurture and retain those colleagues from non-white backgrounds already working in TV, encourage and invigorate the next generation of programme makers and engage generations of viewers to come – that generation who are prepared to have difficult conversations and that have fully embraced diversity, Black Lives Matter and anti-racism.
In his closing comments, Olusoga said "There is one thing about this generation, that I have learnt while lecturing and talking to students, and to young people who read my books or watch the programmes I present. It is something that I don't think we in this industry yet appreciate. This generation's attitude to race and discrimination is profoundly different from that of previous generations. They don't just oppose racism, they are repelled by it - disgusted by it."
"Young people in this country - both black and white - simply do not want to live in a society disfigured by racism and racial inequality. And they are willing to have the difficult conversations that the generations before them chose to avoid.
Black Lives Matter is a movement with a simple message - silence, inaction or ineffective action is not neutrality it is complicity.
"The generation that is leading this global shift in consciousness and for whom these principles are sacred, is also the generation that our industry is at risk of losing. They are a generation we have yet to convince of the lesson I learnt in my childhood - of the magical, transformative, educative power of Public Service Broadcasting."
"This is a generation to whom we have yet to demonstrate our relevance. So in the end it comes down to this, does our industry have the will to genuinely share power with those who have, for so very long, been marginalised and silenced."
Watch the lecture back, in full here...