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Barnie Choudhury: ‘Don’t hire BAME people if you don’t want change’

Madani Younis
Madani Younis

Former BBC journalist

THERE were four of us who were black or Asian  on the BBC local radio trainee scheme.

We made up 25 per cent of the cohort, and were considered pioneers, even though in the previous year, at least three were Asian. I will be forever thankful to them for forging a path I could follow.

Nevertheless, the BBC’s Panorama show fea­tured us in a programme about the changing face of public institutions in the UK. It was 1987, after all. By the time the programme aired, one had left complaining about racism, and another would re­sign a year later.

I left in 2010 after 24 wonderful years in an or­ganisation I love to this day, to pursue other projects. My friend of long standing, Clive Myrie, presents the BBC’s Ten o’clock News. The question is, why do some of us of colour succeed and others don’t?I was reminded of this question when I read that Madani Younis was quitting as creative director of the Southbank Centre in London. In the bigger scheme of things, Younis leaving may not appear to be a big deal. But it is. He was less than a year in post, and you have to ask, why? The comment from the Southbank’s chief executive, Elaine Bedell, could give us a clue. “We have enjoyed working with Madani and he has made a significant and positive contribution to discussions about our future creative direction. We wish him well for the future.”

By any stretch of the imagination, her comments were less than effusive. Compare that to when Younis was first appointed and Bedell was quoted as saying Younis would bring “new energy and vision” to the Southbank. “We want to provide bold, di­verse and ambitious artistic programming here and Madani’s arrival signals that we are entering an ex­
citing new era,” she said.

Does this not indicate that relations soured quickly? Actually, in hindsight, the fact that Younis was not the Southbank’s artistic director, unlike his predecessor Jude Kelly, appears to add fuel to theories that something was not right.

With Younis, the Southbank got “bold, di­verse and ambitious”’ in bucket loads. The
son of Pakistani and Trinidad immigrants, his talent was honed in the harsh reality of Bradford, where he was the artistic director of the Asian Theatre School. Younis’ first piece for the company was Streets of Rage, based on the city’s riots the previous year in 2001. Soon he would revolutionise the Bush Theatre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. It found and nurtured talent, and Younis said his legacy was “a more reflective community of artists and a breadth of new audiences that represent the diversity of the city around us”.

The fact is about six in 10 Londoners under 15 are BAME. Do we not owe it to them to
create places where they can show off their artistic talents? Months into his new post, You­nis said there was a risk of “cultural apar­theid” when it came to the arts, because institutions were not moving fast enough to embrace the changing demographics of the UK.
“Can you imagine a vision of the world in which we can link public funding to demographics?” Younis questioned. What he was saying was that funding for the arts should be decided by communities and what they want, rather than the current model of
them being done unto. This radical idea would not have gone down well in establishment circles.

My guess is that the Centre probably acknowl­edges the need for change, the need to embrace diversity, and the need to put a darker hue on the white stories we see, but, in the end, it could not stomach Younis’s radical nature.

Over the years, I have heard countless tales from BAME colleagues about how the indus­try recruits them, only to force them into conforming to its image. Their question is – how do you embrace true diversity if you compel people to adapt to a particular style in order to survive? Until recently, my view was that we owe it to our children to under­stand and play by the rules of the game, and work diligently and cleverly to change things once we get into positions of power.

Today, sadly, I recognise the flaw in that argument. One person can be the catalyst for change, and history is paved with revolutionaries. But, in the end, the organisation is more powerful than the individual. And the­ rein lies the lesson for institutions. Do not em­bark on change if you do not mean it.

Why else hire a change agent in the first place if you do not want a transformation?