I was intrigued to hear Rowan Atkinson’s thoughts about how the creative industries are “inappropriate environments for anti-discrimination legislation”. His comments came in a letter to Radio 4’s Media Show which had previously reported on Miriam O’Reilly’s victory against the BBC at a tribunal, following her being dropped from presenting the Countryfile programme as a result of her age. (BBC webpage)
Mr Atkinson suggested that “the legal tools she used should never have been available to her”; the tool he referred to is the Equality Act. He went on to say that the producer of any creative product should be allowed the creative freedom and latitude to include or exclude anybody or anything for any reason.
What he suggests is that an entire industry should be immune from the equalities legislation, which despite sometimes getting things wrong, has been an essential part of the development of our modern society and a driver of social policy. I have heard many a discussion about how writers, journalists, film and documentary makers’ feel that their freedom of speech is attacked by both equality and human rights legislation. Can this be so?
I can recall those days not so long ago when racist and sexist humour pervaded clubs and stages across the country. “An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walked into a bar….” Surely, Mr Atkinson, we have moved on from that – your comedy certain has. I hope that as a society we are more sophisticated and intelligent.
I offer a counter proposal. Instead of relaxing the laws impacting on the media, perhaps they ought to be strengthened. The media, particularly newspapers and television are in a very powerful position to influence the way people think and act. If we are truly going to challenge discriminatory attitudes and behaviours we have to begin with what the general public receive as their daily information.
Certainly much of what can be read in the press in fact incites prejudice, even if this is not its main purpose. A quick glimpse through the many of the daily newspapers and you will be able to find many articles which perpetuate negative stereotypes and images. Editors need to take responsibility for what they print, whilst also taking time to explore the reactions their words can cause. What makes stereotyping so pernicious is how it feeds general ignorance and prejudice across the country.
Perhaps for them and other in the media industry, the major challenge here is how to continue to work creatively whilst being a positive role model to readers, viewers and audiences regarding equalities.
I believe that the tribunal was right in finding against the BBC, a public institution that should know better; there is no place for discriminatory practice anywhere in our society, even the creative media – sorry Mr Atkinson.