A WHILE BACK I switched TV provider. It was only after the switch I realised that the provider did not carry any Irish channels, and therefore I had to get a separate aerial installed. As it is one of those jobs that usually gets put on the long finger, I missed out on watching Irish television for over six months.
When I finally returned to viewing Irish channels after watching UK television, I was absolutely appalled at the lack of diversity staring back at me. As a TV license holder I felt cheated! Not only did programming not take into account our new diverse Ireland but I also felt I couldn’t relate to any of the presenters or their perspectives. This realisation prompted me to pay attention to all forms of media – and I soon discovered that radio and print were equally homogeneous.
It was 2006, and by this stage it was well recognised that 10% of the Irish population consisted of migrants. But I didn’t see any being invited onto programmes as contributors, and I certainly wasn’t aware of any even working in mainstream media.
Then I realised that the lack of representation extended to other groups such as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; Travellers, religious minorities and people with disabilities.
Then the biggest shocker of all – Irish media is highly male-dominated! Why aren’t there more women on screen or on air? I was completely taken aback by this and thought: How are we ever going to create a more inclusive and equal Ireland if Irish media does not accurately reflect the Ireland we live in? Furthermore, if Irish media was not representative of women – who constitute over 50% of the Irish population – what hope did other minority groups have?
‘My earliest memory is sitting in the bath scrubbing, wishing I could turn my skin white’
This was the single most deciding factor that made me volunteer in a community radio station called Phoenix FM in Blanchardstown. I had only arrived in Ireland six years earlier and even though I had just set up my own company I felt so strongly about the importance of diversity in the media that I decided to be part of the change I wanted to see.
The reason for my convictions is a deeply painful and personal one. I was born in Italy to Sri Lankan parents in the 70s and was the only non-white child in my school and my neighbourhood. I was badly bullied in school and for many years my only friend was our television set but I never saw anyone that remotely looked like me on Italian TV. My earliest childhood memory is sitting in the bath scrubbing my skin wishing I could get the “dirt” off so I could turn my skin white and be like the other kids. I was concerned that if Irish media didn’t change the same would happen here and migrant children would grow up feeling uncomfortable in their own skin like I did.
After producing and presenting a multicultural show for two years in community radio I joined the Newstalk team in June 2008 to present what was initially an intercultural programme called Global Village. This has evolved into a groundbreaking and award-winning social affairs programme which has at its core a vision for an equal and inclusive Ireland where all residents can aspire to reach their full potential.
So the question is, has Irish media changed much since 2006 and has it become more inclusive? The very fact that I am currently the only migrant of colour and one of the very few openly gay women working in mainstream Irish media as a broadcaster actually speaks volumes as the answer is still unfortunately a big fat NO!
So why should media be inclusive you might ask? Apart from social responsibility, the national broadcaster is under obligation to provide programming which caters to all residents – and sadly, like many TV licence holders, I still don’t feel I am getting good value for my money.
‘Diversity should not be viewed as a box-ticking exercise, but as an opportunity for growth’
Now before you think that I’m just blaming the national broadcaster for this imbalance, have a quick look at any one of the many independents out there and sadly the same lack of diversity is replicated there too. Don’t they share the responsibility of inclusive programming? Shouldn’t all Irish media, state and private, have an obligation to the Irish equality legislation both as employers and service providers?
Many people reading this will immediately assume that I am trying to make a case based on political correctness which many think would not yield any benefits to the establishment or the audience. However, I am actually trying to make a business case for diversity in the media – much like the recognised business case for diversity in the workplace.
Without quoting studies and statistics we know that human beings are a diverse bunch. Our gender, sexuality, culture, nationality, religion, age, abilities, disabilities, education, socio-economic status, marital and family status, life experiences and even hobbies make us different and influence what we like or dislike.
It doesn’t take extensive studies to ascertain that currently Irish TV, radio and print are predominantly catering to white, male, heterosexual, settled, without disabilities, middle class, Catholic Irish audiences.
Diversity should not be viewed as a box ticking exercise but instead as an opportunity for growth and keeping up with the times. Ireland has changed and so must the face of Irish media or it will run the risk of losing audiences.
The bottom line is – broaden the talent pool and for a creative industry such as media – talent is money.
Dil Wickremasinghe is a broadcaster with Newstalk 106-108 FM, a social entrepreneur and a stand-up comedian.