Trevor Phillips OBENew research reveals that Britain’s TV viewing is split along racial lines. In this blog for the Media Policy Project, Trevor Phillips OBE presents the findings of the research, arguing that the media has an important role to play in promoting racial integration and that the potential privatisation of Channel 4 would risk people of colour in Britain “losing their most trusted voice”.

There’s nothing inevitable about racial or religious integration. As the Prime Minister has pointed out we are still a nation where being black or Muslim is virtual guarantee of unequal treatment.

And though many of us don’t want to admit it, a racial fault line runs right through our society. We remain residentially segregated. Half of minority children start school in minority-dominated classrooms. ONS data shows that Brits appear to be less likely to marry across the lines of race and religion than in past times. A 2011 inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that some employers are routinely segregating their employees by nationality, to avoid “tensions” on the production line.

That is why the role of the media is so important.

Viewing of terrestrial channels is a powerful proxy for integrated behaviour. The box still remains our nation’s campfire; TV news is the most consumed and the most trusted way of understanding what is happening around us. It is the vital connective tissue that should share and maintain our values.

That tissue is wearing alarmingly thin.

Ratings data for 2015 shows an ethnic divide just too large to be explained away by factors such as income, geography or educational attainment.

According to our analysis every one of our major channels had a lower share amongst minority audiences than amongst the overall audience.

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The two major BBC channels, in particular, were some 40% less likely to be viewed by minority individuals. BBC2 emerges as the whitest terrestrial station in the UK.

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Whilst popular programmes like Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Call the Midwife, Poldark – held little attraction for people of colour, the Queen’s Christmas message, nowhere with white viewers, was a hit amongst minorities.

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News programmes, which should do most to share our changing national story, fare even more badly. Amongst minorities, ratings for the most widely watched bulletin of all, the BBC’s Six O’clock News, are almost exactly half that for all viewers.

The only winners here are the BBC’s public service rivals Channel 4. They are the most attractive of the four main channels to minority viewers by a distance; and Channel 4 News, uniquely over-indexes by some 78%. Exactly the headline that a station charged with serving a diverse audience should generate.

Does all this matter? Yes it does.

One reason is that virtually all the increase in our population for the next fifty years will come from immigrants and the children of immigrants.

A second reason is that people of colour are, in effect, paying for the upkeep of channels that underserve them. It’s a question that should figure in the debate about the BBC’s charter renewal.

And third, what happens at home doesn’t stay at home. The phrase water-cooler television was coined to describe the fact that a great show will be a huge talking point at work or at school. Not only can TV tell us a story about our racial divisions – it can amplify those divisions by excluding whole groups from the shared conversation.

Finally there is a political imperative here for government. If Mr Cameron really means what he says about racial equality and integration he will immediately call a halt to talk of privatising Channel 4. Based on the data about how people behave, Channel 4 right now is the most important agent of integration in our national media. Privatisation would destroy that at a stroke.

A privatised Channel 4 would have little incentive to appeal to minority audiences, and even less to bring them together with majority audiences. Roll on the rise of separate language channels and ethnically exclusive services.

And a privatised Channel 4, even with an official remit to promote diversity, would become prey to some dangerous external pressures to pander to vociferous minority groups.

The reason that Channel 4 leads is precisely because it has its combination of constitutional certainty, commercial freedom and political independence legally guaranteed. If we interfere with that trinity, people of colour in Britain will be losing their most trusted voice.

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics. This blog is based on a speech delivered by Trevor Phillips to the 2016 Oxford Media Convention. The full speech can be read here

The Media Policy Project has previously published blogs about the issue of media diversity, including one from 2014 by LSE’s Shakuntala Banaji and Myria Georgiou: The Future of the BBC: the Burning Issue of Diversity Behind and on Screen.