TV biz speech: when sexual assault crawls out from fiction and attacks the profession

TELEVISION: The silence that filled the auditorium suddenly crashed against the walls and floor when the word “raped” fell from the lips of Michaela Coel, the McTaggart Lecture keynoter at the 2018 Edinburgh International TV Festival (EITVF).

The award-winning actress (pictured above), screenwriter, singer, songwriter, poet and playwright was the event’s youngest-ever industry figure to deliver the prestigious lecture at the UK TV profession’s biggest annual shindig.

In its 40 years-plus history, the McTaggart’s august speakers have included industry pioneers:-

Marcel Ophuls, the iconic German-born Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker; Norman Lear, the prolific US TV producer known for a host of 1970s and 1980s hits; CNN founder Ted Turner; the Murdoch family: Rupert, James and Elisabeth; groundbreaking Belgian TV journalist Christine Ockrent; the late Verity Lambert, arguably the most inventive TV producer in the UK’s TV history; outspoken British media personality/journalist Janet Street-Porter; the now disgraced Hollywood star Kevin Spacey; and last year’s speaker was Jon Snow, the highly revered UK news anchor and international TV journalist.

This makes London-born Coel, who is of African descent, the first person of colour from any British, European or US ethnic group to wear the McTaggart mantle, and one of a few from a disadvantaged background.

But in 2018, her inclusion makes sense.

Multiples + mixture = safe diversity
The cry for greater diversity in front of and behind the film and TV cameras has never been louder. And Coel is most famous for Chewing Gum (pictured below), the acclaimed and popular comedy drama series set in multicultural London, on the UK network Channel 4.

Bullying, harassment and assaults of all types in the entertainment and media workplaces are currently being openly condemned. No one is surprised when high-profile names publicly rebuke the sectors for not doing enough to protect the vulnerable, including those not considered “mainstream”.

The related organisations insist everything is being done to shield creators and the creatives from being abused and to stop the professions from becoming havens for the malicious and malignant.

Despite denying some serious allegations, some of the great and the good in media and entertainment, from Asia Argento to Harvey Weinstein, are on the receiving end of this century’s own version of “J’Accuse…!”

Upbringing, career
But at the packed EITVF venue on 22 August, it is fair to say many of the aspiring producers and experienced executives in the audience presumed Coel was there to prove there is genuine diversity and multiculturalism (she is female and of African-Caribbean descent) in the TV sector.

Witty and humorous, she started her speech making references to her wild, wilful and irreverent youthful days.

If you want to know what it is like growing up a member of an ethnic minority group in London, check out the full speech (link below).

She does not hold back. The timeline is vague. But she talks about growing up among the deprived on her council estate in East London, not far from the affluent Square Mile, where London’s financial district is located.

Racial discrimination, violence, child prostitution did not shock adolescents. She also discovered she belonged to her area’s band of misfits, who saw their so-called unattractiveness as a symbol of their uniqueness.

She soon learned she was very good at conceiving, developing and telling their stories, telling all kinds of stories. She grew up thriving at drama school, on the theatrical stage, within the TV and filmmaking worlds, while embracing the collaborations and technologies that delivered those stories to people.

Brutal honesty
Her speech soon included hints at the shock to come. At an industry party, she recalled, a producer approached her and shamelessly said: “Do you know how much I want to fuck you right now?”

She continued her speech calmly, dignified; then came the bombshell. She said: “The other experience was a bit more life-changing. I was working overnight in the company’s offices; I had an episode due at 7am. I took a break and had a drink with a good friend who was nearby. I emerged into consciousness typing season two, many hours later. I was lucky. I had a flashback. It turned out I’d been sexually assaulted by strangers. The first people I called after the police, before my own family, were the producers.

How do we operate in this family of television when there is in an emergency? Overnight I saw them morph into an anxious team of employers and employees alike; teetering back and forth between the line of knowing what normal human empathy is and not knowing what empathy is at all.

When there are police involved, and footage, of people carrying your sleeping writer into dangerous places, when cuts are found, when there’s blood…what is your job?”

Coel continued speaking. She made it clear that the perpetrator was not employed by the company she worked with, and that the company pulled out every stop to help her. “I would like to stress: I was not raped within the offices of the company and I have never been raped by anyone at the company.”

Transparency = hope
To the now totally hushed festival audience, she urged the industry not to put profit before its people, to encourage its employees to be transparent with their ideas and experiences, to be more thoughtful about the differences among members of its production teams, to empower staff members to speak up, to evolve for the better of everyone in the business.

As she concluded: “Instead of standing here, wishing for the good ol’ glory days, about the way life used to be before Mark Zuckerberg graduated, I’m going to try to be my best; to be transparent; and to play whatever part I can, to help fix this house. What part will you play?”

Watch the full Edinburgh International TV Festival 2018 James McTaggart Lecture here.