Sir Trevor McDonald has warned the media to be vigilant against the risk of an “apartheid” system that does not properly represent the UK’s ethnically diverse population
However, the former News at Ten anchor said UK broadcasting had “improved a lot” since he became ITN’s first black reporter in the 1970s.
He was speaking after comedian Lenny Henry called for money to be ringfenced to boost the “appalling” representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the broadcasting industry.
McDonald told the Ad Week Europe conference in London on Monday: “I think [BAME representation] has improved a lot. I’m sure there are many more black and ethnic people on television, especially in the news field.
“I am not sure how long a television station, a profession, can go on if it does not constantly represent the mix of the community. I don’t see how you can have a kind of almost apartheid sort of division if people who represent the bulk of the population are not represented in the media.”
McDonald said he knew “very little” about the acting world, one part of the industry-wide issue addressed by Henry when he gave the annual Bafta lecture earlier this month.
Henry said funds should be set aside to boost the numbers of BAME people in the creative industries, but McDonald said he did not think quotas were the answer.
“I remember when we started positive diversity classes at ITN with one of my colleagues. If you really wanted to know what happens in these communities, how are you going to do it by just standing outside and not having people who were actually there?
“How are you going to represent people nationally if the people who do your work are not exactly representative of the national picture? I think it’s improved an enormous amount. I was the only black face on national television for a very long time. That’s not the case anymore.”
In a wide-ranging interview looking back on his career, McDonald described himself as a “card-carrying coward” when he was a reporter working in warzones, and how he had taken “downers” before interviewing Saddam Hussein.
McDonald, who has presented documentaries about prison and people on death row for ITV and has another project in the pipeline for the broadcaster, said he did not want to return to the topic after the inmates started to “get into my head” and “warp” his life.
“I lived with them for too long,” he said. “I had a long corridor to walk to my hotel room and I started double-locking my door and behaving oddly. I thought, these guys were getting into my head. It’s very odd.
“I dropped my guard with one guy … and I said to the guard, ‘what did he do?’ ‘He’s a contract killer.’ My nice friend is a guy who spent his life killing people he didn’t know. It worried me I was so stupidly fallible to fall for the charms of a contract killer.”
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