Ofcom gets it right

Rachel Shabi

Last week, Ofcom decided not to investigate a routine performed by the dance group Diversity on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this month. So far so good. The performance, which referred to the death of George Floyd and the wave of protests that followed, drew a record-breaking deluge of 24,500 complaints: that the dance routine was ‘racist towards white people’, portrayed the police negatively and supported a political organisation. ‘In our view,’ Ofcom responded, ‘the clear overarching narrative of the performance was to reflect the events of 2020 and to call for social cohesion and unity.’

That much would have been obvious to anyone who watched Diversity’s performance without the blinkers of bad faith and prejudice. Using an inspired mix of music, theatre, contemporary and street dance, the troupe articulated – in a spectacular, exhilarating four-minute routine – what many people engaged in progressive politics often struggle to put into words. But it was swiftly overshadowed by a confected outrage of absurd polemics.

The furore brought a grimly predictable rain of racist abuse and threats against members of Diversity. Ashley Banjo, the troupe’s choreographer and lead dancer (who’s currently filling in for Simon Cowell as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent), shared a sample message of complaint: ‘We the Great British Public will only support you if you entertain us and do not say anything about racism.’ It’s a sentiment all too often expressed, though not always so bluntly. ‘You do not represent or speak for the Great British public,’ Banjo replied.

Diversity have also been inundated with praise. ITV took out supportive adverts across national newspapers and social media last Saturday. The performance garnered floods of appreciation for sparking a much-needed conversation about Black Lives Matter and racial inequality. Banjo has stressed that the support has far outweighed the hate. Despite the attempts of right-wing culture warriors to whip up a public outcry, more people welcome the discussion than are seeking to silence it.

But while the complaints did not succeed in stifling the conversation, they did narrow its terms. With the media focus on reductive, distracting binaries about Black Lives Matter – Should art mention BLM? Even in front of the children? – it was left to Ofcom, in its response to the complaints, to break down the narrative content of Diversity’s routine. The troupe used a reworked version of ‘The Great Realisation’, a viral YouTube poem by Tomos Roberts. Framed as a bedtime story being told in a utopian future, it describes an already ailing society being prompted to change for the better by the Covid-19 pandemic. Diversity’s performance also featured Dax’s song ‘Black Lives Matter’, written in June as an anthem for anti-racism protests; celebrated the ‘heroes of the NHS’; and looked forward with optimism to a fairer and more united post-pandemic future.

By any measure, Diversity are a successful street dance troupe, with regular TV appearances, including their own show, and sell-out arena tours since their Britain’s Got Talent win in 2009. You might think they’d be asked about the musical and political influences that shaped their routine, the choreography, song choices, staging and lighting. But in all the hoo-ha, any chance of serious critical appraisal has been derailed.

The viscerally moving performance was a window on the fears of a generation looking into a disaster-filled future of climate emergency, corporate greed, right-wing authoritarianism and a pandemic-induced economic crash, all fuelling insecurity, isolation, inequality and environmental collapse. An expression of pain as well as a rallying cry for the collectivism that might shape a better world, the dance gave voice to the many people frightened of the consequences of our current politics.

Not coincidentally, younger generations are the ones most let down by our electoral system: age is the deepest divide in UK politics, with the under-40s overwhelmingly voting for progressive parties, and the over-65s voting by a large majority for the winning right wing. Whether they are saying it in protest or poetry, in dance or at the ballot box, young people are trying to tell us that something is seriously wrong, and putting forward ideas for solutions that would benefit society as a whole. They deserve not to be shouted down, but to be heard.


  • 30 September 2020 at 11:12pm
    Brian Eno says:
    Well done Ofcom - and well pointed out, Rachel Shabi.

    And - above all - amazingly danced, Diversity.

  • 2 October 2020 at 6:29pm
    xi dong says:
    Ofcom's conclusion, that "Diversity’s performance was an artistic expression of topical social issues" which did not merit further investigation, was the right one.
    The narrative to the performance was tendentious stuff, containing the usual tropes about big business, inequality, BLM, and the NHS, but Diversity were entitled to express that opinion through their performance. I doubt, though, whether a counter-performance would have been allowed.

    The only question for BGT was whether the performance was talented. I thought it was.

  • 6 October 2020 at 7:17pm
    DaveW says:
    I agree with everything you wrote, but I think a lot of people are stressed and are simply looking for some occasional much-needed escapism at the moment. It is wearying and possibly counter-productive to turn every facet of life into a sociology or politics lesson. As Prince put it so memorably in the iconic song ‘Sign ‘o’ the Times’, his searing encapsulation of late-1980s angst: “You turn on the telly, and every other story is telling you somebody died”. People are generally good-hearted, but they inevitably get weary of being bombarded with distressing news and of being preached to continually.