TV production company Fremantle has so far declined to “repair the racist wrong” done to Barbara Blake-Hannah (as she put it) when she was sacked by its sub-brand Thames in 1968.
Thames TV became part of the company that would become Fremantle in 1993 and, although no longer a company, today shows including X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are produced under the Thames brand.
In 1968 newly-launched Thames Television, which had the ITV franchise for London, made front-page news when Jamaican Barbara Blake was recruited as the UK’s first female black on-screen TV journalist, appearing alongside Eamon Andrews on daily evening news show Today.
But nine months later her career was cut short when her contract was not renewed. A producer told her it was letters from viewers saying “get the n***** off the screen” which prompted them to remove her from her position.
Fremantle, which turned over £49m in 2019, bought Thames TV many years after it employed Blake-Hannah. It is part of Germany-based Bertelsmann media group which turned over €18bn in 2019 and made a profit of €1bn.
In 1993 Thames was acquired by Pearson Television which later merged with CLT-UFA to form RTL Group – subsequently renamed Fremantle Media.
Fremantle said in a statement: “We were distressed to hear about Barbara’s story and deeply regret the upset she felt. Every form of racism is unacceptable, and although huge strides have been made over the past fifty years, there remains a long way to go. Barbara is an inspiring and pioneering person with whom we have had a number of conversations and in whose name we had hoped to create an award or bursary celebrating and promoting young diverse talent in the UK television industry.”
An opportunity to say ‘this is terrible’
Blake-Hannah’s story was largely forgotten until she was interviewed by Bree Johnson-Obeng for Sky News in 2019. Press Gazette launched a new prize in her honour at the British Journalism Awards and there has since been widespread media interest in her story.
Urged by friends to make contact with Fremantle, Blake-Hannah had a video call with the company’s CEO Simon Andreae late last year. But after failing to reach a resolution with the company she has decided to speak out.
The loss of her Thames job led to months of unemployment, until she received a six-month post with ATV-Birmingham. There she again endured racism, having to commute daily from her London home as she was unable to find hotel accommodation in that city due to her colour. Disillusioned with what she described as Britain’s “systemic racism”, Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica in 1972, where she has lived since.
Blake-Hannah, now 79, said: “I feel I should have been compensated then, for all that I suffered and all that I lost. The time that has passed is not important.
“I am still alive and my life has never recovered from the loss of my job and my earning potential. It would be good to know if Freemantle feels any interest in repairing the racist wrong done to me, just like the obligation owed by the companies that still exist today that benefited from slavery. Black lives certainly do matter.”
During her discussion with Fremantle’s Andreae, she said no mention or request was made for money.
However, in a follow-up letter, Press Gazette understands that Andreae declined to accept Blake-Hannah’s account as proof that she was sacked for racist reasons. Fremantle did, however, suggest naming a bursary or award in Blake-Hannah’s name.
Blake-Hannah said: “I have no written proof and everyone associated with that sad example of systemic British racism except me is no longer alive, but it is a well-known story.”
She has declined the offer of the Bursary and said she was upset that Andreae had refused to accept her account as sufficient proof.
She said in an email response to Andreae: “After your comment, it would destroy my good name and respected reputation when it becomes known that you hold such an opinion of me and my history.”
She told Press Gazette: “They have the opportunity to say ‘this is terrible’, let’s right this wrong in some way.
“When I went back to Jamaica and said I had been a TV journalist everyone laughed. I had to start from the beginning again.
“When you buy a house and discover there is a hole in the roof what are you going to do? You are going to fix that hole in the roof.
“Do Fremantle want to sell their programmes in any countries with black people? They will never sell their programmes in Africa or the Caribbean.
“My story has gone around the world and black people are never going to forget this.”