Once, as head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips was derided as a poster boy for political correctness. These days, he seems to revel in controversy.
With the glee of a schoolboy who has just mastered a new swear word, Phillips teased the audience of Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True(Channel 4) with all the naughty things he was going to say. “By the first commercial break,” he promised, “you may be wondering whether I’m breaking every equality law in the book.”
He ought to know. What made this assault on our national self-censorship so liberating was that it was presented by the very man who had made many of these topics verboten in the first place.
Phillips and other campaigners long believed that if they could force people to stop sounding prejudiced, they would soon stop believing such prejudices, too. Now, he said, he is “convinced that we were utterly wrong”.
So, with all the zeal of a convert, he set about saying as many prejudiced things as he could in an hour: Jewish people are rich and powerful, pickpockets are probably Romanian and the builder over the road is almost certainly Irish.
It took too long for the crux of his argument to finally arrive but, when it did, it was a powerful one. Silence, Phillips argued, “creates victims, too”. By refusing to generalise about the actions of different races or communities for fear of being accused of stereotyping, politicians and the police have let down individuals within those same groups.
His focus on the Rotherham child abuse scandal was particularly illuminating, showing how an awareness-raising video featuring a Pakistani-heritage actor was substituted for one featuring an all-white cast, failing to reflect the racial make-up of most of the men convicted in the town’s grooming investigation.
At times, though, Phillips seemed keener to examine his own time in charge of race relations than to probe the nation’s attitudes. His impressive contacts book brought interviews with Nigel Farage and Tony Blair, but he wasted them by talking about himself.
Still, Phillips was adept at forcing Blair to concede that some of his followers had gone too far in pushing multiculturalism, though the former PM insisted that this happens with any supposedly righteous cause. And his encounter with Farage shed the clearest light so far on the Ukip leader’s approach to race relations laws, which he said he would scrap because racism was no longer a problem.
The shock Phillips expected to elicit from some of his statements rather proves how good he was at his old job. But if he really wants us to open up about race, he will need to make many more such films.