Hardeep Singh Kohli interview: ‘The BBC’s institutionally racist; of course it is’

Looking for love… Hardeep Singh Kohli. Photograh: Steve Ullathorne
2 Mar 2014 @ 1.24 pm
| News
Looking for love… Hardeep Singh Kohli. Photograh: Steve Ullathorne
Looking for love… Hardeep Singh Kohli. Photograh: Steve Ullathorne

Those technicolor turbans, those caterpillar eyebrows arched above his spectacles in quizzical bemusement: there is a cartoonish aspect to the public face of Hardeep Singh Kohli.

And the broadcaster is out for laughs when he brings his first stand-up tour to York this Monday (March 3). In Hardeep Is Your Love he describes the difficulties of a divorced, middle-aged “hairy, fat, brown man from Glasgow” entering a dating scene which has been changed beyond recognition by technology and social media.

Yet behind the caricature lies a serious and thoughtful man. Someone who talked with refreshing candour about everything from institutional racism to the baffling workings of the BBC to Scottish independence.

First, that new show. It’s “very personal” he says. “As a 45-year-old man who’s lived through this technical revolution – everyone’s online dating, texting and Skypeing – we never had this when we were teenagers growing up.

“So the world really has changed massively.

“For years and years I was married and therefore not really across the changes. And then you get spat out and you go, ‘how do I begin to deal with this?’”

He “can’t do internet dating” but has had a look at the various websites.

“The e-harmony one for example has an amazing questionnaire you get asked on the way in to joining up. Obviously I stopped the minute they asked me for money because I’m Scottish and Punjabi.

“But it’s fascinating the detail they go into. In a sense it’s an extension of the arranged marriage scenario.

“All arranged marriages were online dating without the internet.”

‘Few brown men on TV’

Then there’s the added complication of being a public figure. Hardeep has been a familiar face on our TV screens on programmes such as The One Show and The Wright Stuff, as well as his own series like Hardeep Does… and In Search Of The Tartan Turban.

Five years ago he hit the headlines when he was suspended from The One Show. A woman working on the programme had made an informal complaint about his alleged inappropriate sexual behaviour, and he apologised unreservedly.

“No formal complaint was ever made about me at the BBC ever. Twenty-five years, never once. Yet here I am, still talking about it,” he says.

“There aren’t many brown men on television. I happened to be the most high profile and was never supported – just was cut off at the knees by a particularly hateful individual.

“I was appallingly badly treated at the BBC in that instance. And they know it.”

On the day we talked, Vincent Van, the Malaysian owner of Cardiff City football club, had branded the British press “a little bit racist”.

Does Hardeep agree?

“Yes. In the words of Avenue Q everyone’s a little bit racist. The BBC’s institutionally racist; of course it is.

“The Metropolitan Police is institutionally racist; the press is institutionally racist. Pick up The Guardian – the beacon of left wing thinking. And how many brown people or black people write for The Guardian?

“Then work your way towards the right wing papers. We are not chosen by them.

“We currently have an Etonian elite running the country, or a Westminster elite running the country. They don’t really know black or brown people.

“But listen, whatever one might say, the UK is still the best country to live in, in terms of race relations. A lot of positive stuff has happened.”

He believes the greater problem is misogyny, in the press and in politics. “I don’t celebrate the fact there are 24 per cent of women in the Westminster parliament. When we get to 51 – I’ll celebrate.”

‘Worse than mediocre’

Hardeep could have been on our screens more, but is selective about the projects he’ll take on. “I don’t get excited when they ask me to go on television. I turn them down 90 per cent of the time.

“They can’t work out why – I’ve been asked to go into the jungle pretty much every year, and I always say no.”

He is withering about much of modern TV. “In 30 years’ time, people like Paxman, Dimbleby, Joan Bakewell, Sue MacGregor – great broadcasters – will no longer be around because there is no continuity any more.

“They’ve got the boy from JLS doing the interviews behind the scenes on The Voice – he can barely string a sentence together, let alone ask a meaningful question.

“We are embracing mediocrity. That’s not even fair on mediocrity. Most of it’s worse than mediocre.”

His first love is the wireless. “I love the Radio 4 work. But Radio 4 really need to make their mind up about what they’re going to do with me,” he says.

Like many who have dealings with the corporation, he has a love / hate relationship with Auntie Beeb.

“It’s a little bit like your ex-wife – I’ll be the first to criticise and the first to defend. But also there’s an added component at the BBC which is that it’s ours.

“And another added component which is that I don’t work for the BBC bosses – they may think they employ me – but I’m employed by the licence fee payers.”

That is why his programmes usually involve him meeting and talking to people from all walks of life.

“I feel quite a lot of my colleagues with central contracts if you like, never meet the public – never have to meet the public. Sit in the ivory towers of broadcasting and pronounce from on high.

“The great benefit I have is I feel like I’m a representative of the people, because I get to travel around the UK, meet people, talk to people, take the temperature of the country and feed it into what I do.”

He adds: “If I wanted money I’d go and work in television and I loathe television. I just want to connect and create a community with my listeners.”

York’s Scottish clan

That direct contact with his audience is what he enjoys about the stand-up tour. And he’s looking forward to coming to York.

“There’s a big Scottish presence in York bizarrely, which seems even more worrying when you consider that after midnight you can still kill a Scotsman inside the city walls with a bow and arrow.

“I do like York, I like the railway museum an awful lot.”

Then it’s back to Glasgow, a city he has moved back to after 20 years of living in London. And he’ll be voting “yes” to Scottish independence.

“It’s not so much about creating an independent country as restoring a once great nation,” he says, adding that Yorkshire might follow the same lead.

“I know for a fact that Yorkshire feels the same as we do about the parochial London-centricity of it all.

“If anything London should be the independent state and give us all a break.”