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“All those featured are white” - what can we do about diversity at the BBC?

Fifteen years since the BBC pledged to reflect “the UK’s diversity in our programmes, our services and our workforce” little has changed. Why, and what can we do about it?

Simon Albury
9 December 2015
Evan Davies Newsnight

Credit: BBC/JeffOvers. © BBC.

In October 2015 The Independent published two videos. The first about Newsnight from the Royal Television Society for young entrants into the television and media, ran for 11 minutes and featured staff on the show “from the presenter Evan Davis and editor Ian Katz” to producers, the editorial meetings, those in the production suite, the floor manager and the lighting director. The Independent reported, “All those featured are white.”

The second, a 16-minute public presentation by the controller of Radio 5 Live, Jonathan Wall, titled Where Next for Radio 5 Live? made no reference to the BAME audience and included no non-white people.   

In November, the House of Lords Communications Committee published overwhelming evidence from the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality demonstrating the full extent of diversity failure at the BBC.

The last Creative Skillset Census showed BAME representation in the Creative Industries in 2012 was at its lowest point since the Creative Skillset Census began - just 5.4%. London is the least representative region with 28.8% BAME people in the general workforce but only 8.9% in the Creative Industries when over 40% of the London population is BAME.

It shouldn’t have been like this. Fifteen years ago the Cultural Diversity Network (CDN), set up at the behest of Chris Smith, was launched with a set of broadcasters’ action plans. The cast of broadcasting executives pledging to increase diversity off-screen included Greg Dyke, David Liddiment, Michael Jackson, Waheed Alli, David Elstein, Stewart Purvis and Clive Jones, the driving force behind CDN. Sir Herman Ouseley, then Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, detected a change in mood. "I'm hopeful that today is a watershed because the high-level executives have come here and pledged themselves to commitments, along with the Secretary of State."

The BBC pledged to reflect “the UK’s diversity in our programmes, our services and our workforce.” Its Cultural Diversity Network Action Plan was the most extensive and impressive. It included incorporating diversity as part of the programme planning focused on the top ten programmes in each department; developing experienced minority ethnic staff to compete for senior positions; targeting black undergraduates for work placements; reorganising recruitment to reach out to different communities; a mentoring project; integrating diversity into management development; and renewing the New Writing Initiative to find new minority talent. The plan claimed a “Diversity Centre” with a team of twelve, listed a dozen programmes to demonstrate that the BBC was “making greater progress in reflecting multi-racial Britain”, and thirteen awards it had won.

The BBC Cultural Diversity Network Action Plan is a catalogue of positive initiatives. They have now been tested over fifteen years and it is clear that individually and taken together they have failed to drive change and that additional and more effective measures are now needed.

To understand the measures in context, consider some of the evidence on the BBC’s record on diversity from the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality evidence to the Lords Communications Committee Inquiry into the BBC public purposes, which runs to 147 paragraphs and 84 footnotes.

 The BBC Public Purposes and Licence Fee funding give the BBC a special obligation, as Sir Peter Bazalgette explained to the Lords’ enquiry:

“The fundamental principle here should be that public money should be spent for the benefit of everybody, and the products of that public money - programming, arts events, whatever they happen to be - should draw on all the talents of the country, not only to reflect the country but to bring forward those people for their personal fulfillment as well.”

The Newsnight and the Radio 5 Live videos are just the two most vivid examples of the BBC’s failure to employ Black and Minority Ethnic people (BAME). When Baroness Doreen Lawrence visited the BBC last year for an event in her honour, Huffington Post reported that as she glanced around at the caucasian male camera crews she said "look around us here today...your cameramen here at the BBC - this doesn't reflect our society make up fairly!"

The BBC Trust does annual research on how it fulfills its public purposes. ‘Performance gaps’ show the difference between a statement’s performance score and importance score.  This year’s results show the vast majority of performance gap measures fell in the range of +3 to -10 but a key diversity measure, the performance gap for Black participants, was -48 points, worse even than the -42 score for 2013. 

The Trust’s latest Purpose Remit survey also includes other evidence on the BBC’s relative failure to cater to Black people. The proportion of Black participants agreeing that they would miss the BBC dropped from 83% to 59%; only 48% of Black participants thought the BBC offered good value; and only 32% of Black participants thought the BBC was good at representing their ethnicity. Other research shows that the gap in reach between BAME viewers and others grew in 2013-14 to 18%; that BBC One’s reach fell more steeply amongst BAME audiences compared with white audiences, with a 20% gap between them – and when it comes to staff, in 2014 more BAME staff resigned from the BBC than at any point since 2009 although this year the BBC has performed better on staff retention.

Despite all this data, this year the Trust has dropped off-screen BAME employment as a priority. In 2014, the Trust said it expected the BBC to develop “a workforce, on and off-air, of greater diversityand expected to see concrete proposals, and further progress in terms of both gender and ethnicity within a year. When I submitted an FOI request asking: “How did the Trust follow up? What concrete proposals were seen? What progress was made?” the response included no mention of concrete proposals and all it sought from the BBC Executive was “a full assessment, with particular regard to on-air diversity in autumn 2015.” The Trust appears to be modifying its former expectations to match the underperformance of the BBC Executive.

To feel better about the BBC and diversity, turn to the BBC’s own report Equality And Diversity at the BBC – 2014/15. This report excludes such negative data. It just highlights “good news,” positive case histories, prizes won and lists “Actions” which mirror some elements in the BBC Cultural Diversity Action Plan 2000. The Diversity Creative Talent Fund is a new initiative but it amounts to no more than 0.12% of the BBC’s 2012 content budget (of £1,789.1m) and is explicitly dedicated to projects which can demonstrate improved on-screen portrayal. The report said the funds achievements were:

On-screen - 17 new presenters and 8 new factual experts

Off-screen – 3 new BAME writers, 5 iPlayer shorts scripts, and a new comedy series “whose story hinges on BAME casting and director”

This is all good but it represents miniscule progress towards addressing the urgent structural change that is required. On-screen representation which is not matched by off-screen employment is a hollow, deceptive and superficial gesture. Editorial power and influence lie behind the screen not on it. The current BBC approach is so unbalanced that it could be said to be to all tip and no iceberg.

Take News and Current Affairs: in January 2014 I was interviewed by Justin Webb on the BBC Radio 4 Today Show. I told him what I had seen. At Today, in Central London where 40% of the population is BAME, there was not one BAME person in the vast BBC newsroom except for an Asian runner whose job was to take people to and from the studio. Sitting in the green room, I could see the Today Show control room where there were six men and just one woman – all white. In March 2015 I counted seventy people in the newsroom only two of whom were BAME. In November it still looked much the same.

News and Newsnight appear to be featuring more BAME people on-screen but if the BBC 2000 Diversity Action Plan had been effective there should now be people aged 35 – 40 in senior positions.  If there had been some even minimal diversity quotas, Newsnight would have been forced to look beyond the same-old same-old suspects and might have considered black journalists who are working abroad like former CNN Business Correspondent, Zain Asher, who is now a CNN presenter or Eno Alfred, presenter on Good Morning Nigeria and a reporter on the investigative series 30 Minutes for Cool TV, Lagos, Nigeria.

The case of Eno Alfred is instructive. Eno Alfred is 27. She was born and educated in Barnet. In 2009, she graduated with a BSc degree in Government from the London School of Economics and Political Science. At LSE, Eno was recruited by the world renowned Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with the support of two scholarships. There she obtained a MSc degree in broadcast journalism and went on to work for the United Nations, The Daily Beast, The Atlanta Post, Fortune and Global Trade Review.  Eno Alfred applied for fifteen entry level jobs at the BBC including broadcast journalist, (national, local, breakfast and online), assistant producer in children's presentation, and another on the One Show, press officer, production co-ordinator, production trainee and BBC North “opportunities pool”.

Despite her exemplary training and extensive experience, Eno Alfred was never interviewed for any of these jobs. In every case she was sent an auto-rejection letter.

If BBC News and Current Affairs was interested in staff diversity it might have noticed Nima Elbagir when she was shortlisted for the RTS Young Journalist of the Year Award in 2008. In the same year she also picked up two Foreign Press Association Awards. CNN (again) hired her in 2011 and last year Elbagir was the first international journalist to report from Chibook, the village from which the schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, where she interviewed two young girls who managed to escape – one of her many exclusives. CNN didn’t need quotas but it is clear that the BBC does.

What now needs to be done?

BBC Public Purposes

To be effective the BBC Public Purposes need greater specificity. The departments in BBC business and production units should be required to reflect the demographics of the population where they are based.

Protected Funding

In relation to BAME employment, Protected Funding should be set aside to address this under representation in the BBC as Sir Lenny Henry has argued. He points out that ring fenced funds for Nations and Regions led to a 400% increase in the number of network programmes produced in the English regions and that a similar fund for BAME employment should be created. The BBC has raised objections to the Henry Plan but the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality argues that they are unconvincing.   

Top Ten Programmes Quota

In 2014, Alex Mahon, then CEO of the Shine Group, proposed that the top ten programmes by ratings/year should be representative of the UK and suggested that this would be widespread enough to make a substantive difference and simple enough to measure. As a first step, as well as more ambitious targets, the BBC should set a quota of 12% BAME employment as a floor on its top ten radio and television programmes in each department based London by 2017. Given that London is 41.5% BAME this is a modest quota after fifteen years of inadequate action.

10 or 11 Year Charter

These remedies should be an essential element in a 10 or 11 year Charter settlement. £3,726m is a massive amount for one organisation to receive. 

The Creative Industries Federation report “Creative Diversity” provides a chart with a Black and Minority Ethnic breakdown by region:

  1. England
  2. North East                             1.3%
  3. North West                            7.5%
  4. Yorkshire & Humber              6.1%
  5. East Midlands                       5.9%
  6. West Midlands                     10.6%
  7. East of England                   7.0%
  8. London                                41.5%
  9. South East                          10.9%
  10. South West                          3.1%
  1. Wales                                  3.1%
  2. Scotland                              2.5%
  3. Northern Ireland                  0.4%

The BBC should be required to indicate how and in what time frame it expects to match these demographics.

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