BBC Diversity: will Ofcom deliver?

After eighteen years, the promise of broadcasting diversity is a cheque returned marked ‘insufficient funds’.

Simon Albury
11 September 2018

“Sharon We Need You”. An image of Ofcom CEO, Sharon White, dressed as a superhero, is projected onto the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery to launch the Make The Air Fair campaign, November, 2016. Jeff Spicer/Press Association. All rights reserved.

BAME employment in BBC Studios stands at 9.6%, an increase of 0.1% on the previous year. At this rate, it will take BBC Studios more than 40 years to match the UK population at 14% BAME.

You can’t find this year on year comparison in the BBC Annual Report. Although Sir David Clementi’s BBC Board is packed with business expertise – people to whom YOY and ROI (return on investment) are routine measures – none of them appears to have asked for a YOY analysis of the detailed BBC diversity data. If they did, it wasn’t published.

It is unclear if Ofcom will mirror this ostrich like approach. Ofcom is packed with highly numerate staff. Ofcom’s CEO, Sharon White, is among those tipped by the Sunday Times to succeed Mark Carney as Governor of the Bank of England.

I am almost totally innumerate but even I can see that if BAME employment increases at 0.1% per annum, it will take 10 years to increase by 1% and that it will take more than 40 years to get from 9.6% to 14%. I do not have the capacity to do a YOY comparison on the rest of the BBC diversity data.

It may be that the BBC Studios rate of increase is not typical. If it is not, I am surprised that the BBC has failed to say so following my tweeting the information on 23 August. That tweet received more than 60,000 impressions.

The BBC has unique privileges and unique obligations. A BBC Public Purposes charges it with “reflecting, representing and serving the UK’s diverse communities”:

To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the United Kingdom

The lives of the people in the United Kingdom today will be accurately and authentically portrayed in the BBC’s output and services to raise awareness of different cultures, contribute to social cohesion and invest in the development of each nation’s creative economy.

Last year the BBC received £3.787 million from the public as licence fee revenue

Matt Hancock, former DCMS Secretary of State, made clear on a number of occasions that he expected the BBC to lead the way on both on and off-screen diversity. He said, “The BBC going above and beyond its regulatory requirements in this area is clearly a part of this.”

Last year Ofcom reported that the BBC was trailing both Channel 4 and Viacom in terms of BAME employment. The BBC must lead the way.

Chequered history

Ofcom’s own history on diversity is chequered. It talks tough, acts weak and then after protest can act tough again.

Two year ago, in September 2016, when Sharon White addressed the RTS Conference, the RTS reported “Ofcom talks tough on diversity”. White said:

“As we take on regulation of the BBC, which now has much stronger public purposes around diversity, we will want to look quite closely at how we can make those quite hard-edged. [For example,] whether you have specific targets for employment or spending; whether you try to parallel the sort of arrangements that we have had for the nations in terms of specific budgets or people.… 

I know that there is some discussion over whether you [should] have some ring-fenced spending or not. We will want to look at all of this closely; this is going to be an area where I personally want to give a harder edge than we have had in the past.”

The harder edge had disappeared completely when Ofcom published its initial supersoft “wait and see” proposals for regulating BBC diversity. As Open Democracy reported, here and here, these proposals came under fierce attack from broadcasting minister Matt Hancock, MPs from all parties, and diversity campaigners. Last September the then DCMS Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, focused on diversity at the RTS Cambridge Convention:

 “ I fully respect the fact that it is for the broadcasters, the BBC board, and Ofcom to implement the changes we all want to see, but it is also right that I should lay down a challenge for them to do so. It will not be straightforward - but just because something is hard does not mean that we shouldn’t try.”

Last October, when it published a new approach in “Holding the BBC to account for delivering for audiences”, Ofcom finally appeared to have finally found a harder edge.

On September 18, Sharon White will be addressing the RTS Society conference again. Ofcom insiders say she won’t be talking about diversity. For Ofcom’s most recent thinking, we have look at what Ofcom’s Group Content Director, Kevin Bakhurst, told the August’s Edinburgh Television Festival Question Time session.

On diversity, Bakhurst argued that Ofcom thought one of the key tools was transparency and that in order to properly connect with their audiences the UK broadcasters knew that “their own survival strategy has to be a proper diversity on-screen and off-screen.” The best Ofcom could do?

“I do think shining a light on it is probably the best we can do – and then it is over to the broadcasters and then they need to make their own decisions…  All I can say from Ofcom’s point of view is that we will keep the pressure up we will keep putting out the information so that people can see if there is change or not – or if there isn’t change.”


Ofcom appears to have retreated a long way from Sharon White’s tough talk about employment targets and ring fenced funds of two years ago. Perhaps Bakhurst was keeping Ofcom’s powder dry.

Over the next two months, Ofcom will be publishing three substantial reports on industry and BBC diversity. On these it will be judged.

1.  The first, expected this month, is the latest television “Diversity and equal opportunities in broadcasting monitoring report.” The first report, last September, showed the BBC to be far behind Channel 4 on almost every measure and behind Viacom as well. This year’s report is unlikely to examine the BBC’s own diversity data as it is seeking to establish comparable data from across all broadcasters.

2.  The second is likely to be “BBC thematic review of representation and portrayal.” Ofcom says

“We will publish our first thematic review of the BBC, looking at how diverse communities of the UK are represented and portrayed in BBC TV programmes. We are conducting this review to understand in greater detail what audiences expect from the BBC, and whether the BBC reflects and portrays the lives of all people across the whole of the UK, as it is required to do under the BBC’s Charter and Agreement. Our research shows that several groups feel it doesn’t adequately represent their interests or lives. Looking at representation and portrayal in detail will provide a baseline to inform whether further measures are needed to ensure that the BBC is delivering for all audiences.”

At January’s annual Ofcom Public Meeting in London, Sharon White said this report might consider how BAME portrayal might be linked to BAME employment. What this report says and how it has been approached will be an important indicator of how seriously Ofcom takes diversity.

3.  The third is likely to be the “BBC annual report and the BBC performance report”. This will include “Our overall assessment of the BBC’s compliance with its licence conditions will include those set in relation to diversity.”

This is where we will see if Ofcom will look behind and beyond the limited approach in the BBC annual diversity report.

Data deficit

Ofcom should highlight the contrast between the BBC Annual Report and the BBC’s June report “Reflecting the ethnic diversity of the UK within the BBC workforce”?

Only the latter report admitted:

  • -   Numbers of BAME employees in the creative areas are low
  • -   Even though many BBC locations are in cities and towns with high BAME populations, figures in the Nations and Regions are very low

Even this report didn’t include the underlying data. We can’t know the severity of the under representation. As we don’t know the bases from which the BBC is starting, we will be unable to measure whatever progress, if any, the BBC might make in these areas.

Ofcom should provide the transparency Kevin Bakhurst says is important and provide the missing data. It should also publish an analysis of the rates of growth in BAME employment in all areas where comparable year on year BBC data is available.

How much longer?

Next month, in October, will see the eighteenth anniversary of the launch of the Cultural Diversity Network (CDN). At the launch, the BBC, the ITV companies, ITN, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky each produced an action plan, with employment targets and commitments to increase the number of BAME people on-screen and off-screen. Chris Smith, then Secretary of State, was the catalyst. Carlton CEO Clive Jones with Parminder Vir were its leaders.

Jones had made diversity a top priority for broadcasting CEOs and his CDN committee was packed with people who were passionate about diversity.

Everyone had hope. Sir Herman Ouseley, then Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said he 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".

At the start CDN created real momentum. Skillset data shows that in the years 2004 to 2006 the reported number of BAME individuals in the UK television industry rose by 80.6%.

After two years, Mark Thompson then Channel 4 CEO took over from Jones. Thompson ditched all the people passionate about diversity and largely relied on personnel officers. The momentum was lost, never to be regained.

After the two years of spectacular increase, the next six years between 2006 and 2012 saw the reported BAME numbers working in the UK television industry decline by 30.9%.

Will Ofcom deliver?

Ofcom is devoting significant high level resource to producing the three reports but will Ofcom say what it sees as a reasonable time scale for BBC units like BBC Studios to match the population? Will it think another 40 years is OK? Does it even think it has the power to set targets and quotas?

From what Ofcom’s Kevin Bakhurst said in Edinburgh it looks as though Ofcom sees its powers as weak – much weaker that Sharon White suggested they might be two years ago. When it comes to diversity, Ofcom appears more a toothless retriever than a bulldog.

The new Charter sets out that government will undertake a mid-term review primarily focused on BBC governance and regulatory arrangements. Issues relating to BBC diversity will be considered as part of that review process.

If Ofcom finds its current powers too limited, it should now be considering what new powers it should seek at the mid-term review. After eighteen years, the promise of broadcasting diversity is a cheque returned marked ‘insufficient funds'.

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