ourBeeb: Opinion

The BBC has failed on diversity: why were the Lords too timid to say so?

A House of Lords committee ignores great proposals from Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder while refusing to judge whether that the BBC is doing enough to diversify its workforce.

Simon Albury
18 November 2019, 10.33am
Lords didn't listen to Lenny
House of Lords. Some rights reserved.

I got it wrong. At the end of August, openDemocracy published my piece about a House of Lords Lords inquiry into public service broadcasting. The facts were solid but the headline ‘Diversity: the BBC may fool itself but it won’t fool the Lords’ has proved to be incorrect. This became clear when the Lords finally published their report at the odd time of 10pm on 5 November.

Although it was in many respects a damp squib, the Lords report achieved an explosive response from diversity experts. Despite hearing, receiving and publishing impressive, detailed evidence from a significant range of people on the under-representation of black and minority ethnic (BAME) people in television and at the BBC, the Lords concluded: “We believe that there is not enough data for us to opine on the substance of this issue.”

The actor, writer, comedian and independent producer Lenny Henry and journalist Marcus Ryder had made proposals for ring-fenced funding, funding for which production companies could compete and diversity tax breaks to increase BAME representation. Other witnesses strongly supported these ideas, but they didn’t even get a mention in the Lords report.

Ryder, a former BBC executive, now chief international editor at the China Global Television Network, who had come from Beijing to give evidence, said: “What I am most frustrated about… is not that the Lords don't adopt our policy suggestions but that they don't seem to have any policy suggestions of their own.”

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Evidence published by the Lords shows that at the current rate of progress it will take the BBC production arm, based in multi-ethnic London, more than forty years to get BAME employment to 14% and so to match the current population of the UK as a whole. Henry had told the Lords:

Only 36% of film directors are women. Only 3% of people working in the British film industry are BAME, while only 0.3% of the UK film workforce are disabled. In many ways, telly is worse. ‘EastEnders’ is set in one of the most diverse cities in the world, yet only 1% of its directors are BAME. Just 2.2% of UK TV is directed by BAME directors. Of the 100 top indies, only one is led by a BAME person.

Philippa Childs, head of the entertainment union BECTU, said: “What is so disheartening is that campaigners take seriously an opportunity to talk truth to power only to discover that they’re not really being heard.”

Baroness Hussein-Ece, who did not sit on the committee, observed: “Lack of diversity on these committees is a huge problem.”

Ofcom v Lords

The broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, had had some harsh things to say about the BBC’s failings with regard to diversity. It presented evidence in its report ‘Diversity and equal opportunities in television’, published on 18 September, and its annual report on the BBC of 24 October, both of which confirmed evidence given to the Lords. After the hearings closed, the Lords closed their eyes to what Ofcom reported.

The section of the Lords report on BAME viewers concluded:

Some witnesses argued passionately that there was a problem with BAME representation in the TV sector, especially at the BBC. … We note that the BBC and others are taking steps to address this. We believe that there is not enough data for us to opine on the substance of this issue.

As with other areas of the creative sector, the uncertain nature of freelance work and lack of adequate careers guidance present barriers to people from less advantaged backgrounds and BAME people from entering the TV sector. [Public sector broadcasters] have a special role to play in lowering such barriers.

We recommend that Ofcom should report on the diversity of commissioning teams at public service broadcasters to ensure that under-served audiences are represented at all stages of programme development.

So the Lords thought it did not have “enough data to opine” and appeared to believe that reporting data would ensure better representation. This is rather like thinking that more accurate scales will lead us to lose weight. Policy recommendations to increase diversity? Apart from empowering Ofcom to get better data, there were none.

By contrast, Ofcom’s TV diversity report showed that alone among major broadcasters the BBC had shown no progress at all in BAME employment in 2018/19. It had stuck at 13%, while Viacom (Channel 5) at 20%, Channel 4 at 19% and Sky at 15% had all increased by 1% over the year before. Even more disappointingly, the proportion of minority ethnic employees leaving the BBC had increased by 4% to 20% in 2018/19.

Ofcom opined:

Due also to the high proportion of BBC employees based in London, we reiterate what we said last year: the BBC should consider the national labour force percentages as the minimum it should be reaching overall, as minority ethnic group representation is much higher in London (and other major cities).

Ofcom saved its fiercest opining on diversity for its 24 October report on the BBC. It said:

Our research shows that certain groups continue to be dissatisfied with how they are portrayed by the BBC. The BBC should set out how it is acting on the findings of our review of representation and portrayal of people and places on BBC TV.

We are also concerned with how the BBC is reporting on diversity in several areas; specifically:

  1. The time it has taken to provide a report into compliance with its diversity code of practice
  2. The detail provided in reporting on representation and portrayal
  3. Measurement of audience satisfaction
  4. The way in which it presents its workforce figures

Taken together, these areas contribute to an overall concern with how the BBC is delivering against its diversity requirements in the Operating Licence. This is a critical area for the BBC’s success. It needs a robust and transparent plan in place for how it aims to deliver these improvements.”

Ofcom made clear: “The consequence of a lack of engagement is likely to be a more intrusive role for Ofcom.”

In a letter to BBC director-general, Tony Hall, to accompany the report, Ofcom chief Sharon White told him the corporation needed to do better. Diversity was among the areas of concern. She told Hall: “…we have an overall concern with how the BBC is delivering against its requirements on diversity and the transparency with which it reports to us”.

White was also concerned about the data fudging: “The merger of BBC Studios and BBC Worldwide has led to a reduction in visibility of diversity in production. We will be looking at how we can bring more clarity to this.”

If Ofcom continues on its new trajectory, critics of its former inadequate approach to diversity, like me, will have to revise our view.

The BBC Charter sets out that the government will complete a mid-term review by 2022 and that it will primarily focus on the corporation’s governance and regulation. It will consider diversity in that review. In that process, Ofcom’s views on diversity are likely to be taken much more seriously than those of the Lords committee.

Lords fooled me

It is hard to fathom why the Lords committee, which demonstrated such a clear understanding of diversity issues during the hearings, produced such lacklustre conclusions. There was no lack of expertise among its members, which included Liberal Democrat Baronesses Benjamin, Bonham Carter and Grender, Conservative Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen, and Labour’ Lord Gordon, a former Scottish TV political editor with more than 50 years’ media industry experience. Then there was the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford, who had criticised the BBC for “its ignorance of the cultures which it serves”, particularly in relation to Muslim issues. There is a disconnect between what could be seen in the Lords’ public hearings and what must have happened in the private sessions where they agreed conclusions and recommendations.

I was puzzled to see that the Lords gave so little weight to the passionate and detailed evidence and data from a range of impressive BAME witnesses, and that they had excluded Lenny Henry’s and Marcus Ryder’s policy proposals from the report. Then I looked back at some evidence that an expert witness had given the same committee four years earlier:

I am reluctant to move down the road towards some kind of hard measurement process whereby there needs to be 20% BME trainees or 25% on‑screen representation, because there is a danger then of moving into things like tokenism.

The witness was equally unenthusiastic about Henry’s proposal for ring-fenced funds. Baroness Benjamin asked him: “Is the Henry plan something that you feel the BBC should be adopting, or broadcasters generally?”

He replied: “Not really, because we are talking about a target. Then we start getting into the whole measurement issue and how you measure it. Does it then become, ‘We have to reach that target, but we are not aspiring to do anything better or bolder than that’; it is just that target, and that is it?”

Targets and ring-fenced monies have been successful in establishing independent producers, productions outside the M25 and other desirable outcomes, not least by Channel 4 and the BBC. Allied with competition for funds, they could be instrumental in boosting BAME participation in the TV industry at every level. All that is needed is the will. I then noted that the expert providing expert advice to this Lords committee was the same expert, Steve Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, who gave the evidence cited from 2015. Perhaps there is a connection.

Be that as it may, I am forced to conclude that when it came to BAME diversity, the BBC didn't fool Ofcom but it fooled the Lords and the Lords fooled me.

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