ourBeeb: Opinion

“Diversity: The BBC may fool itself but it won’t fool the Lords”

Problems arising from the BBC’s lack of diversity among its programme-makers remain, despite all the BBC initiatives over the past 19 years.

Simon Albury
20 August 2019, 9.17am
Sheila Atim with Shanty Productions receives Female Performance in Film Award.
Screen Nation 2019. All rights reserved.

When Sheila Atim received the Screen Nation Female Performance In Film Award on 28 April for her performance in Shanty Productions’ first feature, a full text version of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, she couldn’t have known the BBC would deny the film’s significance in supplementary evidence to a Lords Committee, submitted personally by Lord Hall, the BBC Director General.

The Lords Communications Committee is holding an enquiry into public service broadcasting in the age of video on demand. The committee is asking how serious the threat to public service broadcasting is, whether it is worth saving, and what form it could take in future.

It is taking the issue of BAME representation seriously. The Committee’s call for evidence said: “Research for Ofcom suggested that Netflix had particular appeal to BAME groups, who saw it as more representative than the BBC.”

The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality (CBE) submitted more than 5,500 words of closely argued evidence on the BBC’s failure to fulfill the BBC Charter and Public Purposes obligations to employ and serve BAME people, both on-screen and off. It showed that at the current rate of increase (0.1% in the most recent year), it would take the production arm BBC Studios more than 40 years to achieve 14% BAME employment to match the current UK population; and by then, the BAME population is expected to be more than 20%.

Now the BBC has produced a rebuttal which is littered with half-truths, misrepresentation and denial of incontrovertible facts. The BBC appears to be fooling itself, but it won’t fool the Lords.

Parliamentary scrutiny

Over the past year, parliamentary committees have been unimpressed with BBC evidence on equality issues. Last October, the Commons Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee, chaired by Damian Collins, published a damning indictment of the BBC and called on the Corporation to “take urgent action to remove discriminatory pay practice and its legacy from the organisation.”

In April, the Commons Public Accounts Committee chaired by Meg Hillier published an equally damning report on BBC Personal Service Contracts. It showed that the BBC’s approach to hiring freelancers has been fractured, chaotic and muddled and that the BBC should write to it, “to set out how it intends to ensure that it will exercise proper governance over key operational changes in the future.”

Over the past five months, the Lords Communications Committee, too, has shown it knows what it is doing. Its membership includes Labour octogenarian Lord Gordon, a former Scottish TV Political Editor who brings more than 50 years media industry experience; Conservative Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen, just appointed a Government Whip, who has shown great tenacity on programme employment data issues; crossbencher Baroness Kidron, whose directing career includes Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason; and hereditary peer Lord Bethell, who ran the Ministry of Sound.

On diversity, few have been stronger than the three Lib Dem Baronesses, Benjamin, Bonham Carter and Grender, except perhaps the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford. The Lord Bishop has criticised the BBC for “its ignorance of the cultures which it serves” and particularly in relation to Muslim issues.

Stacey Dooley Panorama

The Lord Bishop will not have been surprised that on August 5, Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme was forced to apologise for the mischaracterisation by the reporter, Stacey Dooley, of a gesture signifying fundamental and important concept of “the oneness of Allah” as an “IS salute.”

The risk of such mistakes had been identified a year earlier in the BBC BAME Career Progression and Culture Report which warned:

“More should be done to understand other cultures and any disinterest to learn challenged. There have been a few high profile mistakes in the last twelve months – the Mayor of London’s nationality and the use of footage of the wrong Bollywood star in TV news obituary. A more ethnically diverse newsroom is more likely to have picked these issues up before broadcast.”

“A more ethnically diverse newsroom is more likely to have picked these issues up before broadcast.”

The Lord Bishop will, no doubt, recall that the CBE evidence, which the BBC now seeks to denigrate, said:

“The BBC saw an exodus of senior BAME staff in 2016. Among them was BBC Head of Commissioning for Religion, Aaqil Ahmed, a Muslim from a northern working class background. Aaqil Ahmed was effectively restructured out of the BBC. James Purnell, as part of his expanding portfolio, took over Aaqil Ahmed’s role as Head of Religion.”

Had Aaquil Ahmed remained at the BBC, the Panorama mistake might perhaps have been avoided.

Despite all the BBC initiatives over the past 19 years and all the interventions identified in the new BBC Supplementary evidence, the problems arising from the BBC’s lack of diversity among its programme-makers remain. The Stacey Dooley Panorama programme provides only the most recent example.

Now let us examine, in turn, statements in the CBE evidence that the BBC has met with half-truths, misrepresentation and denial.

It will take BBC Studios 40 years to achieve 14% BAME workforce

The BBC says:

“The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality claim that it will take BBC Studios 40 years to achieve 14% BAME workforce, based on figures from the 2016/17 BBC Annual Report. This is incorrect. 14% of BBC Studios workforce is BAME (as of 31 March 2019).”

The CBE evidence was based on comparing data from the BBC Equality Reports for 2015/16 and 2016/17. The 2015/16 Report says on page 35 that BAME employment in BBC Studios was 9.5%. The 2016/17 Report says on page 247 that BAME employment in BBC Studios was 9.6%. This shows a year-on-year increase of 0.1%. At that rate of increase, it would take BBC Studios more than 40 years to achieve 14% BAME employment.

The BBC Studios data in these reports was for the entity “producing programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK and internationally.”

When the BBC supplementary evidence said “14% of BBC Studios workforce is BAME (as of 31 March 2019)” it was with the clear implication that the data set to which it refers was comparable to the data set referred to in the CBE written evidence. This is not true. The BBC supplementary evidence is misleading, perhaps wilfully.

What the BBC didn’t tell the Lords was that unlike earlier data for “BBC Studios” for which the data set is the entity “producing programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK and internationally” and “a vital pipeline of talent”, the data set in the BBC supplementary evidence refers to a new entity called “BBC Studios” which combines the former BBC Studios with the former BBC Worldwide. In the Report and Accounts for 2017/18, the BBC provides data only for the new combined entity. It no longer provides separate data for the production arm as it did on the 2015/16 and 2016/17 Reports.

On 11 July, the date of the BBC’s dodgy supplementary evidence, Ofcom Group Director, Content and Media Policy Kevin Bakhurst, appeared before the Committee and responded to Baroness Grender who had observed:

“You mentioned BBC data. Something that has recently come in for quite a bit of criticism is the fact that BBC Studios and BBC Worldwide are being put together as a single piece of data when it comes to diversity.”

Bakhurst replied:

“I looked at those BBC figures in the light of that, and clearly there are problems, in that you cannot determine whether Studios is making progress or not.”

Diversity expert, former BBC executive Marcus Ryder analysed the impact of combining the data and reached the same conclusion. Ryder says:

“In 2018 9.6% of BBC Studios staff were from a BAME background while a whopping 19.2% of BBC World Wide were BAME. If you combine the two departments 14.0% were from a BAME background in 2018.

“In 2019 14.0% of the staff in the two combined departments are BAME (remember the stats for the two departments are no longer published separately).

“That means that in all likelihood there’s been no progress in the vital programme making division - I cannot say this with 100% certainty because the new ways of compiling the figures make this impossible to confirm.”

As Bakhurst and Ryder agree, neither the BBC Report and Accounts for 2017/18 nor the BBC Supplementary evidence provides any indication of the latest year-on-year rate of increase in the production arm “producing programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK and internationally” to which the CBE evidence refers. The BBC provides no evidence to disprove the CBE observation that it will take more than 40 years for the BBC production arm to achieve 14% BAME workforce if it fails to improve on the meagre 0.1% increase most recently reported.

As we shall see later, this is not the only example of the BBC merging data to produce a less damaging outcome.

Netflix, Amazon and other platforms

Netflix, Amazon and other platforms are providing valuable additional services and opportunities for BAME programme and film makers that are not available via Public Service Broadcasters.

Netflix, Amazon and other platforms are providing valuable additional services and opportunities for BAME programme and film makers that are not available via Public Service Broadcasters.

The BBC says:

“The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality claim there is a ‘system failure’ in regard to BAME on-air portrayal and that the SVODs provide additional opportunities for BAME programmes makers ‘that are not available via Public Service Broadcasters’. This is not a picture we recognise or one supported by the data.”

The evidence for “system failure” is in 2.7 and 2.8 of the CBE evidence and the BBC appears not to find the evidence convincing. The BBC is entitled to take its own view of that evidence: but evidence it remains.

That SVOD companies like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube provide additional opportunities for BAME programme-makers that are not available via Public Service Broadcasters is a matter of incontrovertible fact. CBE provided evidence from “Twelfth Night” starring Sheila Atim, “Stud Life” (Campbell X) and “Double Cross” (Kyla Frye).

- “Twelfth Night” starring Sheila Atim

Shanty Productions said:

“When approached, BBC, Sky Arts and Channel 4 showed little interest. The film has now been released via iTunes and Amazon. Without the marketing/advertising support of a mainstream broadcaster the six months since release have produced a modest income stream, but these platforms have given us an opportunity to distribute our work and raise the profile of our production company that will hopefully in time lead to further productions and the realisation of our original aim.”

- “Stud Life” - Campbell X

Campbell X is a black transgender UK filmmaker and “a leading creator of contemporary British queer cinema.” Campbell X’s “Stud Life”, set in East London “is billed as “a sexy, young and cool gay romance revealing a unique a slice of British urban life.” “Stud Life” was crowd funded via Indiegogo. It was acquired by Netflix, Amazon, and ITunes in North America and the rest of the world. From the online distribution revenue, the film was able to repay its investors.

- “Double Cross” – Kyla Frye

Kyla Frye is a black actress with a production company, Fryeday Entertainment LTD. In 2015, with Sam Benjamin, Kyla Frye wrote, produced and acted “Double Cross” a crime caper short she was able to place on Amazon Prime. Kyla Frye says:

“Every 3 months “Double Cross” has been averaging 580 minutes worth of streaming play from the US and UK with the States responsible for almost 75% of all plays. Amazon Prime has given me the opportunity to showcase my work and asses its commercial potential. I could not have done this with a public service broadcaster. I am optimistic about being able to make a full length feature and monetise it via an SVOD in the future”.

When they all say they have enjoyed opportunities not available via Public Service Broadcasters, the BBC seemingly either does not believe them, or regards their testimony as unrepresentative, without explaining why. Why does the BBC not believe or respect the evidence that these BAME people have provided?

The BBC also ignored other evidence published by the Committee. The TV Collective written evidence to the Committee said:

“The growing popularity and diversity of content available on platforms like FaceBook and Youtube, streaming services such as Netflix, and increased opportunities across the pond, means many from BAME communities are turning their back on working in traditional TV.

“A recent example of this is the creator of Shiro’s Story, a gritty UK drama, Andrew Onwubolu. Andrew couldn’t get any of the PSB broadcasters to engage with him. His series has racked up over ten million viewers on Youtube, Andrew has recently signed a life-changing multi-million pound deal with the US musical entrepreneur JayZ’s TV/film production company Roc Nation to develop his project.”

Netflix’s written evidence to the Committee said:

“Later this year Netflix will premiere the third season of Top Boy, a gritty British drama series following two drug dealers on an East London housing estate. The original series aired two seasons on Channel 4 before ending in 2013; the new series is executive-produced by the original creative team.”

It is abundantly clear that SVODs are providing additional opportunities for BAME programmes makers that are not available via Public Service Broadcasters. That the BBC remains in denial speaks for itself.

BBC Board and data

The BBC says:

“The BBC rejects the allegation that the BBC Board do not take responsibility for monitoring and measuring progress across all aspects of diversity.”

What we actually wrote in the CBE written evidence was:

“The BBC Board has failed to take appropriate steps to implement the obligations in Article 14. It fails to collect or publish adequate data on BAME employment, on the means by which its output and services are delivered and, in particular, programme diversity data.”

The issue for CBE is the adequacy of the BBC monitoring and measurement. The letter to CBE from the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries of 16 May 2019 indicates the adequacy of BBC diversity data is also of concern to the government. The Minister’s letter, which has been shared with the Committee, says:

“There are clear gaps in the breadth of diversity data provided to Ofcom and this needs to improve. Government expects broadcasters to voluntarily publish data on all diversity characteristics, not just the ones they are obliged to by law, to ensure that Ofcom is able to produce the most comprehensive reports possible.

“We are keen to find the best way of ensuring that Ofcom can hold broadcasters to account in this area. This is particularly true for the PSBs and especially the BBC which should be leading the way on both on and off-screen diversity in equal measure. Ofcom’s review of BBC representation and portrayal set challenges for the BBC in this area and I expect the BBC to take this seriously. Further, I will raise the issue of what changes might be needed to enable Ofcom to obtain comprehensive diversity data in my next meeting with Sharon White. If necessary, we will consider secondary legislation to ensure that Ofcom have the proper powers. Whilst this may be a challenge due to Parliamentary pressures, it is something I feel strongly about.”

The BBC says:

“The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality suggests the BBC “has failed to collect or publish adequate data on BAME employment”. This is incorrect. The BBC publishes more of its own, anonymised data than any other broadcaster, and more than we are required to.”

The BBC publishes a considerable volume of data but merging data about the production arm with BBC Worldwide is not the only example of it merging dissimilar data sets and masking embarrassing outcomes.

In the considerable volume of data published by the BBC, you would search in vain to find the percentage for BAME employment in BBC radio. The BBC Annual Report 2018-19 published on 2 July 2019 had also merged Radio and Education, thereby managing to record 11.3% BAME employment.

To find the actual percentage for BAME employment in BBC radio, you had to wait until 31 July 2019 when Ofcom published the Ofcom Monitoring report on the UK radio industry. Page 15 of this report reveals that BAME employment in BBC Radio in 2018 was only 9%.

The BBC says:

“We have met or exceeded many of our 2020 workforce targets”

On 17 July 2019, Broadcast published a report by Max Goldbart which the BBC has not challenged. The headline said “BBC Poised to Miss Targets” The report said:

“The BBC is facing an uphill battle to meet the 2020 leadership diversity targets put in place by Tony Hall.

“The broadcaster needs a net gain of some 120 BAME and 200-plus female senior staff if it is to achieve the director general’s “ambitious and stretching” targets, set in 2017.

“Its goal is for its leaders to be 15% BAME and 50% female by December 2020. At the end of March this year, the levels were 11.5% and 43.8% respectively.

“The BBC has made limited gains over the past two years in both areas, suggesting it will struggle to reach the targets based on current performance, although it has comfortably surpassed its 8% targets for LGBTQ+ and disability among senior staff.”

The BBC refuses to publish programme diversity data. Problems arising from the lack of diversity in programme makers continue as the problems with the Stacey Dooley Panorama make clear.

BBC BAME leadership

The BBC says:

“The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality claim there was an “exodus of senior BAME staff in 2016”. BAME leadership has increased year-on-year from 2016 to 11.5% in March 2019.”

A detailed analysis demonstrates:

BAME leadership increased by less than 1% in the 3 years from 2016 – 2019, from 8.81% to 9.48%, when the World Service is excluded - as Ofcom does in its reporting on BBC diversity.

The BBC has redefined “leadership”, thus precluding accurate comparison of the data from 2016 to 2019. It appears that senior leadership at the highest level has declined, while it has risen at lower levels.

Since 2016, in every year, BAME staff have left the BBC at a faster rate than their white counterparts. In 2016, 14.6% of all leavers were BAME. By 2019 this number has increased to 18.4%.

Lord Hall and Stacey Dooley

All this, and additional data in the formal CBE rebuttal, likely to be published by the Lords Committee in September, leads me to ask if Lord Hall and Stacey Dooley find themselves in the same boat.

On Twitter, some blamed Panorama for using an inexperienced celebrity reporter and the BBC press team tweeted: “It’s disappointing that criticism has focused on Stacey; every programme is a team effort, so the mistake wasn’t her responsibility.”

Current affairs professionals know that, with a strong and experienced production team, celebrities can be produced to give the appearance of expert journalists. Every programme is a team effort, from the programme editor (Rachel Jupp for Panorama) down to the entry-level runner. Team members at whatever level can step in to save a programme from disaster.

What is shocking in the case of the BBC flagship current affairs programme, Panorama is that no one on the team at any level was able to spot the error and no one questioned on what authority it was being claimed that the gesture in question was an "IS salute".

What is shocking about the BBC Supplementary evidence was that no one in Lord Hall’s team was able to spot the errors, half-truths, and misrepresentation, and warn him that the BBC evidence was flawed.

I first met Tony Hall in 1989. In 2000, he chaired the committee that appointed me to the post of Chief Executive of the Royal Television Society. I think I know him well enough to say he would never have wittingly submitted such poor supplementary evidence. But what of his team? Is it conceivable that the BBC would wittingly set out to mislead a parliamentary committee in such a shabby manner?

The way in which data has been distorted and facts denied in the BBC Supplementary evidence reflects poorly on the BBC. It demonstrates how little the BBC understands its own data or issues surrounding BAME employment.

Lords judgment

Over the past five months, the Lords Communications Committee has impressed observers with its insightful and forensic questions. In May, the Committee’s thoughtful Chair, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, explained its approach:

“Our broad remit is the digital economy in the creative industries. These increasingly, in my view, fit together in one important area of public policy making. They are both industries of the future – both potentially AI proof – they're both going to be where jobs are in future. They share an important set of issues around skills and access to people from different backgrounds, which will be increasingly important if these are big industries where future jobs are to be. It is ever more important that they're open to all, and there's a set of issues there……”

“Our broad remit is the digital economy in the creative industries… They are both industries of the future – both potentially AI proof – they're both going to be where jobs are in future.”

“We're very focused on evidence, gathering evidence and coming to sensible public policy proposals rather than making a political headlines, which is probably why you didn't see much of us in the papers. We think there needs to be a greater role for Parliament - that is not about interfering on a day to day basis (with individual regulatory regimes) but asserting societal values and priorities and making sure that the regulatory framework is addressing those.”

The Committee is expected to publish its report in October at the earliest. It is unlikely to take sides explicitly between the BBC and CBE on BAME issues but it will be focused on and guided by the evidence. A close reading will undoubtedly reveal that this Committee will not have been fooled by the BBC’s supplementary evidence.

Sheila Atim receives Female Performance award.
Sheila Atim receives Female Performance award.
Screen Nation, 2019. All rights reserved.
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