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Diversity - what Ofcom needs to do

Ofcom's new CEO has pledged to make diversity and inclusion a priority. The regulator needs to improve or it could face judicial review.

Simon Albury
24 September 2016
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Idris Elba, who has called for a more diverse media. Frantzesco Kangaris / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Ofcom is now the regulator for the entire broadcasting sector and has a decisive role to play in driving diversity and inclusion. For the commercial sector, Sections 27 and 337 of the Communications Act requires Ofcom and broadcasters to promote equal opportunities. Now, the BBC White Paper has said the BBC should be at the forefront of representing diversity on and off screen and that it needs to do better. The Charter gives Ofcom the power to ensure the BBC delivers.

In the past Ofcom did not take its equality duties seriously. Had it done more than the bare minimum, we might have expected to see an increase in BAME employment and the industry would look very different today.

One key driver of diversity is transparency of diversity data. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) made it a licence requirement that the licencees supply their equality monitoring data to the regulator. The data was published annually for each named licence together with a commentary on their actions and progress. Ofcom decided not to publish such data.

Even though it was the duty of Ofcom to take all such steps as they consider appropriate for promoting equality of opportunity, Ofcom Standards and Content partner, Tim Suter, told an Information Tribunal that while Ofcom could publish diversity data from licensees, it just didn’t think it was appropriate in 2005 (the year in the Tribunal action).  Ofcom still hasn’t changed its view.

Skillset data shows that between 2006 and 2012, with no data from Ofcom, the reported BAME numbers working in the UK television industry declined by 30.9%.

This is in stark contrast to the success under the ITC policy of data transparency.

In 1996, the ITC showed the total number of BAME workers employed by licencees was 298. In 2002 the ITC's data showed that this had increased to 565 - an increase of 89.6%. The biggest increases were shown at LWT (increasing from 73 to 184 people), Channel 4 (55 to 105) and Carlton (28 to 82). 

Ofcom has prided itself on being an evidence driven regulator. The evidence is clear – an 89% increase in BAME employment over 6 years with ITC transparency against a 30.9% decline with Ofcom opacity.

Ofcom now has a different CEO, Sharon White, and she has made it clear that diversity and inclusion are high on her agenda. In March, Ofcom told DCMS that it would now look at the maximum possible it could do under its statutory duties. If Ofcom is serious, this is what it should do.

  • Ofcom should commit to publishing an annual report setting out the action taken under its duties to promote – and require broadcasters to promote – equality of opportunity in TV and radio (Sections 27 and 337 of the Comms Act).   The report would include:

    • Data on diversity collected by Ofcom from broadcasters

    • New research, initiated by Ofcom, to build evidence on what actually works in promoting diversity and social inclusion. Specific actions which Ofcom has initiated under its duties

    • Commentary on actions taken by broadcasters to advance diversity and social inclusion.

  • In addition,

    • - Ofcom should monitor and provide commentary on the progress of Project Diamond
    • - Ofcom should produce new guidance for broadcasters on S27, including:
    •        - a pan-industry definition of diversity and inclusion categories
    •        - minimum standards for public sector broadcasters which need to be met, setting a clear expectation that broadcasters will make active progress on improving diversity

The obligations for public sector broadcasters, BBC, Channel 4, S4C will be greater than for commercial broadcasters. While each of these may have ambitious diversity and inclusion targets, Ofcom does need to set a minimum floor that must be met. History demonstrates that targets are seldom achieved eg for 2007 the BBC set a target of 12.5% for BAME employment which still had not been met in 2014, seven years later.

Ofcom should set out and define the minimum diversity and inclusion employment standards expected of the BBC for UK programme makers making programmes for the UK audience. These should be enshrined in the Operating License Regime and the BBC should be held to account with monitoring and review on an annual basis. Ofcom must ensure appropriate diversity and BAME employment, on-screen and off, on the top BBC programmes in each genre as well as at the margins.

 A similar process should begin with other public sector broadcasters to define their minimum standards.

  • The Arts Council has produced a chart “Workforce diversity of funded organisations, 2013/14”. This includes organisations that receive as little as £50,000 in funding. Ofcom should provide a chart with a similar level of detail for its commercial broadcast licensed services operations in the UK.

Ofcom should commit to publishing its first annual report on diversity and inclusion by end of 2017.

  • Ofcom should commit to publishing the legal advice it has obtained on the maximum possible it could do under its statutory duties

If Ofcom continues to fail to take adequate action to fulfill its statutory diversity duties it could face judicial review.

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