Does the BBC care about class?

The BBC has made a concerted effort to reflect the diversity of Britain when it comes to race and gender. They should apply the same approach to socio-economic background.

Rhian E. Jones
8 December 2015
bbc class.jpg

Oxbridge educated David Dimbleby, David Attenborough and former BBC DG Mark Thompson, with Martin Bean, former VC of the Open University. The OU, which promotes social justice and equal opportunities, has an ongoing partnership with the BBC. Credit: OU

The BBC appears commendably focused on representing its audience. Given its reach, and the fact that most of us pay the licence fee, the corporation has a duty to reflect the general public. A variety of training schemes and targets have been implemented over the years to improve representation in terms of gender, ethnicity and ability, both among BBC employees and within programming. However, when it comes to class, the BBC seems to have a blind spot.

The BBC Trust’s service review of its news and current affairs programming underlined the challenge of representation:

 “Audiences need to recognise their own lives, perspectives and concerns duly reflected in the BBC’s programmes. BBC News needs to be heard as having a multiplicity of voices, with its own authority grounded in its experience and understanding of the many interests, cultures and communities that make up the UK.” 

Attempts to improve diversity, however, rarely include attention to how socio-economic background can influence success. This is clearly problematic when it comes to representing the British public, as class is a fundamental dimension of disadvantage that intersects with many others.

The educational background of BBC staff began to be systematically recorded in 2007. However, when confronted with FOI requests to access this information, the BBC has responded by stating that to compile this data in a usable format would require too much time and money. The BBC is geared to employ staff from a range of backgrounds, which should in theory have lessened the formerly nepotistic reliance of ‘Auntie Beeb’ on a recruitment pool of the privately educated. But until information on class is publically available, it remains difficult to tell what impact such initiatives have had on the socio-economic makeup of the BBC as a whole. A small but useful part of the picture was provided in a 2014 report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which found that a third of BBC executives had attended Oxford or Cambridge, compared to one per cent of the public as a whole. Similarly damning is the fact that 88 per cent of the public went to a comprehensive, but just 37 per cent of BBC executives did, while 26 per cent attended independent schools and a quarter went to grammar schools.

Of course, it’s not just the BBC. Research by the NUJ in 2011 found that across journalism as a whole, fewer than ten per cent of those entering the profession come from a working-class background, and just three per cent from homes headed by semi-skilled or unskilled workers. Although working for the BBC in one of its regions can offer a more secure route to a national position, the internships and informal research contracts often offered as a first job are largely London-based as well as low-paid and precarious. So aspiring journalists without existing family or industry connections, and those who are financially unable to survive the early unpaid or freelance stages of a media career, find themselves at a disadvantage. 

These material difficulties help to explain why leading figures in journalism are so heavily drawn from private schools and Oxbridge, but there are also cultural factors at play. The BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, having worked his way to senior level with no industry or family connections, noted that he found it harder to progress once there:

“There is a lack of diversity of socio-economic classes the higher up the food chain you get but I think the correct educational background from certain educational establishments can open up opportunities for advancement. [Although today the BBC] would be easier to enter as there are so many entry level and diversity schemes, [my] concern is what happens when you are in, I think without the right educational credentials to fit in your career would stall at a certain level.”

Ahmed’s experience echoes recent criticism of the BBC’s race representation as focusing on filling quotas rather than altering a still relatively ‘monocultural’ corporation at any deeper level. It also demonstrates how socio-economic disadvantage can interact with other factors. Former BBC executive Pat Younge, in an article exploring the BBC’s problems with audience retention, makes the point that BAME audiences in London tend to be ‘disproportionately young and disproportionately poor’, and that ‘coming up with a real plan addressing the BAME issue may also help the BBC address the class and age issues’. The same intertwined issues are present in terms of recruitment, where improving class representation should also help address the under-representation of other disadvantaged groups.

A narrow range of backgrounds at the top not only produces a narrow range of experiences but also tends to perpetuate itself, as those already in positions of influence recruit ‘in their own image’, entrenching the over-representation of an elite in executive roles. In 2014, a training event for senior BBC staff addressed the impact of this ‘unconscious bias’ in terms of gender and ethnicity, but made no mention of how it might extend to matters of class:

'Throughout the week there was repeated mention of unconscious bias– our natural tendency to recruit in our own image, to hear only stories that resonate with us personally and to gravitate towards what we know and trust. This has been shown to be a barrier to recruiting and promoting diverse talent through benchmarking research conducted by Race for Opportunity and Opportunity Now. It found 92% of organisations that do not require diversity/unconscious bias training have large disparities in recruitment results for men and women. It also showed 95% of organisations which recruit more than 15% BME applicants require training on diversity/unconscious bias for those responsible for recruitment, selection and interviewing.'

This situation both reflects and reinforces a wider crisis of class representation across contemporary politics, media, culture and the arts. While the BBC has reported on the manifestation of ‘elitist Britain’ within other institutions, it could also consider how its own structural disparities are reflected in its creative output. The BBC is the country’s most significant commissioner of new content, and a restricted array of class backgrounds among its commissioning and producing layers means that its programming often fails to recognise, understand or represent the wide variety of class experience in Britain. The unexamined ‘chav’ stereotype in particular has appeared to eclipse more complex local and regional working class identities. Aside from Little Britain and its Vicky Pollard character, or retro confections like the recently re-commissioned Upstairs Downstairs, the BBC’s portrayal of the working class is largely confined to sensationalised splashes like Britain on the Fiddle, despite criticism of this kind of reality TV as unrealistic and unrepresentative ‘poverty porn’. 

The solutions to this state of affairs, like the factors behind it, will involve cultural and material change both within and beyond the BBC. Immediate practical work is required to address the obstacles of low pay, precarity and insecurity at the early stages of a media or arts career, and the dominance of unpaid internships as a way into employment. Targeted internships and diversity schemes will do little if they require applicants to have independent wealth or family support, or to be based only in London. They will also do little if they only provide entry to a culture which still proves inhospitable or impenetrable at executive or commissioning level.

The BBC’s welcome efforts to improve its representation in terms of gender, race, sexuality and ability has gained it a place in the top ten public sector organisations for inclusion and diversity. Class representation could be given the same attention. This would include accounting for the influence of socio-economic factors on an individual’s chances of employment and career progression within the BBC, and actively recruiting and supporting applicants from working-class backgrounds. Recent research suggests that Britain’s creative sector is increasingly becoming ‘the preserve of the rich’. Today, the BBC exacerbates the problem. It could instead become part of the solution. 

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