The author and others discussing diversity in broadcasting at the Royal Television Society. Image: Royal Television Society.
There is phenomenon called “regulatory capture.” It is a form of failure that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.
Regulatory capture often happens because people from the industries they represent have privileged access to the regulator in the course of their work and at expensive industry events, beyond those without corporate expenses, where the regulated and the regulators mix and mingle informally. To be fair, Ofcom says that holding one public meeting a year in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where the public is given 30 minutes to ask questions about the Ofcom annual plan, demonstrates that no one has privileged access.
Ofcom showed the first signs of regulatory capture last week at its annual public meeting in London when it was asked about seeking and publishing programme diversity data from broadcasters. The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality has argued that Ofcom should publish simple on and off screen diversity data on the top ten programmes in every genre – to provide evidence that employment diversity is not being pushed to the margins. The entertainment union, BECTU, wants to see diversity data on prime time programmes that employ more than fifty people, with just one data set for a series and just one data set for the reporting period for continuing programmes.
Tony Close is Ofcom’s Director of Content Standards, Licensing and Enforcement. He is responsible for “Monitoring diversity and equality of opportunity in broadcasting.” What Ofcom says about diversity in its annual plan sounds good:
“We will publish a new annual monitoring report on ‘Diversity in Broadcasting’, based on equal opportunities data and information on diversity initiatives from broadcasters. This report will provide a comprehensive picture of how well each broadcaster – and the industry as a whole – is performing on staff diversity.”
But when Ofcom was asked about publishing programme diversity data, Ofcom suggested it was only a matter for “Project Diamond” – the TV industry-controlled project that Close said has chosen not to report on a programme by programme basis “because some programme making teams are so small that to release the data would be likely to identify individuals and the information they have given about their protected characteristics.”
This reasoning is nonsense and Ofcom should know it. The BBC has reported “the editorial department of Holby City included 40% BAME employees.” An "editorial department" on Holby City represents a much higher level of granularity than either the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality or BECTU is seeking.
As for size, the Arts Council now publishes annual diversity data on all National Portfolio Organisations and Major Partner Museums who employ more than 50 staff.
With Project Diamond, the television broadcasters are collecting very detailed diversity data. Ofcom should require all radio and television broadcast licensees to supply it with the simple diversity data the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality and BECTU seek and Ofcom should publish it for the top ten programme in each genre which employ more than fifty staff.
Ofcom must also clarify that when it reports on “broadcasters”, it will publish equality monitoring data for each licence. BAME broadcasting workers have long complained of being ghettoised into working in areas and licences focussed on BAME content and not being hired to work on mainstream licences.
As yet, radio has no Project Diamond to collect diversity data. Unless Ofcom seeks diversity data per radio licence, the picture on major issues, such as the ghettoisation of BAME workers in some areas and their complete absence from others, will remain hidden. Data for only Global Radio would mask individual data for LBC, Capital, Heart, Capital XTRA, Classic FM, Smooth, LBC, Radio X and Gold which together broadcast to 24.6 million listeners.
Under its earlier leadership, Ofcom did the bare minimum to fulfill its statutory requirements under Sections 27 and 337 of the Communications Act. Early last year, Culture Minister, Ed Vaziey, reassured diversity campaigners that Ofcom would now be “looking at the maximum possible under the duties.”
In November, Sharon White, Ofcom CEO, said that diversity is “an area where we have not done enough in the past, and it is now a priority for us.” Ofcom’s unquestioning acceptance of the industry line on programme diversity data is a poor start. Ofcom should think again – and quickly.