Is the BBC hideously middle class?

And, if it is, why is this a problem, and what can be done about it?

Dermot Feenan
17 October 2017

BBC Manchester, Oxford Road by night. Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.0.Do television and radio in the UK have a problem with social class? There is increasing concern that they do – in content, staffing, and corporate management. Tim Hincks, former President of Endemol Shine Group, said in the BAFTA Television Lecture in 2015 that television in the UK was “hideously middle class”. Sharon White, Chief Executive of Ofcom, the industry regulator, reported last year that many people felt the BBC was "overly focused on middle-aged, middle-class audiences". Rhian Jones has argued that the BBC needs to care about class. The industry is beginning to respond, but it faces significant challenges.

A panel at the Royal Television Society Convention in Cambridge this year revealed a broad range of concerns regarding class in television. Ofcom released a report coincident with the Convention reporting on diversity and equal opportunities in television. While Ofcom focused on race, gender and disability, it also reported on broadcasters’ initiatives to promote social mobility. Ofcom added that it will explore what new information can be provided on social background.

Broadcasters, including the BBC, have recently begun to address social class in terms of diversity. Undoubtedly, this has been aided by existing initiatives on diversity with reference principally to gender, race, disability, age and sexual orientation. Much of this engagement with class seems tentative and in development. Some commentators are concerned variously with ‘class’, ‘socioeconomic background’, or ‘social mobility’. Different variables are proposed to measure class. Proponents tend to rely exclusively on a metrics-based approach.

At this stage, key issues must be addressed: what is the problem against which these initiatives are directed? Is ‘class’ a valid category for analysis and, if so, how might class be monitored? If class is insufficient as a category to address the diagnosed problem, what other categories and interventions might be warranted? I will explore these questions with particular reference to the BBC. I do so in part because the BBC is a public service broadcaster whose duties raise distinctive issues regarding class.

Class at the BBC

James Purnell, director of radio and education at the BBC, revealed at the Royal Television Society Convention data on the ‘class or socio-economic background’ of BBC employees. 17% of staff, and 25% of the BBC management team, went to private school – significantly above the UK average of 7%. 61% of the workforce came from families in which the main earner had a higher managerial and professional job.

The BBC is alert to the need to expand its recruitment strategies in ways that overcome certain socio-economic advantages. It has banned unpaid internships, which tended to favour children from well-off families. It removes names and degrees from applications for internships and traineeships, which militates against unconscious biases and the tendency to appoint those ‘like us’. At senior levels this tendency to appoint those ‘like us’ favours the white middle-class who have been educated in private schools or at Oxbridge. The majority of the current BBC Executive Committee have been educated in private schools or at Oxbridge. Over 63% of the BBC Trust, before it was replaced by the BBC Board in April 2017, were educated in private schools or at Oxbridge. Oxbridge graduates feature prominently in the new board.

There is a risk that diversity can become a box-ticking exercise, a risk compounded when those commissioning tend to be white middle-class men who favour those in their own image.

Purnell said that the BBC is considering introducing targets regarding the class of its workforce. On the same date, the BBC launched its Diversity and Inclusion Commissioning Guidelines for Radio, which complement the existing similar guidelines for TV. The guidelines state that the BBC is "deeply committed to improving representation of all socio-economic backgrounds, as we strive for a wider range of voices to be heard on and off air." The BBC asks that producers encourage their researchers to look to accurately reflect all communities in the UK, including the nations and regions and all socio-economic backgrounds. It also asks that they "promote incidental casting across the diversity spectrum" and consider artists from all backgrounds regardless of, amongst other grounds, socio-economic background.

The BBC’s Commissioning Specification requires the BBC and supplier to confirm that "a formal conversation about Diversity on this programme/series [has] taken place... to help address under-representation and/or the BBC’s aims to promote Diversity". All suppliers have been required since 2016 to have a diversity and inclusion policy. There is no formal requirement, however, to record the substance of any discussion, and there is no indication of enforcement or sanction. There is a risk that this can become a box-ticking exercise, a risk compounded especially when those commissioning tend to be white middle-class men who favour those in their own image.

The BBC already has a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2016-2020 which includes social class within its definition of diversity. The strategy notes also that diversity is "about social inclusion and making sure that the BBC is open to all – no matter what your background or where you went to school." The BBC aims to drive social diversity through its apprenticeship and intern programmes. It says that through its ‘Creative Access Intern Programme’ it "will focus particularly on young people from socially diverse backgrounds, as a way of adding impetus to [its] support for social mobility". It does not say how it will do so with reference to class or socio-economic background.

The BBC says that it will, through apprenticeship, build on its partnership with job centres to ensure roles are actively promoted "to those who need them most", including a guarantee that 25% of all its work-experience applicants will be sourced from those who are unemployed. The delimitation to apprenticeships and to job centres is an unnecessary constraint on opportunity and access. Promoting social inclusion through targeted outreach for all posts is necessary. Socioeconomic disadvantage is experienced not only by those signing-on through Jobcentre Plus. The effect of repeated welfare cuts in recent years means that many socially excluded and disadvantaged persons fall between the gaps in state support, and as a result may miss out on an opportunity at the BBC.

Reflect, represent and serve

The BBC is required under its revamped Charter of December 2016, to ensure principally that it "reflects the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom in the content of its output... and in the organisation and management of the BBC". This ‘diversity’ requirement followed the unprecedented debate in Parliament in April 2016 regarding the lack of diversity, including with reference to class, in the BBC.

In addition to its specific principal diversity obligation, the BBC is required to "reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions" and in doing so "accurately and authentically represent and portray the lives of people of the United Kingdom". On this basis, it might be argued that class must not only be reflected but must also be represented and accurately and authentically portrayed.

There is no specific reference in the Charter to ‘socio-economic’ status (or indeed class or social mobility).

Similarly, the Charter provides that the mission of the BBC includes "serving all audiences". There is no specific reference in the Charter to ‘socio-economic’ status (or indeed class or social mobility) as stated in the BBC’s Commissioning Guidelines. However, the ‘diversity’ section of the Charter also insists on a further threefold set of obligations, those being: that the BBC ensure that its output and services overall provide a duly accurate and authentic portrayal and representation of the diverse communities of the whole of the UK; that the BBC ensure that it assesses and meets the needs of the diverse communities of the whole of the UK, and; that the BBC must have particular regard to the need to reflect underrepresented communities.

Ofcom’s responsibilities are set out in the Communications Act 2003. A principal duty is to "further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters". This must be achieved, in part, by securing the "availability throughout the United Kingdom of a wide range of television and radio services which (taken as a whole) are both of high quality and calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests".

The Act makes clear that there is a citizen interest in communications. Commercial interests alone are insufficient. While the requirement of "appeal to a variety of tastes and interests" is broad, it may reasonably be argued that this should include people from different socioeconomic backgrounds given the extent of social stratification within the UK and associated, though not necessarily correlated, variation in tastes and interests.

Ofcom also has specific duties in relation to the BBC, principally to regulate the provision of the BBC’s services and the carrying on by the BBC of other activities for purposes connected with the provision of those services. These are broad duties.

Defining the problem

A key challenge is to define the nature of the problem under consideration. Unfortunately, while people often use the terms ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class these are often ill-defined not only in social research but also, and as importantly, by the members of the classes themselves. Crude assumptions can come into play. Setting measures can be difficult.

New categories vie for attention, including the ‘Precariat’ and ‘squeezed middle’.

These challenges are not unique to broadcasting. Social class is an increasingly contested concept sociologically: the traditional categories are questioned. While concern is expressed regarding one of the traditional accompaniments to class difference, inequality, increasing attention is being paid to the difference between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ alone, the ‘1%’ and ‘99%’, the ‘elite’ and the unexplicated remainder. New categories vie for attention, including the ‘Precariat’ and ‘squeezed middle’. Professor Mike Savage said after the Great British Class Survey in 2013 that classes were ‘being fundamentally remade’.

The BBC has made a useful start in measuring class and socio-economic background with reference to private education and occupational background of parents. These measures are often used as indicators of class and may be salient indicators of socioeconomic background, but they cannot be sufficient to explain or measure class. Class also operates through what Pierre Bourdieu termed social (or cultural) capital, that can operate to disadvantage others. This form of capital tends to be highly prevalent among privately-schooled and Oxbridge-educated people.

Notwithstanding the challenge of precise definition, social class remains significant in shaping opportunity within society.

Why class is important

There are a number of reasons why it is important to address class, certainly within the BBC. First, the BBC arguably has a duty under its Charter to do so (and Ofcom is required to regulate that duty). This public service responsibility distinguishes the BBC. This privileged position arguably carries with it broader responsibilities. The BBC also has a significant share of the market. It is accorded substantial respect nationally and globally. What the BBC does matters. It is perhaps no surprise therefore that Karen Bradley, the Culture Secretary, informed Ofcom of the government’s view that the BBC should be leading the way with both on- and off-screen diversity.

Secondly, the BBC should reflect society. This has two main components: in one sense the BBC should hold a mirror up to society – presenting publicly an image that shows in its programming content the society within which it operates. In the second sense, it should reflect in its staffing, especially those who are publicly visible, the demographic profile of all social classes in the UK. There is a further perhaps ancillary component, alluded to by Karen Bradley in her speech to the Royal Television Society. The diversity of the BBC is important because it projects an image of the UK abroad.

Thirdly, diversity with reference to class is important for voice. This recognises that those from different classes or socio-economic backgrounds can have different voices, and that people in each class are best placed to express their distinctive voice. To give an illustration, those from the middle class may be ill-suited to seeking to represent the voice of those from the working class. The well-off, privately-schooled, Oxbridge-educated executive living in an affluent part of London or in the Home Counties that sends his or her children to private school may be incapable of understanding the experience of significant numbers of the poor or struggling-to-make-ends-meet rural or inner-city manual workers.

If there are no working class journalists it would mean that there was no media representation from within a class that, more than any other, requires a voice.

The point was made by Roy Greenslade, former editor of The Sunday Times, when he wrote: "if there are no working class journalists it would mean that there was no media representation from within a class that, more than any other, requires a voice." Class can also determine the ability to see a problem distinctively.

Sarah O’Connell reported in May 2016 that after working as a researcher in parliament where she witnessed with horror politicians’ expenses claims, including for £150 lunches, she informed BBC Newsdesk who replied: "this isn't a story, MPs have to eat". It was, she said, "exactly the kind of thing BBC news executives might be doing as well". Social background and inability to regard expensive tastes or habits may have affected journalistic judgement. O’Connell added: "not many national BBC news journalists see enough of life at the “bottom” of society to report on it properly or accurately".

A fourth reason for addressing social class is that securing its diversity promotes equality of opportunity. Even if social class is not currently recognised as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act there is increasing recognition that social class can be associated with social exclusion, disadvantage and discrimination. The European Convention on Human Rights protects against discrimination on the basis of ‘social origin’ or ‘property, birth or other status’. Though it remains to be tested whether this encompasses social class, a number of European countries prohibit discrimination on the basis of social standing.  

A fifth reason, which perhaps tends not to feature much in debate, is that social class diversity in broadcasting is a democratic necessity. It is consistent with the democratic values of plurality of viewpoint and egalitarianism. Moreover, as Professor James Curran argues in his book Media and Democracy, a "democracy needs to be properly briefed to be effectively self-governing". Those who are able to see, investigate and report not only accurately and impartiality but also to the fullest extent possible what happens in society to sustain democracy.

What measures?

If it is accepted that something should be done about social class, it follows that measures will be needed to assess progress. Class difference in the UK is often a function of stubborn historical inequality, of tectonic power shaping fundamental social relations, and yet also sometimes operates imperceptibly. Metrics will go only so far in addressing class. Complex analysis needs to be given to how class relates to power within organisations and how it manifests sometimes subtly in interpersonal relations.

Social class diversity in broadcasting is a democratic necessity.

Quantitative measures of class may need to be augmented with qualitative measures, including stories and focus groups. Singular focus on a protected characteristic may neglect intersectional disadvantage.

It also makes sense to have industry-wide metrics to enable organisational and regulatory comparisons. Design of the metrics would be best informed by sociologists experienced in social research, socio-legal scholars, socially-aware lawyers, experts in organisational studies, and, certainly, those members of the industry who can reasonably be seen to speak from different and diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

Social class or socio-economic background is increasingly being seen as a category that should be embraced in diversity initiatives. There are good reasons to do so, not least in broadcasting – and especially in the BBC. Yet, the overwhelming impression is that middle-class insiders talk about or moderate working-class voices. There are few challenging working-class voices. Independent, law-backed intervention probably represents one of the most productive ways forward to tackle the stubborn effects of class disadvantage. A complex analysis of class as suggested above will likely inform successful initiatives.

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