Positive discrimination may have to be introduced at the BBC

Is the BBC really making good on its promise to "reflect the diversity of its audiences in both its programmes and workforce"? An ex-employee calls for radical change. 

Colin Joseph
2 April 2015

Lenny Henry in the National Theatre production of the Comedy of Errors, image: Flickr/Chris Beckett

I knew I had put in a good interview, but I was still surprised when I received the call saying I had got the job working for BBC Radio 5 Live as a Community Affairs Specialist.

My work involved covering news stories that would be of particular interest to BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) communities in the UK. During my time there (2002-2006) I reported on a range of different topics including race hate crime, workplace discrimination, gun crime within BAME communities, discriminatory practices within the police force and judiciary and many other key issues.

I felt there was a genuine appetite for BAME news stories, producers were willing to listen to ideas on BAME news coverage or on booking potential BAME news guests. Greg Dyke was the Director General when I was appointed and the ‘cut the crap’ work ethos he introduced helped to give clarity to my arguments for BAME representation in news meetings.

Rose-tinted bubble

I left the BBC in 2006 and now see myself as a BBC consumer who has become increasingly concerned at the corporation’s commitment to BAME representation on and off-air. Working at the corporation can be like living in a protective rose-tinted bubble and inside it can be difficult to objectively analyse achievements and objectives in a clear and dispassionate manner. Now the blinkers have been removed and I often find myself disappointed with the lack of on-air BAME representation and lack of responsible BAME focused news stories and programmes.

Is it possible the BBC is going backwards? Is the ‘more needs to be done’ mantra a tired excuse to maintain the status quo for as a long as possible? I find it hard to believe - having researched this issue - that there have been so few gains for BAME BBC employees on and off-air. The last population census in 2011 put the BAME population in the UK at 1 in 7 and set to increase. This is roughly the same as that of Scotland and Wales combined. Why then, as a BBC consumer and ethnic minority, do I feel that the BBC doesn’t represent me?

Around 96% of the British public consume BBC services (television/radio or online) and everyone in the UK who watches or records TV programmes at the same time as they are shown on TV needs to be covered by a TV licence. In its latest annual report (2013-14), total licence fee income collected on behalf of the BBC was £3,722million. A large portion of this, as the census shows, is collected from BAME households.

Nonetheless across BBC outlets there seem to be no BAME focused programmes on air. News programmes that could be of particular interest to BAME communities are pretty much non-existent and when there is coverage on bread and butter BAME issues it is often irresponsible and lacks sensitivity (take the UKIP-like rhetoric on immigration for example).

I interviewed a number of BAME consumers of BBC services for this feature. Common responses to my questions were ‘the BBC doesn’t represent me’ or ‘we need to see more BAME programmes on the BBC’. Leslie Daley, 45, a license fee paying African Caribbean man from London, summed up the thoughts of many:

“The BBC is not the first TV destination for me. In terms of prime time dramas BAME representation is practically zero. When there are programmes aimed at BAME communities they are often ‘ghettoised’ and shown late in the evening with little publicity [...] BAME representation at the BBC has been brought up decade after decade but nothing happens. I have seen more BAME presenters recently but I seriously wonder whether it’s just window dressing. I don’t feel represented by the BBC.”

Diversity initiatives

I believe ‘Aunty Beeb’ is aware that her BAME audience doesn’t feel as ‘listened to’ as it should and for this reason, in its latest annual report, the corporation included as one of its four strategic objectives to: "serve all audiences and reflect the diversity of its audiences in both its programmes and its workforce". To help achieve this the BBC announced in June last year that a ring-fenced £2.1m Diversity Creative Talent Fund would be introduced to promote BAME employment. I wonder how much difference £2.1m will really make?

According to the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality (CBE), £2.1m is no more than 0.12% of the 2013 BBC content budget of £1,789.1m. Or to put it another way, equivalent to the cost of just two episodes of Downton Abbey. The CBE has called this fund "derisory" and on the face of it I can understand why.

A few months before the Diversity Creative Talent Fund was announced, Lenny Henry stepped up to the plate and proposed the ‘Henry Plan’ with a 10% ring-fenced fund to drive BAME employment within the BBC. The Henry Plan has not been implemented despite the corporation using similar methods to increase regional production which has grown by over 400%. The CBE and others who are fighting for diversity within the BBC consider the corporation’s present stance over the Henry Plan a grave error.

Commenting on the BBC’s latest proposals to increase BAME representation, Simon Albury, Chair of the CBE, said:

“BAME representation has never been a high priority at the BBC. The latest range of proposals may make some small improvements but they are inadequate for driving through the significant change that is urgently needed. The BBC has always been enthusiastic about more diversity as long as it doesn’t involve any meaningful change.”

If the BBC was a commercial enterprise the lack of BAME representation (though unjustifiable in a multi-cultural society) would be easier to understand. But we all pay the license fee which is then used to employ staff and make programmes. Shouldn’t the BBC therefore reflect this in the programmes it makes and its employment practices? Sky, by immediate contrast, has better BAME targets than the BBC – with 20% BAME recruitment by 2017 compared to 15% for the BBC.

Positive discrimination

When I worked at the BBC I can remember having heated discussions about the pros and cons of positive discrimination, and I do believe that my ethnicity (African Caribbean) helped me to get the job when I was employed there.

I would argue that all broadcasters must agree that the existing systems for recruitment and programme-making are too closed and narrow and that more creative options must be adopted if the broadcasting industry is to be more representative. The political practice of all women shortlists is now legal following a change in the law allowing political parties to use positive discrimination in the selection of female candidates. Couldn’t legislative change for BAME candidates be introduced in the same way?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently looking into the legal problems that the broadcasting industry may face if positive discrimination for BAME people is introduced. And according to a leading QC, specialising in the Equality Act 2010, these problems are not "insuperable obstacles".

It is also becoming a more widely held belief that diversity will play a major part in the license fee renewal negotiations which end in 2017. Positive discrimination could certainly help the BBC if that is the case. Alternatively, as the CBE has suggested, the license fee could be proportionately ‘top sliced’ to provide necessary ring-fenced funding to support the Lenny Henry plan for BAME employment on and off-air at the BBC.

Simon Albury, Chair of the CBE, believes the BBC will be under a lot of pressure to diversify its programme content and staff in the years ahead.

“I don’t think BAME communities will continue to allow themselves to be sidelined by the BBC. BAME communities are finding a voice and some are threatening not to pay the license fee because they don’t see themselves represented. Politicians of all parties believe that there should be better representation of BAME communities so the BBC is going to have to change. The BBC’s lack of urgency on this issue is unsustainable.”

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