Still hideously white?

For the past four years, the former BBC network correspondent, Barnie Choudhury, has been researching why so few Black Minority Ethnic journalists ever make it to the highest echelons of the Corporation’s News division.

Barnie Choudhury
18 December 2013

Let me begin at the beginning. When I joined the BBC in 1986, I was truly a minority. I was a working class, non-Oxbridge, first generation immigrant who managed to become a BBC trainee at the first time of asking. I left in 2010 reaching as high as I could. In between I saw a real effort to bring on people like me. But the problem is that no matter how hard it tried, the BBC could never get a critical mass of Black Minority Ethnics at real decision making, leadership levels. I wondered why and put my investigative journalism skills to academic use.

Let me give you an example of how hard the BBC tries to square the BME circle. In 2008 I was lucky enough to be selected for the BBC’s in-house Mentoring and Development Programme or MDP. Its rationale and aim were clear:

Over the years, we've sought proactive ways to increase diversity at senior management level across the BBC. We are aware that black, ethnic minority and disabled staff are currently under-represented at both SM [senior management] level and higher grades. The purpose of the MDP is to address this. The MDP is a development scheme for the BBC’s brightest and best. It covers five and a half days of development spread over an 18 month period, including additional coaching days and sessions. If you decide to apply and are successful, you'll be appointed a senior mentor with whom you can work with on strategic BBC projects relevant to your experience and career aspirations.

Like many courses in the BBC, this was not the first iteration to try to improve diversity. In fact, by using the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve discovered that in fifteen years the BBC invented at least twenty-nine schemes to help boost racial diversity. I should know. In 2001 I successfully navigated two schemes called ASCEND 1 and ASCEND 2, which were very similar to the MDP. I was dissuaded from joining ASCEND 3 which could have secured my ascent to leadership. I soon discovered the MDP wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Here’s the problem. It may have had the blessing of the Director-General but unfortunately the gatekeepers of Senior Management jobs barred every opportunity for progress. But the clue to lack of BBC-BME success is in the fact that almost every six months a new way was being found to boost racially diverse numbers. It shows a lack of real world thinking, a lack of real commonsense and a lack of real strategic thinking.

Imagine you were the person responsible for making sure Britain succeeded in the London Olympics. Imagine if you chopped and changed direction and strategy every six months. Imagine if you panicked every time an athlete did not live up to his or her promise. Now you have an inkling of what BBC News is doing wrong. No-one with any modicum of intelligence would keep on swapping horses in the middle of a race. Change needs to bed in and success needs creative risk taking. You need to hold your nerve. Anyone who has run a successful business will tell you that. The problem with the BBC is that it wants quick wins without the hard work needed for true legacy. What do I mean by that? Well, if it had held its nerve and continued with the ASCEND suite of programmes it would have produced some stunning BME leaders. Why do I say this? I know at least two who are successful ASCEND alumni. Granted they needed to leave the BBC to rejoin it on higher grades and higher salaries but it was ever thus. The BBC appears to take masochistic pleasure in giving the best training in the world to its employees, letting them leave and then buying them back at double the price. It’s the economy of the madhouse. What my research suggests is that the BBC needs to get a grip and truly manage talent, stealing ideas from, say, L’Oreal which grooms its leaders, places them in leadership positions and crises and supporting them towards success.

But this is only the start of my concerns. BBC News faces deeper problems. My research suggests that it stands accused of institutional racism under the flawed Macpherson definition. I make quite clear in my thesis why I believe Macpherson needs to be re-visited. The definition most of us are familiar with is this:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage ethnic minority people.

We often forget another Macpherson observation:

A racial incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.

Senior managers I have spoken to reject that the BBC can be institutionally racist because, they argue, the Corporation has policies in place to prevent this. Not only that, in reality, no-one has succeeded in winning a race discrimination case or employment tribunal on the grounds of race. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. My fear is that it is a matter of time. You see, what managers fail to recognise or entertain is this: the policies are only as good as the people who practise and police them. I am concerned because I have spoken to a number of former and current BME journalists. Few want to accuse the BBC of institutional racism. Unfortunately, their experiences tell a different story. The journalist who was ignored when they dared to suggest non-BME story ideas, is one case in point:

I gave people my thoughts on non-BME stories and how I was not listened to, that's not fair. That's stereotyping. I was born in the UK and have lived in the UK all my life in black, Asian, white and mixed areas. If anything I know more about life and this country with my experiences than they do. You know when I talked to one line manager they said to me that when they took me on they thought I'd give insights into diverse communities. When I said I thought I had and did more besides by finding non-BME stories their reply was that they'd got that already. They didn't see me as a journalist first and foremost.

Or those turned down for jobs because, as another explained, they simply don’t “look right”:

Sometimes when you don’t fit into that because you’re too old, too brown, too black, your lips are too big, your nose is too wide, what ever it is, they decide whether you look right for their viewers. “You don’t come across right on the screen”. Well how do you define that? I think their judgement does have a racial element about who sounds or who looks right. They may not be aware of it themselves because in their own mind, this is what looks good for the viewer. They’re basing their decision honestly but unwitting prejudice or stereotype and that’s institutional racism as defined by Macpherson.

And some believe racism is now very much covert in the BBC:

They’re cuter and cleverer at writing jobs specs in a way that could exclude certain individuals. If you say that you want x, y and z or certain bits in show reels and someone’s not got that, you exclude them from the very beginning and it’s legal.

This makes uncomfortable reading but made for worse listening when you hear the confusion and anguish in the voices of those reliving their experiences. Some former and current BME BBC colleagues won’t speak because they remain scared of being singled out for retribution. They look at the bravery of Miriam O’Reilly, who successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination. Twelve months later she left the Corporation and will possibly never work again in a job she loved for an organisation she adored. They don’t want to “do a Miriam”.

The BBC will not seek out the real causes of racial disparity, neither will it seek out commonsense remedies. One idea would be to hold an inquiry where past and present BME journalists speak confidentially to independent academics about their experiences. Another would be to do an audit of employees, their time served, their career progression, their perceived obstructions to success and work with them to seek proactive, pragmatic solutions. What my research from figures obtained under Freedom of Information has shown is that there is no glass ceiling. It is worse than that: there is a Berlin Wall when it comes to BMEs climbing the career ladder. Using the FOIA, I found that BBC News will never reach its aspirational 12.5% BME target. Yet in April 2010 only two of the seventy-four senior managers were BME. The UK is now 14% non-white. What hope for improvement?

Perhaps the most worrying thing is the ludicrous self-denial of the problem and explaining it away, which smacks of complacency. It would be laughable were it not so serious. You see, almost every executive I spoke to believes the BBC isn’t winning the racial diversity war because it is shrinking in size. Simple as that. What this attitude singularly fails to address is this: in times of cuts you need to watch who is leaving and ask why they want to exit.

Commonsense tells us that when something is wrong you ask for help. What is needed today is a critical mass of BME journalists at every level. This can be done. But unless the BBC embraces and accepts outside help, nothing will change. I understand from one source, the BBC intends to quietly drop its targets. Now that would be a real shame and make the current problem even worse. I love the BBC and if you were to cut me, these three letters would run through my every bone. I still believe in it and I know all the BBC needs to do is listen to critical friends who want to make this national treasure even better.

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