ourBeeb: Opinion

The BBC’s diversity plan is a stumble, not a ‘big leap forward’

Similar strategies in the film industry have failed. A more radical shake-up is needed instead.

Simon Albury
21 July 2020, 12.55pm
Director Steve McQueen on the set of forthcoming BBC mini-series ‘Small Axe’.

Last month, the BBC announced it would be committing £100 million to diversifying its productions and talent. Director General Tony Hall said the fund, which was created in response to the killing of George Floyd, will be a “big leap forward”.

The £100 million was a nice, big flashy figure for a press release but it will be spent over three years. That is £33 million a year. According to the last BBC annual report, television content cost the broadcaster £1,678 million – so the fund amounts to just 1.9% of its annual TV budget. 

To me, the plans have too much in common with the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) and British Film Institute’s (BFI) diversity strategy. In 2016, I warned that these paltry measures “might have no impact on BAME or disabled employment on-screen or off”.

Last week, the London School of Economics published a report into the strategy, authored by Dr Clive James Nwonka, which concluded that there were few signs of improvement, “racial underrepresentation remains a structural condition within the film industry”.

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Part of the reason the standards have been unsuccessful is that they take a pick and mix approach. So does the BBC’s strategy, which commits to create content with at least two of the following three priorities:

  • Diverse stories and portrayal on-screen
  • Diverse production teams and talent
  • Diverse-led production companies


  • A mandatory 20% diverse-talent target will apply to all new network commissions from April 2021.

When I told an Ofcom diversity expert that the commitment was no more than 1.9% of the annual spend, the expert replied “What about the 20% of BAME employment?” Even the Ofcom expert hadn’t understood the fine print.

The fund is not just about increasing BAME employment – it also aims to improve inclusion for those from a lower socio-economic background and those with a disability – all of which are underrepresented in the media and worthy of support. But with such a broad categorisation and targets, combined with no baseline against which to measure progress, the £100 million commitment may make no difference at all.

Lagging behind

Some industry observers think what Tony Hall calls “a big leap forward” may be no leap at all.

Ofcom’s most recent report on diversity found that the BBC was the only broadcaster to make no year-on-year progress at all on off-screen BAME employment, remaining stuck at 13%. The BBC lagged behind:

Broadcaster Percentage of minority ethnic employees
Viacom (Channel 5) 20%
Channel 4 19%
Sky 16%
BBC 13%

But with diverse shows like Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’, ‘Noughts + Crosses’, ‘Sitting In Limbo’ and ‘The Long Song’, any viewer can see the BBC is doing much better with BAME representation on-screen. Add in Steve McQueen’s mini-series ‘Small Axe’ due in November, and it could be that the BBC has already hit the £33 million-a-year sum on the criteria of BAME diverse stories and portrayal on-screen. There’s no way of knowing.

Blatant racism

Writing in the Guardian about what he had learned from making his BBC series, Steve McQueen said:

“The stark reality is that there is no infrastructure to support and hire BAME crew. And there is no infrastructure because there hasn’t been enough will or urgency to put it in place. We really need to do much, much better.”

He added:

“The culture of the industry has to change. It’s just not healthy. It’s wrong. And yet, many people in the industry go along with it as if it is normal. It’s not normal. It is anything but normal. It’s blindingly, obviously wrong. It’s blatant racism. Fact. I grew up with it. I know it. And not nearly enough is being done about it.”

The lack of will and urgency persists twenty years after the BBC published its first comprehensive diversity action plan. That plan was so impressive and well crafted that Sir Herman Ouseley, then Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality called it a “watershed” moment. 

When it comes to diversity, the BBC promises so much but delivers so slowly. 

Last October, Sharon White, then Ofcom CEO, wrote a scorching letter to Tony Hall on the BBC’s failure to deliver against its remit. It said, “we have an overall concern with how the BBC is delivering against its requirements on diversity, and the transparency with which it reports to us”.

Tony Hall has promised “We’ll have more to announce in the coming weeks.” 

Hall needs to be transparent and provide detail on what and where the BBC is currently devoting expenditure according to the criteria for the £100 million plan, so that there is a baseline against which progress can be measured. Until then, many observers will continue to believe the plan is no more than a flash in the pan announcement, designed to dazzle and distract but with no obligation to deliver more.

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