TV Diversity: there may be trouble ahead

A briefing to MPs on the government’s plans for tackling inadequate representation in British broadcasting.  

Simon Albury
3 June 2016

Dear (name),  

I look forward to seeing you at Portcullis House on Monday to discuss diversity and I thought it would be helpful to send you this background note, in advance, identifying matters which may need your intervention, and my view. 

BBC White Paper (WP) – What it says 

The Key recommendation – “Enshrine a commitment to diversity in the Charter….The BBC should be at the forefront of representing diversity on and off screen” (P7) 

On page 41, WP presents data on broadcasters’ performance and concludes “Our television screens and radio waves still do not adequately reflect the society we live in. The BBC has recognised that it must do better...” It then describes key aspects of the BBC diversity strategy. 

My view is that the strategy is a lavish and detailed document but I have been unable to find any proposals for driving diversity. It is like a luxury car with a lot of extras but no petrol. The strategy provides comfort but will not take BAME people to the promised destination.

The government may share this view. On page 42, WP concludes that “more still needs to be done” and that “the BBC must also give consideration of the full range of ideas in how it can enhance its performance.” How can the full range not include the Lenny Henry Plan for ring fenced funds linked to BAME criteria? 

On the next page, 43 - provision for the nations and regions, the boldest display on the page is for the criteria of  “network TV programming spend by region as a percentage of eligible spend.” I believe this strongly reinforces the Henry argument that designated funding or “spend” must play a key role in driving diversity. 

WP says the government will also introduce a pilot for a new £20 million per annum contestable fund ‘for making shows about and for diverse audiences..” and will consult on the details of this in the autumn. (Worth waiting for?) 

The Charter will, among other things, “create a unitary board for the BBC; introduce full external regulation of the BBC by Ofcom; reform the mechanisms of regulation including a new operating framework...”

For diversity, Ofcom’s role will be key. It will set: 

Operating Framework - including the processes that Ofcom will use to regulate the BBC. 

Operating Licence Regime - containing the content requirements, primarily quantitative service level obligations, as well as the performance metrics for measuring the BBC’s performance. 

Possible Trouble 

Trouble comes from issues and people. 


Since April, many more Lords and MPs of all parties have become seriously engaged in the issue and they are not letting go. You spoke in David Lammy’s debate on Diversity in the BBC on 14th April. You will have heard the range of strong informed speeches from across the House and know how David and his formidable researcher, Jack McKenna, mobilized others and marshalled data. Your own researcher was no slouch either. 

On 10th May, Oona King’s Lords debate heard astonishing speeches, including a Tory, Lord Holmes of Richmond, telling the Chamber that “for decades a lack of diversity in British broadcasting has been a stain on all broadcasters” and “broadcasting is absolutely a meritocracy -- if you are a white, middle-class, middle-aged man.”

Two days later, Jesse Norman, the respected and influential Conservative Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee praised that morning’s Lenny Henry article in the Guardian, which called for ring fenced funds. 

Although many campaigners would have liked the WP to tell the BBC how it should deliver as well as what it should deliver, the division on diversity between campaigners and the government seems virtually imperceptible. Now Ofcom and the BBC need watching by parliamentarians and campaigners. CBE is sure politicians will intervene effectively, if necessary. 

Ofcom Issues

Data Transparency

Ofcom will be relying on data for television from Project Diamond and there is a problem. The entertainment union BECTU has threatened to boycott the data collection. BECTU wants Diamond to publish data linked to individual named productions and this Diamond is refusing to do. Diamond argues there are privacy issues. The union says, “The Arts Council of England has had no problem in publishing the data on ethnicity, gender, disability and age for each individual client company that employs more than 50 people.  There is therefore no reason why you cannot do likewise for every production that employs more than 50.” I agree. The BBC has boasted that the editorial department of Holby City included 40% BAME employees. Broadcasters can’t only use data when it includes good news. 

Project Diamond will not collect data for radio. Ofcom will need to develop an alternative. 

Data Criteria

Ofcom must measure the proportion of BAME people working for the BBC in the UK in creative roles making programmes for people who pay the licence fee. Will it?  The BBC presents a figure of 13.4% for BAME employment, displayed boldly and linked to “This is above the census and workforce ratios (12.9% and 11.3%).” The use of the census comparator implied that the 13.4% figure applies to the UK population. That is not so. The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality calculates that when you take out the two business divisions and the World Service (including teams that are based in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with UK contracts, and specialised teams based in London often not broadcasting in English and definitely not targeted at a British audience) the proportion of BAME people actually working at the BBC in the UK making content for a British licence-fee-paying audience is a 9.2%. 

Ofcom recruitment

In recruiting senior staff for its new responsibilities, Ofcom needs to better reflect the population than the 0.0 BAME % for senior roles in the BBC Trust. Unlike the BBC, Ofcom does not publish detailed diversity data but it appears from a bar chart that Ofcom’s senior management is perhaps 6% BAME. Ofcom must do better as diversity takes on a greater role in its range of regulatory imperatives. Making “past experience in broadcasting regulation” an over-riding priority in recruitment would perpetuate existing under-representation. 

Operating Licence Regime

Ofcom is to set the BBC content requirements, primarily quantitative service level obligations. On its past record, the BBC will want these to be undemanding for BAME programmes. We need to be confident that Ofcom has sufficient resource and will to avoid being over-dependent on the BBC during the process of setting these licences and there should be public consultation on the draft licences. There will need to be a definition for BAME and diverse programmes. 

Statutory duties and commercial broadcasting

Section 27 of the Communications Act 2003 gave Ofcom the duty to take appropriate steps to promote equal opportunities in broadcasting. For thirteen years, Ofcom sought to do the minimum necessary to fulfil this obligation. Ed Vaizey has told CBE that Ofcom is now looking at the maximum possible action it can take under Section 27 and other legislation, and is considering regular detailed reporting on diversity among a range of other measures. We need to watch this. 

BBC issues 

BBC Unitary Board

Oona King and others have suggested there should be at least two BAME directors. In addition, the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality (CBE) has proposed an executive director for diversity with a measurable mandate and a non executive diversity champion. This complex organisation does need to bring in board level experts with proven experience in driving change. Neither of these roles needs to be filled by the BAME directors. The BBC needs to be transparent about its recruitment criteria. 

BBC Diversity Strategy

WP says “more still needs to be done” and that “the BBC must also give consideration of the full range of ideas in how it can enhance its performance.” To repeat, the strategy is a lavish and detailed document but I have been unable to find any proposals for driving diversity. We need a deadline for the BBC to produce a revised strategy. 

The strategy says diversity will be hardwired in all the BBC does and yet it is not basing its diversity team and focus in London where all the major network commissioners are found. New Broadcasting House is the most powerful building in BBC history with network television and radio and news and the world service all in the same place, yet the strategy places a Centre of Excellence for Diversity and Diverse Talent in Birmingham. 

The last annual reports says Birmingham had only 1.7% of TV network spend. Now, in addition, half of BBC 3 will move there for 2018 but with only 1/3rd of its budget. Everyone in media understands the relationship between where your desk is and power. The Diversity team will not be bumping daily into the key decision makers in the lifts, corridors and cafes of New Broadcasting House. They need to move to London. 

More than half the UK black population lives in London and two London boroughs, Barnet and Brent, combined have a larger BAME population than Birmingham. The Birmingham BAME population is just 13% of London’s. Birmingham does deserve more of the BBC programme budget but a BAME talent base developed in Birmingham will be far removed from the BBC’s centre of power, from their own communities and from at least 90% of TV production. How will BAME talent develop the networks and connections that will let it prosper? 

The BBC has never properly evaluated its diversity initiatives. It should adopt the Channel 4 approach and publish annually the Objective, Result and Lessons learnt for each element.

This note is far from comprehensive and other issues will emerge over the coming weeks. I look forward to hearing your concerns on Monday and hearing your advice on how we can advance mine. 

Best Wishes


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData