Articles - 4th February 2020

The BBC and diversity: Will they ever come together?

Words by Tahmina Begum
Illustration by Susie Ang

I was at an event at the BBC recently where aims to be inclusive were presented neatly in a PowerPoint presentation before the talk began. The speaker themselves were those whose career have been respectfully built on breaking through White glass ceilings, using their power at the top to broaden how we view beauty in the mainstream media. There were many black and brown bodies and brains in the room. There were also different ages and other forms of inclusivity that aren’t visible to the naked eye. The BBC, it seemed, was moving with the kids in the right direction: they were diversifying.

Then the next day, BBC Breakfast Presenter Naga Munchetty was reprimanded for her remark on the 14th of July insinuating American President, Donald Trump’s comments had consequences and were potentially racist. This was after he tweeted that the three out of the four new US congresswomen, who are women of colour, should go back home. I’m paraphrasing; his words were much worse.

The BBC’s initial decision was from the numerous complaints by the public stating Munchetty shouldn’t have given her opinion — even though she was answering her co-host’s question on if she had ever faced racism like the congresswomen had, and went on to verify that she had. While she also made very clear that these were in fact just her opinion. She was then censured on grounds that she had not followed BBC guidelines.

A few days after, unfortunate news was released that a young BBC reporter, Hanna Yusef, had passed away at 27 years old. Tributes rolled in via Twitter of Yusef’s work. Her output was powerful and influential, not just within the realms of journalism but for women of colour and Muslims everywhere. She spoke to women who had escaped war-torn countries, revealed and gave light to the Costa Coffee working conditions, brokered news on homelessness from an empathic and statistical angle while securing an interview with Shamima Begum’s lawyer on reviewing Begum’s citizenship. Yusef was a force by herself and from the sighs of journalists everywhere. She will be missed.

What was also spoken about across Twitter and newsrooms was who would now be breaking the kind of brilliant and multi-layered work Yusef was known for?

To date, the BBC has reversed its decision on Naga Munchetty’s case and OfCom have critiqued the BBC’s lack of transparency but something seems to be broken in communication within the structure of the BBC. It seems like only a few working introductory roles at the BBC have got the inclusion memo.

The outlet appears to be heading in a more ‘diverse’ direction with programmes such as BBC 3’s “Things Not To Say To Someone” and countless documentaries attempting to unhinge taboos also reprimanding any calling-out of racism and lived experiences by its visibly representative set of broadcasters. Which brings me to my point: I think sometimes we all forget that the BBC is tax-funded.

If every house is paying a licensing fee, then surely everyone should be heard and voiced? We are well past the requirement of simply asking to be seen.

As of 2019, the BBC had 22,401 employees and only one out of fifteen directors are from an ethnic minority background. Less than 10% of BBC’s employees are from a ‘BAME’ background and OfCom have reported that the BBC have failed to meet any of the criteria necessary for diversity. Responses from ex-BBC employees online also show the dismay for working at the heritage institution.

“There are a number of people who care about diversity within the organisation but others are talking heads. I saw a very talented and driven friend at a senior level leave the BBC out of pure frustration as they were blocked when trying to improve diversity,” says one anonymous ex-BBC employee. This was witnessed after they experienced years of short-term freelance contracts before they secured a permanent position.

Yet every time I personally visit the BBC, there seems to be a new diversity scheme being put into place. From talking to a range of ex-BBC employees, this was the same story over and over again.

“The schemes teach you to operate within the organisation and, don’t get me wrong, this can create positive changes for you, but it depends on a mentor or a person taking a liking to you and opening doors, “ says one ex-BBC colleague. “It, however, is still like a culture of an old boys’ network. You’re just being taught how to try and access it.”

An air of broken promises seems to be familiar to all the ex-BBC colleagues I spoke to. One ex-BBC producer pointed out that even acknowledging internally that the BBC has a representative problem is a “big shift from ten years ago”.

“But if you talk to non-white members of staff or even those from working-class backgrounds, you often hear that the change hasn’t been fast or significant enough. You will find lots of people within the organisation who talk about these things, and yet at times the pace of change feels glacial.” It’s a wonder if the slow pace of change from the BBC reflects who the organisation wants to truly speak to and for.

There’s also an issue within the BBC and the wider network of media who believe simply talking about representation is enough. “The issue is that those with the power aren’t prepared to fully give some of that power up,” says one ex-BBC writer.  “Structurally within the BBC, in terms of race, LGBTQI+, disability, and socioeconomic inequalities the way the organisation works with a certain similar (white, middle class) demographic being gatekeepers, commissioners, budget holders and decision-makers reinforce the problem.”

The frustration comes from the BBC acknowledging the lack of inclusion is an issue but are yet to change those who lead the newsroom. Simply put, being aware of a problem and not doing anything to change the working ecosystem is simply stringing hope — especially to budding graduates from marginalised backgrounds.

Moreover, how does the rise of the freelance gig impact the likes of the BBC, where many are ‘on contract’ instead of permanent roles? What happens to the likes of new parents and mothers, those who are trying to buy a house (as getting a mortgage as a freelancer is not easy) or creatives who are simply trying to climb up the editorial ladder? From speaking to ex-BBC employees, there’s a dual fear of not wanting to ‘disrupt’ the “BBC’s cultural capital” while not wanting to speak up in fear of it being career-damaging.

“The instability means people need to pay their bills rather than challenge racism and inequality,” says one ex-BBC employee.

So, what can the BBC do? The broadcasting house has announced that by 2020 it wants half of its workforce to be women, (let’s also hope they’re also equally paid), 8% from the LGBTQI+ community and 15% from ‘BAME’ backgrounds. One ex-BBC producer who still works as a senior manager within journalism states, “It isn’t simply enough to hire diversely.”

“You need to then listen to those staff, listen to the stories they pitch, and if you are a senior person from a privileged background, sense-check your take on certain stories with them.”

It’s also not enough to hire young people of colour at an introductory level or as a contractor. That’s not authentic representation, in fact, it’s journalism’s version of saying ‘I’m not racist because I have a black friend’ i.e. it’s visibility at the most superficial level. It’s the key way national news outlets excuse themselves from actually bringing about change.

This is because it’s easy nowadays for a publication to “look diverse”. For example, by slapping an ethnic minority name on a byline is the quick fix to diversity than actually unlearning institutionalised ways of doing things that have historically uplifted white and male voices in news and journalism we all end up devouring and reading.

The ex-BBC producer goes on to say, “they may be less experienced than you, but acknowledge that they bring experience and understanding that you don’t have. Otherwise, diversity is just a box-ticking exercise, and it needs to be more meaningful than that.”

For example, with the Naga Munchetty situation, it could have been a lesson for the BBC to learn, not another session of gaslighting another woman of colour in the public eye.

Another tip for media companies like the BBC by a former BBC employee is to “nurture and promote your diverse talent, and talk to them. And even when they are junior, listen to them.” Sometimes it’s as simple as changing who you listen to in editorial meetings, taking and utilising the resources you have from those who tend to be overlooked and letting go of the hierarchy of who tends to be heard.

“It’s not enough for senior white journalists anywhere in our industry to acknowledge lack of diversity, we also need to be aware that our privilege has shortcomings in that it means we can’t see things others can,” says an ex-BBC editor.

But I’m not lessening the efforts of the BBC. Albeit the misguided actions, all of the ex-employees interviewed stated the power of the BBC when it gets it right. “It gains traction and speaks to another layer of society. I just wish it was easier to get these stories out there or cover issues from a different angle,” was quoted by one ex-BBC writer but was similarly chimed by everyone interviewed.

As we have reached Brexit negotiations, the BBC, more so than other news organisations, has a responsibility to report to an audience it has been able to ignore for far too long. Yet it has to change, for its sake at least, says an ex-BBC producer. “It’s about the survival of the BBC as a relevant organisation offering compelling output. I think the BBC has to be a living, breathing, changing organism”.

Though there have been some positive strides towards authentic diversity by the BBC, it’s what’s happening behind the scenes and at ‘the top’ which matters just as much as those in front of the screen.

If the BBC want to hit their 2020 target, do a service to those who are paying for it to exist and frankly stay relevant in this competitive media market where digital startups like gal-dem and Amaliah, are speaking for the people, meaningful change internally needs to happen now. And by now, I mean yesterday.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

Make your UP portfolio

Related Articles

Hear more about The Ultimate Guide to Freelancing… from someone who’s actually done it

Journalist and writer Tim Atkinson, a graduate of the Ultimate Guide to Freelancing, writes on his experience of the course and how it helped him g...

Read more
A guide to selling without the cringe

I spent the first five years of my freelance career in, ‘I’ll take anything that comes my way’ hustle mode. My schedule, bursting with work, I’d la...

Read more
How to tell if a regular client is a flight risk

Breaking up can be hard to do, and whether it’s the end of a personal relationship or a professional one – the warning signs are often there sooner...

Read more