ICE blogs

June 23, 2014

Diversity deja vu?

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 2:11 pm

Barnie Choudhury, a former award-winning BBC network correspondent, welcomes the BBC’s latest diversity announcement - but remains sceptical about the corporation’s chances of becoming truly racially diverse

Picture this scene: a BBC director-general stands up to be counted when it comes to racial diversity. He wants to make sure his organisation truly reflects Black Asian Minority Ethnics (BAME). He will set targets, run training programmes and leadership courses. He will make challenging statements and ask pertinent questions such as:

You can have all the equal opportunities policies you like, but if actually, the gateman doesn’t let blacks through the gates, you’ve got a problem, haven’t you? I don’t believe the BBC is like that, but we are not saying: ‘What are we going to do about this?’

That man was Greg Dyke and the year was 2001. Of the five director-generals I worked for, he was the most inspirational who genuinely got it. It was not about the sound-bite, it was not about pleasing people or bowing down to public pressure. For Dyke it was, and remains, about doing the right thing. If only he had more time in office.

So last week, thirteen years later, the latest BBC director-general has his photo opportunity, surrounded by a bevy of black and Asian people outside a fictitious underground station to make his latest diversity pronouncement. ‘The BBC should be giving talented people a chance wherever they come from,’ said Lord Hall of Birkenhead. He was once Chief Executive of BBC News. Our paths probably crossed because he oversaw the launch of Radio 5 live when I first joined network news. I am sure he is a good man.

So there is no scintilla of doubt, his package of measures, how ever limited, is to be welcomed. When you are drowning, a line to a rescue boat is better than none at all. What I am disappointed about is the lack of ambition, the emphasis once again on recruitment and the missed opportunity to deal with the root causes rather than the symptoms. I say all these things with a sense of deep love for an organisation I gave almost a quarter of a century to and one which I would go to war to ensure it keeps a viable licence fee.

Lack of political will
So why do I think Hall is presiding over a failed venture? Organisations need capacity, capability and confidence to succeed. Things do not happen for two main reasons: the lack of political will and inadequate funding. So I echo the thoughts of Simon Albury, the former Chief Executive of the Royal Television Society and Chair of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality. Some £2 million is nothing, he said, when the BBC has a content budget of almost £1800 million – it is just 0.1 per cent. Think about what change 1 per cent funding could make?

I am also not convinced about the targets for on-screen representation. Hall wants one in six people on-screen to be BAME within three years. This is an increase of 5 per cent, according to BBC News. An excellent suggestion but my research suggests that for the past fifteen years BBC News has not been able to break through the 12 per cent barrier.

An aside: the problem is that I do not trust the BBC’s own figures, even when offered under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. Unfortunately, the FoI Act does not prevent an organisation from spinning its data, as long as it is true. In the latest figures the BBC has given me under the FoI Act, it has cleverly not told me how many BAME senior managers there are in BBC News, despite my asking. Instead, it has lumped together Band 10 (editors and correspondents) with senior managers. The result? As of 31 March 2014 BBC News has a whopping, target busting 17.1 per cent. This is not untrue but it is disingenuous, at the very least. It is an old political trick countless governments have played on its unsuspecting citizens. Make sure the figures add up to say what you need them to say. Surely the BBC should be above this?

On-screen window-dressing
It is not just the figures. It is the fact this is about on-screen representation. On-screen representation is important. Of course it is. But it is window-dressing. It gives false hope and a false impression. We went through this during the Dyke era. If I had a pound for every person who said the BBC was diverse because we now see so many non-white faces on screen, I could afford to retire. No, we need to be more nuanced. What we need is a critical mass behind the screen in positions of real power. This is not necessarily about recruiting new staff. I think they may already be there in the organisation. This is about talent management which, if the BBC is honest, it has never really been good at that, except in a few cases. It has a tendency to create big beasts while the rest become minnows. Should we not think about retention? Should we not also be thinking about truly developing the talent within and focusing a little on succession planning and building a legacy? Who are the natural heirs to Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and David Dimbleby?

So what would I do? In my view, the BBC needs to do the unthinkable. First of all, it should hire an independent group of academics with a deep contextual knowledge of the creative industries. Not that I am touting for work, but I can help there. Ideally the first question to be considered by this group should be: Why has the BBC failed to produce a permanent BAME domestic news and current affairs sequence editor, controller of a radio or television channel, director of news, radio, television or director-general since its creation almost a century ago? As leaders, should we not be leaving a proud legacy? The same question can be asked of any major UK broadcaster, incidentally.

Also, ask these academics to audit the careers of every BAME in the BBC. It will not be more than 4,000 people. Ask them to look at how many years the BAME employee has been in the organisation; where they were educated; how they entered the BBC; plot a career path; whether they have progressed; whether they perceive barriers to their success; what development opportunities they have been given; whether they feel they have been properly led; and what they feel about their position in the organisation now. These are difficult questions but measureable.

The second stage would be to audit forensically the careers of the top 100 BBC leaders. Ask the same questions plus some others. How long did it take you to become a senior manager? Apart from your drive and ambition, what do you put that down to? What were the crucial steps to your success? Do you believe anyone or anything in particular helped you? What advice would you give to those wishing to become a senior and influential leader?

Need to identify workable solutions
The third stage is to draw out themes from both sets of data and then suggest genuine and workable solutions. My judgement tells me that, controversially, race, colour, religion, gender, disability and social class often have little to do with real progress. Yet unpicking this data will allow us to strive for a better, richer and more diverse workforce. If we do not do this, I fear we are doomed to repeat past mistakes. My fear is that we will have the same debate in another thirteen years knowing we did not dare take a creative risk, we were too scared to be different and we made the excuse that this was too difficult, not politically convenient and too expensive.

Finally, here is where the lack of ambition and the repetition of past mistakes concern me deeply. According to BBC News online:

Incorporated into the 2017 targets is also a new senior leadership development programme providing six people from BAME backgrounds with experience working at the top level of the BBC – including a placement with Lord Hall himself.

I hate to say this but this is the third iteration of such a scheme to my knowledge. I should know I was on the previous two. One was called ASCEND and the other was called the Mentoring and Development Programme. Different names but essentially the same failed strategy. Hall rightly says: ‘We’re not guaranteeing a job at the end of it. I’m certain they will get a job either at the BBC or elsewhere – but what I’m saying is we want to make a difference here to finding great talent and backing them. I’ve seen it work in the arts. If it doesn’t then we’ll look for other things.’

Raising and dashing expectations
But past schemes failed because they raised and dashed expectations. They failed because the gatekeepers did not buy into it. And, when it came to it, they failed because of the ingrained BBC culture of recruiting in its own predominantly white, middle-class, Oxbridge male image.

In my case, when I wanted to become a BBC leader, with a chance to use all my learning to influence and drive forward an organisation, I was told not once but three times by very senior managers: ‘Barnie, we see you as a very successful on-screen talent and are confused why you should want to stop doing that. Don’t be disappointed but we have people who’ve spent their whole careers on this path. Why should we risk giving you a chance?’

They do make an excellent point. Why should they take a risk? Perhaps I should gently point out something attributed wrongly to Einstein: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Perhaps I should add that clichéd phrase: ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ The more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps I should whisper in Tony’s ear: ‘Please DG, dare to be different.’ Surely we must do better?

Barnie Choudhury is a former award-winning BBC network news correspondent who is a consultant on pragmatic diversity and communications leadership. He is currently undertaking a Master’s by Research investigating diversity in BBC News. He is also a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Council for England and the Interim Director of Communications and Marketing at the University of East London. These are his personal views.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress