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Gary Herman

bbc1Published: 14 June 2011 Region: UK

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC – probably the biggest and certainly the most influential public service broadcaster in the world – announced its diversity strategy for the next five years to 2015. This should have been a major news event in its own right. After all, the BBC is a unique institution – not only does it operate across radio, television and the web, reaching a global audience for its English language services of around 240 million, but it also runs 27 foreign language radio services – after cuts – from Arabic to Vietnamese, while its website is the most visited mainstream media site on the internet, beaten only in the Netcraft listings by upstarts like Google, Facebook and Wikipedia.

As it happens, the launch of the BBC’s diversity strategy – in a document entitled Everyone has a story – met with hardly a murmur, except from the BBC itself and the reliably splenetic UK newspaper, The Daily Mail. The Mail latched on to a paragraph in the BBC’s research suggesting that an unspecified number of people saw the BBC as anti-Christian, and proceeded to beat the Corporation about the head with its right-wing prejudices.

This is particularly regrettable. The unique importance of the BBC rests on the fact that it is a global brand. And it is global because people across the world trust it, identifying its output with quality values in news, drama, features and entertainment. They understand that the BBC is a public service broadcaster, and they believe that the BBC embodies the idea of journalism as a public good.

Such a level of trust has to be underpinned by solid foundations – most particularly by the ability and willingness of the BBC to represent all the parts of its audience fairly and equitably. There must be no perception of bias if the BBC is to maintain the trust of its diverse and multicultural audience.

And this is the nub of the matter.

Public service broadcasting is in crisis everywhere. When Article 19’s Toby Mendel wrote a report for UNESCO and the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development in 2000, he observed that there were only six countries in the world where public service broadcasting was strong: Australia, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The year before, Richard Eyre, the then Chief Executive of ITV in the UK, told his audience at the Edinburgh Festival:

“Free school milk doesn’t work when the kids go and buy Coca-Cola because it’s available and they prefer it and they can afford it. So public service broadcasting will soon be dead.”

Perhaps Eyre was a little premature, but he probably didn’t foresee the growing importance of diversity and multiculturalism. The BBC’s Director General at the time, Greg Dyke, probably did when he told Radio Scotland listeners in 2001 that “I think the BBC is hideously white”.

Dyke’s bluntness caused a furore, but his vision was spot on. “We want a BBC where diversity is seen as an asset,” he said, “not an issue or a problem.”

Ten years on and perhaps the only thing that has changed is that the BBC nowbbc2 understands that it really does have a problem. The research that the Corporation commissioned last year reveals that the composition of staff may still fairly be described in Dyke’s terms. While the BBC as a whole was seen as inclusive and impartial, many respondents to the researchers’ survey complained about the many ways in which the BBC fails to reflect the composition of its audience. Some said minority groups were under-represented, others said they were over-represented. Some complained about tokenism, others complained that there were too few ethnic minorities and gay and lesbian characters on screen. People who identified with specific faiths were particularly likely to say that the BBC misrepresented their religion. Others said that the BBC marginalised certain groups such as disabled people or older women.

The Corporation’s response to this impossible mélange of views has been to set out its resolve to improve its record on diversity. The drivers are clear – legislation which promotes equality, the importance of maintaining the good-will of those who pay for the services they receive, the desire to enhance the gene-pool of talent and skills, and the need to reflect an increasingly multifarious and demanding audience.

All the main broadcasters and industry bodies in the UK are engaged in the debate about diversity through their membership of the Cultural Diversity Network (CDN) which covers the whole of the country’s media industry. In 2009, the CDN looked at the representation of people on UK television. It found that men occupy twice the screen time of women, and that minorities are, in fact, under-represented. In some cases, the disparity is huge: there are 20 times more disabled people in the population than on television and an estimated ten times more lesbians, gays and bisexuals. And this does not begin to take the global audience into account, about three quarters of whom are concentrated in three countries – Nigeria, the US and India.

It is about time things changed. For the BBC, respecting diversity at home and abroad is not just sound ethical practice. It is essential to its very survival.

Gary Hermann for the Media Diversity Institute

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