by BARNIE CHOUDHURY
Former BBC journalist
SOMETHING seismic has happened in the history of British broadcasting.
No, it wasn’t that England’s brilliant victory in the Cricket World Cup was shown simultaneously on Sky and Channel 4.
It was that after almost a century, the BBC has appointed its first ethnic minority mainstream radio channel controller. Mohit Bakaya, a south Asian, is the new head of Radio 4, but coverage of his appointment in the national newspapers, and its significance, was woefully underwhelming.
Bakaya will be a relatively unknown name to the 11 million listeners to the station, most of whom are white and middle class with an average age of 56. Until his appointment, he was the commissioner (the person who truly makes the big decisions) of the station’s factual programmes. The fact that this strand has the strongest and most imaginative output is down to Bakaya’s intelligent, incisive and innovative leadership. He was the one responsible for, among other things, Doorstep Daughter and The Global Philosopher. Talk about a dream job.
He was one of four who made the final round of interviews, a person of colour, and the competition was stiff. I know I keep harking on about skin colour, but it is significant. Under this director-general, the BBC does seem to be trying to reflect those who pay the licence fee and have as much of a right to expect to be represented. For me, Bakaya is the one who has the ‘hinterland’ to understand truly the mammoth task ahead.
So, let me try to explain why his appointment is ground-breaking and so important to south Asians. As someone the same age as Bakaya, and sharing his racial group, I am not supposed to be a champion of Radio 4, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a BBC trainee, all I wanted to do is report for Today, the most influential agenda-setting programme in the UK. And when I ‘made it’, it was the proudest day of my broadcasting career.
This opened the door to other opportunities, such as File on 4, the best investigative journalism programme ever. Once you have been on Radio 4, it is a badge of honour which you wear with pride for the rest of your life. And now a brown boy, who understands the BBC, understands his audience and understands the need to diversify and capture a new generation of listeners, gets to call the shots.
Don’t get me wrong, the revolution has already begun. Mishal Husain fronts Today; Ritula Shah and James Coomarasamy both present The World Tonight. Samira Ahmed is a regular host on Front Row; and don’t forget Anita Anand on Any Answers. In that sense, it’s become easier – and harder – for Bakaya to reflect the changing face of the UK at a station renowned for being the unchanging face of the nation. Harder, because if he appoints more people of colour, Bakaya will be accused of favouring ethnic minorities. Harder, because if he does not, he will be considered a traitor who pulled the ladder up behind him. One of his first jobs will be to find the permanent replacement host for Any Questions. Will it be Shah or Anand or neither?
He knows the immense weight on his shoulders. One former Radio 4 controller said recently that 10 per cent of his job was to stop himself hitting spin doctors, politicians and those listeners who had unreasonable complaints. Bakaya faces cutting costs while maintaining quality. He is already under pressure not to merge The World Tonight with the World Service Newshour programme. But he is not stupid. He could not have risen without having the political acuity to navigate the rocks which have claimed so many minority ethnic careers.
The past two controllers of Radio 4 served six and nine years, respectively, so Bakaya will have one eye on his legacy. It is only natural. Far be it for me to offer him advice, but I urge him to forget he is a person of colour. He was chosen because he was the best person for the job. Bakaya knows already that there will be good days and bad. His job is to succeed. I would tell him, surround yourself with critical friends and listen actively because once you stop, you will make mistakes, but be true to yourself. Our job, as south Asians, is to support Bakaya and help him succeed, speaking truth to power without fear, favour or agenda.
As of now, Bakaya has a clean slate, and I’m proud, pleased and plead that his tenure is filled with accomplishments. His biggest success for me, whether he acknowledges it, will be to inspire the next generation of south Asians who will stand on his shoulders to create history of their own.