• Tuesday, January 31, 2023

HEADLINE STORY

EXCLUSIVE: Shame of ‘All-White’ BBC newsrooms

‘BBC completely out of touch with communities it serves’

WORKPLACE WOES: Managers at the BBC only pays lip service to diversity figures, according to former and current staff (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

By: BARNIE CHOUDHURY

THE BBC should be ashamed that it has radio and television stations where newsrooms are entirely white and not representing the communities they serve.

That is the feeling of current staff and former employees who have spoken to Eastern Eye.

They said they warned the BBC that it would not meet its racial diversity targets a decade ago, neither would the corporation reflect the cities and regions to which it broadcasts.

Eastern Eye has seen an email from the acting director of BBC Local, Jason Horton, which revealed that none of the new “senior news editors” appointed so far was of colour.

The message to staff also revealed that one Asian local radio manager decided not to apply for a job to lead two stations.

“I love working for the BBC, and when I joined, it was the proudest day of my life,” said one ethnic minority staff employee before breaking down in tears.

“I’ve given years of my life to the BBC, and I haven’t been promoted despite working harder than my white colleagues.

“I’m so ashamed when I see that they’re paying lip service and don’t really care about representing their listeners and viewers.”

Jason Horton (Photo: LinkedIn)

Those unhappy with the BBC blame poor leadership and managers “burying their heads in the sand and paying lip service to diversity figures” for its poor performance when it comes to racial diversity.

“When we brought up our concerns to bosses, their usual response was to talk about all their great hires,” one former senior staffer told Eastern Eye.

“This has been going on for years, and even today I’ve been told they still gaslight people of colour or they promise them jam tomorrow by saying things will get better, trust them.

“The point is that those who’ve been there for any significant time leave because they’ve lost trust in the BBC because they never deliver on their promises.”

The changing demographics in Britain revealed in the new census, such as in Birmingham, is not reflected in the BBC’s newsrooms serving those regions, according to a study by Nina Robinson (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

MP’s concern

The Labour MP for Bradford West and shadow Home Office minister, Naz Shah, told Eastern Eye that she would be writing to the BBC to ask what it was doing to address the lack of racial diversity.

Naz Shah (Photo: nazshahmp.org.uk)

“I am shocked to learn about this, and I think it’s incumbent on the BBC to have a workplace reflective of the communities it serves.

“We know that when we have diverse work forces, they are much better at engaging with communities, and that trust and confidence have to be there from the communities we serve.

“It’s a big concern and very worrying for me, especially given my constituency make up.”

Several current south Asian staffers told this newspaper that they are concerned the cuts will only make matters worse, and the BBC will never reach the 20 per cent target at every level of the organisation.

One senior south Asian staff journalist said, “I warned bosses that newsrooms didn’t represent the local or regional communities they served.

“I was told that things had changed, and the BBC was committed to hitting the 20 per cent targets.

“I was told that I was overreacting, and that the BBC was committed to diversity.

“So, how do you explain that in 2022 we have some newsrooms in local radio and regional television where we don’t have one single staff employee, not those who are freelance or on temporary contracts, who are of colour?

“How do you explain that after the current restructuring, all the senior leaders in nations and regions are white, all the television super-editors are white, and only two of the 40-odd local radio station managers are of colour?”

Source: BBC

Under-represented minorities

The BBC’s latest annual report for ethnicity reveals that just 6.3 per cent of staff in ‘Nations’, the department for local and regional programmes, describe themselves as non-white.

The 2021 census reveals that 18 per cent of England and Wales describe themselves as non-white.

Although this an increase of 0.4 per cent since March 2020, it is only a third of ethnic minorities in the two nations.

Analysis by Eastern Eye suggests that at this rate, it will take a further 35 years before the BBC hits its self-imposed 20 per cent target.

Greg Dyke, former BBC Director-General (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

“The BBC promises a lot when it comes to diversity, but it never delivers,” said one insider.

“Remember when Greg [Dyke, former director general] described us as hideously white?

“Well, it looks great on screen and on air, but behind the scenes it’s just as bad as it was in Greg’s day.”

The BBC wants a fifth of its staff to be an ethnic minority at all levels by 2026.

Failed targets

The corporation has set ambitious targets in the past, and it has never reached them.

Nina Robinson

Nina Robinson, an experienced former BBC radio journalist, carried out a three-month study, for Birmingham City University.

She used the Freedom of Information Act and the BBC’s annual reports to get the data.

Of the 118 assistant editors, editors, heads of radio news and directors of regions only six per cent who worked in news were non-white in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“It’s no surprise that white newsrooms exist, which is shocking when you consider the latest census data is that there are now cities that are majority minority communities,” said Robinson.

“The audiences are very diverse and increasingly so, and they’re not being served by local radio, which is something that’s enshrined in the BBC Royal Charter.”

Aaqil Ahmed was the BBC’s head of religion, and he is currently a non-executive director for the broadcast regulator, Ofcom.

Aaqil Ahmed

Speaking in a personal capacity, he described the figures and current lack of diversity in nations and regions as “disappointing”.

“These are things which have needed a shake up for a long time,” he said.

“I was talking about these demographic changes 10 years ago, after the 2011 census, and I did a paper that never went anywhere.

“We had time to sort this out.

“So yes, I know, it’s difficult thing to do, but here’s the reality, in certain geographical pockets of the UK, it would suggest that the BBC is completely out of touch with the communities they serve.

“The likes of Birmingham and Leicester are now, for the first time, minority majority cities.

“Can you justify not having people in senior positions who come from those communities?

“If we had listened to conversations a decade or so ago, then we wouldn’t be in this position that we’re in now.”

Source: BBC

No accountability

Ahmed said that the problem is that no-one is held to account for failing to hit diversity targets.

“The big question is this, how will they be held to account and who will be held to account?

“The BBC, basically marking their own work, will say that we tried, but because of Covid, because of this, because of that, because of cutbacks, we didn’t hit the targets.

“They’ll blame everything else other than the fact that historically, they’ve never met their targets.

“If you can mark your own homework, where’s the fear?

The BBC classifies “leaders” as being from Band E [assistant editors] to SL [senior leaders].

But it will not reveal the numbers in individual departments, so there is no public record of how many so-called leaders there are in local and regional newsrooms.

What we do know is that the television newsroom which serves the East Midlands, based in Nottingham, does not represent the communities it serves.

“We lost three ethnic minorities one after another,” said one former East Midlands Today journalist.

“One took voluntary redundancy, another joined ITV as an editor after years of getting nowhere here and getting really frustrated, and another got a job at network.

“It’s a case of apathy meeting couldn’t care less.

“Then you look at ITV Central, and four out of 10 of their senior editorial team are Asian, including our colleague who wasn’t good enough, or so the grown-ups thought.

“Their newsroom is so racially diverse and is representative of the whole of the Midlands, off and on-screen.

“So, what are they doing right that we aren’t?”

Eastern Eye understands that East Midlands Today has just one staff journalist of colour working for it.

All-white newsrooms

One senior editor told Eastern Eye that it was not true that there were all-white newsrooms.

They argued that everyone in local radio stations was part of “the newsroom”.

But several current staff who spoke to this newspaper on the basis of anonymity said this was not the case and the “newsroom-production-staff-divide still existed despite what managers want to make you believe.”

“How can you have social cohesion and understanding between communities if the news is not representative,” asked Robinson.

“There’s evidence that has shown that lack of a diverse newsroom leads to stereotypes, or seeing people of colour in certain positions, rather seeing the whole variety of human life and walks of life.

“That’s the whole point of having a public service broadcaster – to increase understanding between communities, especially at a time when we are having a rise in the far right and social media and internet putting us all more into echo chambers.”

In a statement, a BBC spokesperson said, “We hold ourselves to the highest standards when it comes to representation of all backgrounds and diversity is a priority for us.”

As part of the slicing of station budgets, so-called specialist community programmes targeted at minority communities are under review.

One staff member who works for community programming contacted Eastern Eye and said, “The mood is really bad.

“Most of us have a producer for three hours, and we’re expected to set up two hours of quality programming with guests which reflect our communities.

“We’ve always been the Cinderellas of local radio, and now the talk is that we’re all going to be axed.”

Select committee hearing 

Last Thursday (1), Horton and his boss, the director of nations, Rhodri Talfan Davies, appeared before the media select committee to defend the cuts to local radio.

When questioned by Independent MP for Ealing Central and Acton, Dr Rupa Huq, Horton “refuted and denied” plans that the BBC intended to merge all the community programmes and put it on BBC Sounds.

“What would be the benefit for the BBC in doing that?” he asked. “I can’t understand quite how that rumour developed, because how could you begin to merge all of those programs into a single podcast?

“I’m not saying there won’t be podcasts on demand content into the future, but we have to recognise that we uniquely are already connecting with audiences those other broadcasters don’t.

“We want to maintain that.

“I think what we’re saying is, can we think about how we do that in a more effective way, given the fact that we’re in the 21st century, people have more access to technology yet still maintain that really core linear base?”

There was a suffocating complacency coming from the top table, says Dr Rupa Huq (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

But other BBC staffers told Eastern Eye that the census showed that places like Birmingham, Leicester, Slough and Luton are places where the ethnic minorities are majorities.

Yet, they say, the output does not reflect their communities.

For example, BBC Radio Berkshire which is supposed to serve Slough appears to have no community programming.

A look at its schedules for the past month shows two presenters of colour who appear to fill in, when necessary, as and when.

“I’m a big fan of the beeb and will always defend it against Tory attacks, but these cuts are nothing short of butchery, and I felt that there was a suffocating complacency coming from the top table,” Huq told Eastern Eye.

“Basic questions were not even answered about what their commitment will look like, and they rejected being able to safeguard existing presenters and slots.

“One wonders if an equality impact assessment has been carried out to accompany these devastating proposals or they’ve just been dreamt up on the hoof as what’s seen as low hanging fruit for cutbacks?”

A BBC spokesperson said, “We have outlined proposals for all of our weekend and afternoon schedules and are currently consulting with staff about this.

“We have a broad range of black and Asian community programmes, and we plan to safeguard this commitment as part of these proposals.”

Irrelevant BBC

Last week, Ahmed spoke with young people of colour to ask them whether the BBC’s programming was relevant to them.

The answer was a resounding no, and the former BBC head of religion said this was a danger for his former employers.

“The moment has arrived,” he continued. “There are 4 million Muslims according to census figures in this country, 6.5 per cent of the population.

“In certain geographical pockets, they are significant players, do they constitute, nationally, having their own programmes now, like a Songs of Praise style programme?

“Does that mean that they could have local programmes if they are Hindus, or whoever are the significantly high numbers in that particular geographical area?

“Should the local programmes be geared more towards them?

“Isn’t that the sort of conversations we should be having?”

The cuts are going to make racial representation even worse, according to insiders.

The BBC asked Eastern Eye to make clear that in the restructure there would be 21 “executive editors” or managers of the 39 local radio stations.

“This is classic BBC,” said one current staff employee. “They expect us to believe that suddenly we’ve doubled our percentage of ethnic managers by halving the number.

“The fact is they are not doing well on diversity no matter how much they try to massage the figures.”

The leaked email from Horton suggested that seven vacancies still existed for local radio managers, plus four TV editor roles are up for grabs.

“When it comes to the vacancies, well, they have a problem,” said another source.

“First, people may not want to move to the places being advertised, and second, we know that they recruit in their own image, won’t take risks, will want safe pairs of hands, don’t like mavericks or people who think outside the box.

“The BBC must understand and accept that it is a conservative-risk-averse institution, and I base that on years of experience as a classic outsider.”

Opportunities?

The BBC has described the vacancies as a “great opportunity”, but that is not how some view it.

Another problem is that there is no person of colour inside the BBC who can take up the new television, radio and online super-editor role “because for decades managers have singularly failed to create a talent pipeline”, said several journalists who spoke to this paper.

And both Robinson and Ahmed do not believe the BBC will ever achieve its 20 per cent target at every level of local radio and nations, especially within five years.

“I looked at diversity figures between 2015 and 2019, and the BBC’s inclusion plan shows that between those years in senior leadership ranks as across the BBC, there’d only been an increase in 2.7 per cent in racial diversity,” Robinson said.

“It seems that the dial is not shifting.

“If you see the past, once things get even more competitive, where the money is tighter, then diversity often suffers in that kind of environment.

“That problem has been compounded in local radio over many decades, because the purse strings have been tighter, and there has been an onus on the local radio news teams to do more with less, working in smaller teams.

“Those jobs have become like gold dust.

“Those people sitting on staff contracts realise that they’re very rare.

“So, instead of looking at the bigger picture, they become a closed shop and make themselves less relevant as a result.”

Robinson went further, and she said that the 20 per cent target was a conservative figure which needed to be increased.

“Most of the people that I spoke to in my report said it was extremely unlikely that the 20 per cent target was going to be reached.

“But this is a conservative target, especially for regions.

“For example, with the new census data, Birmingham has a 51 per cent ethnic minority population.

“That should be a strong message to all the local radio, the heads of the regions at the top of the BBC, that they must change these recruitment practices.

“They must ensure that they face consequences for not having a pipeline in place for managers, and that should be an integral part of their job.

“If they can’t do that, do something radical.

“Move all of the hiring decisions out of the hands of programme editors and take it outside to independent HR consultancy professionals who actually understand processes that work, that create these diverse pipelines that get the senior leaders into those jobs that they’re qualified to do.”

Analysis 

“It’s unforgivable that there should be such a lack of clarity and honesty in the reality of the situation”

“This is a story about poor leadership, an institution which has not listened to its non-white staff, and a place which doesn’t reflect modern Britain because it doesn’t have a clue that you need a diverse talent pipeline.”

Those were the words of a veteran BBC journalist who contacted Eastern Eye two months ago, writes Barnie Choudhury.

The reason why the proper level of ethnic staff is important is because BBC local radio and regional television are supposed to represent their communities.

Majority white or all-white newsrooms often lack real understanding of why a story is important to a particular ethnic racial group or social class.

How can they when they do not have the experience of being attacked because of the colour of your skin or you have to make the choice between feeding your children or heating the house?

We all pay the licence fee, but the brown and black pounds are not equivalent to the white pound when you consider programming and portrayal, they told Eastern Eye.

And for the former head of religion for the BBC, Aaqil Ahmed, giving his personal opinion, this may become an issue.

“Birmingham is a 51-percentage minority, and if Birmingham’s newsroom doesn’t reflect that in any shape or form, then that’s going to be a problem in terms of representation, right?

“Then the next layer down becomes why should people pay a licence fee?

“People will start to think that there should be no taxation without representation, as the saying goes.”

Diversity afterthought

All too often, racial representation in stories is an afterthought, and even then, the lack of diversity leads to embarrassing problems, sources told this newspaper.

Take, for example, the report which contained the ‘N-word’ on the regional news programme, Points West, in 2020.

The report was aired twice and the next day on the BBC’s News Channel.

The BBC initially defended it, but the then director-general, Tony Hall, was forced to apologise after a public outcry, a black Radio 1Xtra DJ resigning in disgust, and 18,000 complaints.

The regulator Ofcom called the use of the word “unjustified”.

One recurring complaint among those I spoke with was that the BBC recruited in its own image and made it difficult for non-white staff.

“We all know the jobs are stitched up, and mates get their mates in,” said one Asian staffer.

“We have to work so much harder, we’ve got to prove ourselves more, and yet we’ll be passed over time and again.”

This is backed up by academic research.

“I looked at the recruitment processes in my research, and that was particularly

difficult when it came to the progression of people of colour in the structures within the BBC,” explained former BBC journalist and now academic, Nina Robinson.

“One white senior leader said to me, who had been on many hiring panels, that the hiring managers naturally have their prejudices.

“For example, some would design a task to weed out other candidates in favour of their preferred candidate.

“These kinds of activities are taking place, and that white senior leader concluded that the process was completely skewed.

“The BBC knows this through its latest staff surveys, which have been going on for many years, showing a very high level of dissatisfaction for the lack of transparency and fairness in the interview board system within the BBC.

“I looked at the survey for 2021 and 66 per cent of BBC staff expressed dissatisfaction with the current system.”

Non-transparency

We asked the BBC a series of questions and put to it a series of claims being made by current BBC staff.

We did not get the answers to the crucial questions regarding the ethnicity figures for staff in local radio and regional television.

The gist is that the BBC is unable to confirm or deny anything we say because it would identify individual people.

This response suggests that the numbers of non-white BBC staff in newsrooms are either non-existent or embarrassingly small.

But sources have told Eastern Eye that all-white newsrooms exist, and that “the BBC is hiding behind definitions and data protection not to reveal the appalling way it represents the communities it serves”.

Eastern Eye understands that Birmingham, where 51 per cent said they were non-white, has an all-white newsroom.

In fact, even if we were to take the transmission survey area – the places it is supposed to serve – at 40 per cent non-white the station would be lacking when it came to staff representing the communities they serve.

The BBC refused to respond to a question about the station manager’s ethnicity or whether the newsroom was all-white.

So, Eastern Eye is unable to confirm whether there are one or two BBC local radio managers who describe themselves as an ethnic minority.

When I joined the BBC in 1986, more than 35 years ago, the corporation was having the same conversations about the lack of racial diversity.

Then entire stations and regional television newsrooms were white.

Things have improved, but there remains the problem with leadership, which is more Berlin Wall than glass ceiling.

Deeper detail

Speaking purely personally, Ahmed also wanted senior leaders to drill down into the racial and religious diversity city-by-city-region-by-region.

“We have to now go to the next level down, which is to say, which are the particular groups who were the biggest groups within the diversity of this region?

“How are they being represented?

“Are you achieving something close to what the ethnic makeup of this country?

“If you’ve got in programming a lot of people from a particular ethnic minority background, but they’re not the largest one, then that’s not working because you’re super-serving a community.

“Let’s drill down beyond that and say, socioeconomic backgrounds, regional backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, religious backgrounds, let’s have that data as well for all your diverse people.”

Those who have spoken to me are truly loyal to the BBC.

Some have cried because of the way they have been treated, and they said their bosses think the BBC is doing a wonderful job when it comes to racial diversity.

The reality, said Robinson, is very different.

“Since Greg Dyke made his hideously white comment, there has been real rhetoric from senior leaders, the director general and his team, that they’re working so hard on diversity.

“They’ve almost given the impression that they’ve made leaps and bounds and great strides, which is extremely different from the reality within the data that has been shown.

“For me it is really unforgivable that there should be such a lack of clarity and honesty in the reality of the situation.”

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