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Race, Diversity, and the BBC

Like many big legacy broadcasters — and many other types of big organizations — the BBC is currently grappling with its legacy and responsibilities on race. The global protests over racial injustice, catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, have intensified these discussions, certainly, but within the context of the BBC, there have been long-standing efforts, far predating this moment, by campaigners like Lenny Henry, Marcus Ryder and many others to improve the BBC’s internal culture.

Writers like Afua Hirsch have been highlighting the racial inequality in compensation for journalists and presenters at the BBC for years, freelance and staff producers have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to highlight racism and inequality, and parliamentary committees have also tried repeatedly to hold the corporation to account on everything from inadequate grievance processes to slow progress on promoting more Black people and people of colour to senior leadership.

Indeed, the BBC has acknowledged this problem itself. Back in 2018, the BBC Career Progression and Culture Report admitted that “it’s taking too long to see the change that we expect within our workforce.” It also promised significant change. That report, incidentally, was authored by Tim Davie, then CEO of BBC Studios, who will take over as Director General of the entire BBC in September. Yet, despite this admission, staff, contributors and viewers still feel considerable frustration.

In the last month, there have been two moments that really put the BBC’s problems with race in perspective for me. These aren’t the only events relevant to this topic, by any means, but I think these instances in particular highlight the gap between the corporation’s external statements and its internal actions, and show how much more work there is to be done.

The first moment came on 22 July, when the BBC Radio & Music division made the welcome announcement that it was “boosting its commitments to diversity and inclusion” and reallocating £12 million of its existing commissioning budget over the next three years towards “diverse and inclusive content.” In addition, we were told that later this year would see the launch of something called the BBC Sounds Lab, a new and more accessible route to a BBC podcast commission, along with a new commitment to only working with independent production companies that “meet a 20% diversity target in their teams.” This all came, I should note, in the wake of BBC Radio signing up to the Equality in Audio Pact pioneered by Broccoli Content’s Renay Richardson.

It was the last element of this that most caught my attention. The BBC has a substantial role to play in the UK audio industry as a major commissioner of programmes and podcasts from independent production companies. If it does indeed only choose to work with companies who have a properly diverse staff, that will force a major change in hiring practices in the industry. At the moment, I can only think of a small handful of providers that would meet this requirement. However, when I asked for more detail about how this would be enforced — both back in July and again while writing this piece — I was told that the full details were still being worked out, so nothing has been enacted yet. The same goes for questions of intellectual property and ownership: it’s not yet clear whether there will be any change to the status quo that would allow creators to keep ownership of their own shows even if they are picked up by BBC Sounds.

The second moment I want to consider in relation to this concerns a story on the 28 July edition of Points West, a BBC regional news programme, which was then repeated on the national BBC news channel the following morning. In it, correspondent Fiona Lamdin, who is white, used the N-word when reporting on the abuse hurled during a racially aggravated hit and run attack on K-Dogg, a musician and NHS worker, in Bristol.

Despite the outcry from viewers, the BBC initially defended the decision to include the word in the report, saying in a statement that: “We believe we gave adequate warnings that upsetting images and language would be used and we will continue to pursue this story.” It went on to say that the decision to repeat the slur had been taken after consultation with the victim’s family, who wanted viewers to understand the severity of the attack.

On 8 August, BBC Radio 1Xtra host Sideman (aka David Whitely) published an Instagram video in which he announced that he was resigning from all work for the corporation, including his weekly radio show, with immediate effect. “This is an error in judgement where I can’t just smile with you through the process and act like everything is OK,” he said. “The action and the defence of the action feels like a slap in the face of our community.”

The next day, the BBC Director General Tony Hall overturned the decision to defend the use of the slur and personally apologised for the report. “The BBC now accepts that we should have taken a different approach at the time of broadcast and we are very sorry for that. We will now be strengthening our guidance on offensive language across our output,” he said. “Every organization should be able to acknowledge when it has made a mistake. We made one here.”

The BBC reportedly received over 18,000 complaints from members of the public about the uncensored use of the slur. For many BBC staff, however, this incident didn’t happen in isolation, and is simply yet another example of how the organization culturally possesses an inadequate understanding of race and racism.

These two instances appear very different on the surface, but the more I’ve been thinking about them, the more they seem to me to be two reflections of the same thing. The attitude that led the BBC to announce a major change to how it will work with suppliers on radio and podcast commissioning without first nailing down its practicalities is the same impulse that requires there to be a major host resignation and 18,000 complaints about the use of a slur before an apology is issued. It’s reactive, not proactive, and regardless of intention it communicates that these matters are not given total priority. And while that is the case, I can’t see that this is the route to lasting institutional change.