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A critical friend

COURAGE OF CONVICTIONS: Professor Kurt Barling delivering a lecture on why diversity matters

IF IT were not for a certain leaked email, this conversation would probably not be taking place so publicly.

The email in question – challenging the BBC’s commitment to diversity – was portrayed in the right wing media as the actions of a disgruntled employee taking a pop at his former employer – an act far removed from the professionalism veteran broadcaster Kurt Barling prides himself on.

But rarely does life go according to plan.

Six months ago, the multi award-winning journalist was told his role as a BBC special correspondent was to be made redundant as part of the broadcaster’s Delivering Quality First programme – a cost-saving measure to cope with the corporation’s reduced budget.

Barling, who is also a professor of professional practice at Middlesex University, understood the business aspect of the decision, and took the news with good grace.

He later sent a farewell email to his colleagues at BBC London, the contents of which were leaked to the Daily Mail and reported out of context. Barling tells The Voice it was “spun in different directions.”

POSITIVE

“I was upset because no one consulted me,” says Barling. “I penned what was ostensibly a private email in which I also talked about all the positive things that have happened at BBC London. I wanted to tell my colleagues I’d had a great time; that this wasn’t something they should feel bad about and remind them of the work that we had done together. Broadcasting is a team effort.

“I wanted to say, as somebody who has given an awful lot to the BBC – including being a critical friend – that I was not leaving by choice. At no point did I say I was targeted because I was black. I was targeted because I was very experienced and, therefore, expensive. I did want to make the point, however, that at the same time the BBC says it has an issue with diversity on screen and behind screen, is it right that a broader conversation is not being had with someone like me to see how those benefits I brought can be maintained? I did not feel the BBC was doing that.”

Barling, credited with being the first black professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), joined the BBC in 1989. Since then, he has held positions as a network correspondent, foreign correspondent, producer and worked on several economics shows and documentaries.


FAMOUS FACE: Barling as we’re used to seeing him

He left briefly in 2000, returning the following year as a freelancer with BBC London.

“I came to BBC London as a very experienced journalist which helped to deal with London’s complexity,” recalls Barling. “But, of course, the extra thing I brought was a different insight. By then, I already had five national awards for my coverage of minority communities. I was never frightened of dealing with black or Asian issues. There is always a danger, as a black reporter covering black issues, that you might fall into a stereotype but I didn’t see it like that. I focused on the issue, because stories that affect the black community, affect the wider community, whether that’s Abu Hamza and terrorism, a documentary like The Faster Race [which explored if black sprinters have a genetic advantage] or Stephen Lawrence coverage.”

Despite the significant strides made in his career, Barling is dismayed that in his years at the BBC he has not seen a significant improvement in diversity.

Today, the BBC has no equivalent of Moira Stewart – one of Britain’s most recognisable newsreaders – or significant increases in the numbers of senior executives from the days of men like Wesley Kerr, Tony Laryea or Peter Kenyatta.

And it’s the quality of the BBC’s journalism that suffers, argues Barling.

RECORD

“The proof of the pudding in the end was the exclusive interview Nicholas Jacobs [recently cleared of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots] gave to Newsnight. The only person he was willing to speak to was me. Of course, there was an element that I have built a reputation of being fair and impartial – which are BBC qualities – but, actually, minority communities don’t always believe that. They trust me because of my track record and, therefore, I got the scoop.”

It was Barling’s parting gift to the BBC at the end of his old contract and a perfect ending for him personally.

A younger Barling was in Tottenham at the time of the riots in 1985 visiting his brother-in-law. When he saw the way the story was being told in the mainstream, he made his mind up that he could and would do better.

The 52-year-old comes from humble working-class roots, with English, Irish, German and Nigerian heritage. Barling – unlike many of journalism’s current crop – went to Southgate Comprehensive, in north London, before accepting a place at LSE.

Barling continues: “The diversity question gets confused. It’s not just about faces on screen. You want someone from Yorkshire to interpret London stories. You want people of colour to interpret mainstream stories because they bring a different perspective, that’s the point of diversity in journalism. The BBC has to get itself in a place where it is not phased by a newsroom with 200 black journalists in it.

“It is no good expecting white people to have the same outlook as black people. Maybe in a thousand years that may happen, but right now where we sit in British history, we have a very different experiences that colour our perspective. That’s what we need more of in newsrooms and in management.”

Far from feeling sore about his departure, Barling is more concerned about the message that it sends to those he has left behind.

“It sends a powerful signal to young up-and-coming journalists about what the BBC really values, if they release someone like me – an exemplar of good practice – when they say they want greater diversity. The BBC can’t have its cake and eat it. More black journalists are an important attribute in getting the story balance right and tells the audience that the BBC cares about their experience. The black audience pays its licence fee. What is it getting for its money?”

SOLUTION

Barling praised the great strides that have been made in terms of gender, with women now holding some of the most senior roles, with the final frontier being director general. But race in comparison has stalled. He doesn’t profess to have the magic solution but does feel that retention of black staff is the first hurdle.

“[When it comes to race] people think the argument has been won because we are a society more at ease with ourselves. You don’t get the blatant racism very often that you had 20/30 years ago. In 1990, my CV was challenged by a senior manager. I was told it was just a joke, but I didn’t find it funny.”

He continues: “The BBC can be a hostile environment. Like the civil service, it is very hierarchical and tends to draw people from Oxbridge or universities like LSE.

“It has done well in recruiting minorities, but where it has fallen down is retaining and nurturing those people and taking them on to positions where they have key decision-making power so they can help change the culture. An awful lot of people of colour start at the BBC then leave because they don’t feel nurtured or that their ideas are valued. They don’t feel fulfilled and the BBC has to deal with that. Until then, the BBC will not win this battle.”

Since his initial email was leaked, Barling says he has received more than 100 positive emails, many praising him for being ‘brave’ in telling it like it is.

He adds: “I have always had the courage of my convictions, that’s who I am, but what the messages tell me is there is a climate of fear among minority journalists in which people feel they cannot say what they believe once they’re on the inside. They fear they will be sidelined as troublemakers. If there were more of us, they would not have to feel like that.

“The BBC is a great institution and a very important one in terms of its authority to probe and ask questions. But only when they get a critical mass of people of colour in decision-making positions will the texture and commissioning of stories change and we will get a true reflection of the society we have become.”

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