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MP Helen Grant: 'The BBC must embrace diversity to survive'

DEBATE: Tottenham MP David Lammy and Helen Grant have both highlighted the issue of media diversity in parliament

THE BBC’s royal charter expires at the end of 2016 and one of the key components of the review process is the BBC’s record on diversity. The subject was recently debated in Parliament, led by David Lammy for Labour and myself for the Conservatives, and I think it is important to re-iterate some of the key issues here, for the benefit of our readers.

Why is diversity important within our national public service broadcaster? Firstly it has a legal obligation under the ‘public purpose remit’ that viewers, listeners and users should be able to rely on the BBC to reflect the many communities that exist in the UK.

Moreover, our nation’s diversity is something to be celebrated and broadcast far and wide, especially in places where racism and discrimination abound. The BBC could and should be leading the way on this, with 230 million viewers every week, worldwide, in 33 different languages.

So let’s look at their recent record; In December 2014 the Royal Television Society produced a video about the BBC’s flagship nightly news programme called Behind the scenes at Newsnight. It was an 11-minute information film for young people about the TV industry. Not a single person from a black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) background was to be seen in that film.

In September 2015 the Controller of BBC Radio 5 Live gave a 16-minute presentation about his ambitions for the station. In it he made no reference to the BAME audience, included no BAME voices and the video that went with the presentation showed no BAME staff or any other BAME people on screen.

DIRECTION

In 2007, at the beginning of the BBC’s current Royal charter, the BBC Trust was created replacing the old Board of Governors. Their role was to set the strategic direction of the BBC and to hold the Executive to account in the performance of the policies, guidelines and codes that the Trust themselves set.

In the BBC’s own 2015 Diversity report, however, the data tables showed that of 23 senior people employed by the BBC Trust, none were from a BAME background, and currently only one of the 12 trustees is non-white.

Former Director General Greg Dyke described the organisation as ‘hideously white’ and the current DG Tony Hall said ‘we need to do better’.

Not such a good state of affairs you might agree, but as a former Minister for Sport I have seen that the organisation is capable of showing leadership in tough areas, like ‘Women in Sport’ for example. Barbara Slater’s vision as Head of Sport at the BBC, working closely with the Government, achieved a step change in women’s sport media coverage in the UK. Sky and BT Sport can also take credit here but the BBC was vital in the mix.

CHALLENGES

If they can start to tackle the heavy challenges of gender diversity in sport, I believe achieving racial diversity within their own organisation is a goal within the BBC’s grasp.

There are some encouraging signs: In 2014 the BBC launched a diversity plan which has already borne fruit in on-screen recruitment and the commissioning of BME writers.

In programme content too there is progress; just before Armistice Day last year the BBC ran some programmes about soldiers and spies making a big difference during the war. One featured a Sikh man another a Muslim man, both of whom fought very bravely to defend our country. This coverage, at a time of great national pride, illustrated a very positive link between Britishness and multi-culture and I’m in no doubt that those true stories will have changed some perceptions and behaviours.

The BBC must now follow their own lead and make more programmes like this, programmes that attract a diverse audience whilst still entertaining the wider population.

If such programmes were commonplace, then so too would be demand for production teams, writers and actors with a BME background. Perhaps the ring fencing of budgets for this purpose, as suggested by Sir Lenny Henry, would also help to increase BME production activity.

If they are to survive and progress, the BBC must embrace diversity. That will need honest commitment and leadership from the very top, underpinned by money. They’ve done the surveys, they’ve set their targets, they know the challenges; they just need to get on now - and do it.

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Helen Grant is Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald and is guest columnist for The Voice. Read her comments here every month.

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