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'BBC head of diversity role had no real power'

OVERSEEING: Above, Tunde Ogungbesan is stepping down from a largely powerless job

EARLIER THIS month, the BBC’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Tunde Ogungbesan, announced he was stepping down after a little more than three years in the role.

As a former BBC exec, and often at the forefront of diversity issues in the media, I received my fair share of messages asking me what I thought of this news. My response to all the messages was the same: “The job the BBC has created is an impossible job but the BBC should seize this opportunity to restructure the approach it takes to the Head of Diversity and Inclusion role.”

First of all, why is it an impossible job?

Because it has a great deal of responsibility, but, unfortunately, little power.


PICTURED: Marcus Ryder

The job is meant to oversee the increase in diversity and inclusion at the BBC as well as increasing the retention and promotion of diverse staff.

It is a massive responsibility and its success or failure will be a major component in deciding the future of British media.

Despite the importance of this role, and while Tunde (and his predecessor Amanda Rice) could encourage everyone in the organisation to try to hire diverse staff, they did not have the actual power to hire a single researcher, assistant producer or producer.

So while the Head of Diversity may sit in on some interviews, they cannot compel – and would find it very difficult to chastise or admonish – an exec or senior manager for their hiring practices.

Also, in the context of more and more outsourcing by the BBC, they again could encourage everyone to try to commission programmes from more diverse sources, but they had no actual influence over which independent production companies commissioners end up choosing to make the programmes.

They certainly did not have the power to insist that they commission from BAME-led, female-led or disability-led indie companies.

Ultimately, the role as it is currently structured has very limited, if any, power to directly affect change on any measurable diversity criteria.

This lack of power explains why the diversity role at the BBC – and such roles in many other organisations – is seen as some sort of extension of HR, and is therefore so often preoccupied with creating training schemes, or measuring diversity and outreach projects.

More and more training schemes, more and more measurement. These both have their place, but in the end they have not made much difference. By some measures it seems that the diversity of people actually making the programmes behind the camera has in fact gone down over the last 10 years, not up.

STRENGTHENING

Now compare the power that the BBC’s Head of Diversity has to the BBC’s Director of Nations and Regions.

The BBC’s Director of Nations and Regions, like the BBC’s Head of Diversity, is charged with increasing and strengthening a certain type of diversity. In the former case, the director is charged with strengthening diversity of productions outside of London.

Yet, unlike the Head of Diversity, the Director of Nations and Regions has real power. Almost 6,000 BBC staff members directly or indirectly report to this director.

They have the direct power to hire and fire staff that are not doing a good enough job in increasing regional diversity.

They can champion indies based outside of London and directly grow and develop the indie sector. They oversee how hundreds of millions of the BBC’s money is spent.

And importantly, the Director of Nations and Regions sits at the BBC’s top table – on the Executive Committee that decides on strategic direction and policies. This means they can influence not just how hundreds of millions of Nations and Regions money is spent, but also how literally more is spent.


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If the BBC wants to implement a policy they feel will be to the detriment of the Nations and Regions they are at the highest table to stop it.

It is clear that the BBC recognises the importance of increasing regional diversity and gives the role the appropriate power and money to make sure it happens.

On the other hand, for the Head of Diversity, the BBC – and, to be fair, many other media organisations – as I’ve mentioned earlier, seems to take the view that it is an extension of Human Resources, who has only indirect influence over the final impact of an organisation.

Diversity is often viewed as a simple task of increasing headcount of certain types of people as opposed to recognising the complex relationship diversity has with the other parts of the media industry inside and outside the BBC – most notably increasing the role diversity-led indies need to play. Indeed, the fact that one is seen as more or less an HR role and the other is more related to the BBC’s output is reflected by the type of people appointed to the relative positions.

The Directors of Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Nations and Regions usually have programme making backgrounds. The last two heads of BBC Diversity have had no programme-making experience at all.

With Tunde Ogungbesan’s departure, the BBC has a real opportunity to make diversity work in the organisation.

Even before they start interviewing, the first thing the BBC needs to do is revamp the terms of reference of the role.

The BBC needs to make sure that they give the new Head of Diversity the power to go along with the responsibility.

That means a seat right next to the Director of Nations and Regions on the executive board, and it also means a hire that has had programme-making experience to intimately understand the media industry first-hand.

And finally, the BBC needs to hire someone who can help craft a new economic model that promotes and sustains diversity in the BBC and influence the television industry as a whole.

As the saying goes: with great power comes great responsibility.

The BBC has already given the Head of Diversity great responsibility, now it is time they gave them great power.

Marcus Ryder is chief international editor of CGTN. He is the former chair of the RTS Diversity Committee and former head of current affairs BBC Scotland.

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