Chi’s debate on diversity in the media

Chi secured and led a debate in Parliament this week on diversity in public sector broadcasting.

The full debate can be read here.

Chi’s speech is below:

It is a pleasure to consider this matter under your excellent and expert chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to lead this debate on an important subject. Public sector broadcasting is sometimes more broadly known as public service broadcasting, because although the BBC, Channel 4 and S4C are effectively publicly owned, ITV and Channel 5 both have public service obligations as part of their broadcast licences. Ofcom defines the purpose of public service broadcasting as

“Informing our understanding of the world; stimulating knowledge and learning; reflecting UK cultural identity; representing diversity and alternative viewpoints.”

Public service broadcasters have a duty to represent the public.

The United Kingdom is a vibrant, diverse, complex and at times eccentric country, and it is essential that our public service broadcasters should reflect that—indeed, that is why we have public service broadcasting. Left to itself, the market would not; anyone who has watched “Fox News” cannot fail to agree with that.

I will touch on all aspects of diversity, as I believe there is still much to be done. I want to concentrate on an area that has had little coverage and few initiatives: class and region.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for introducing, in this of all weeks, this important topic to a public debate. I share her concern about the lack of representation in public service broadcasting generally, and in the public sector.

Will she permit me to clear up one misunderstanding that has arisen in relation to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which I chair? As matters stand, my Committee has no women or black and minority ethnic members. That is not because of any planned structure or other institutional arrangement, but because no women or black and minority ethnic candidates stood for election. That is highly regrettable, from my point of view. I wish that they had done so and that there was a bigger pool in Parliament from which such candidates could have offered themselves. We are, as matters currently stand, working within the rules of the House. I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to put that on the public record.

Chi Onwurah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which illustrates something of the challenge that we face. He said eloquently that he wished there was a larger pool of women and black and minority ethnic Members in the House from which people could have put themselves forward to his Committee. It is regrettable that there is not and that no women or black and minority ethnic Members put themselves forward; having an entirely male and pale Select Committee representing the House on such matters does not do justice to the House and does not reflect well on it or its reputation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record.

John Nicolson (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP): Lest it be considered that that Committee is entirely composed of majorities, we should remember that there is another minority: gay people. As a gay member of the Committee, I should like to put that on the record.

Chi Onwurah: That is something that I wish to focus on. The definition of “diversity” is broader than gender and ethnicity alone, although those are two important and very visible aspects.

Reflecting the reality of this country is important. Whether on screen or radio, writing scripts, researching programme guests, operating cameras or in the boardroom, all involved in the broadcasting value chain should strive to ensure that the content they produce, their leadership and their employees look and sound like the country of which they are part. There are two important reasons for this.

First, fairness is a value on which the British people pride themselves. A recent survey by British Social Attitudes found that 95% of people agree that

“in a fair society every person should have an equal opportunity to get ahead.”

Research by YouGov found that 78% of the British public thinks “it should be the government’s job to ensure that rich and poor children should have the same chances.”

It is not fair that every household in the country pays the licence fee, but only certain types of households are represented on the BBC. It is not fair that such an important part of our national culture and conversation should exclude important parts of our nation.

Secondly, there is an economic and business case for diversity. Organisations that do not take full advantage of the wide range of creativity and talent on offer in this country are depriving themselves of potential. This month, Tim Hincks, president of Endemol Shine Group, which produces such well-known programmes as “Big Brother”, “Masterchef” and “Broadchurch”, said that the BBC was “hideously middle class” and that “we’re hampering ourselves by not fishing in a bigger pool.”

We are losing the creativity that comes from people of different backgrounds mixing, and mixing it up.

Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had a rather public disagreement with James Blunt. I agree that

“it is really tough forging a career in the arts if you can’t afford the enormous fees for drama school, if you don’t know anybody who can give you a leg up, if your parents can’t subsidise you for a few years whilst you make your name and if you can’t afford to take on an unpaid internship.”

Like my hon. Friend, I want everyone to be able to take part in the arts—I do not want any no-go areas for young people from less privileged backgrounds. Indeed, it is often those who have had to struggle through the hardest of backgrounds who have some of the most interesting stories to share.

We are proud that this year’s Oscar for best male actor was won by the British Eddie Redmayne, who was discovered when a casting director saw him in a school show. His school was Eton. When I asked at a broadcasting event recently how often casting directors attended performances at schools like my old school, Kenton comp, people thought I must be joking. I was not.

One thing that makes this country great is our culture; we export it around the world and punch well above our weight. Jobs in our creative industries now represent one in every 12 in the UK. According to figures published today, which I am sure the Minister is aware of, arts and culture are now worth £7.7 billion in gross value added to the British economy. That increased by more than a third between 2010 and 2013. John Kampfner, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation, said yesterday that the creative industries “are central to our economy, our public life and our nation’s health.”

I agree. As our public service broadcasters are at the forefront of our creative industries, I hope and expect them to be at the forefront of promoting diversity.

The people of Britain deserve equal opportunities, regardless of their socioeconomic background, postcode or accent. As Owen Jones said in his recent book, “The Establishment”:

“Where institutions rely on too narrow a range of people from too narrow a range of backgrounds with too narrow a range of experiences they risk behaving in ways and focussing on issues that are of salience only to a minority but not the majority in society…Because the media disproportionately recruits from such a privileged layer of society, there are inevitable consequences for how journalists look at news stories, or how they decide what issues are priorities.”

I want to recognise and put on the record the progress made in many areas. I have been a regular Radio 4 listener since the age of 16, thanks to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which first drew me to that station. In my North Kenton council estate, and even as a student in Elephant and Castle and a struggling young professional, I often thought that the station was peopled by emissaries from a different galaxy: they had no visible means of financial support and had all gone to one of the schools that call themselves public while excluding 99% of the public.

I am pleased to say that received pronunciation is no longer the sole voice of the BBC. We have more women on the air, although they tend to be younger and better looking than their male counterparts; that could be the subject of an extended debate on its own. There are more people from minority backgrounds, although, to be frank, it would be impossible for there to be fewer. Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics achieved record viewing levels, and for the first time put people with disabilities into a prolonged primetime viewing spot in a positive way. I pay tribute to Channel 4 for that.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to highlight the participation and portrayal of disabled people in public sector media. Does she also agree that it is incumbent on broadcasters to think about how they portray disabled people and people from other minorities? Much of that portrayal can be disrespectful and humiliating, leaving people with a strong sense of alienation and under-representation.

Chi Onwurah: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in this area. She is absolutely right. I will touch on the issue in more detail, but it is about how people are portrayed as well as the airtime and minutes. Broadcasters will often portray disabled people in a way that can appear patronising if there are no people with that disability in their ranks.

Ofcom’s latest review—this relates to the earlier intervention from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson)—found that a majority of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community felt under-represented on screen. Fewer than a fifth said they were portrayed negatively to audiences. The figure is still too high, but it is improving. While we should all compliment the broadcasters on having made progress, the fact is that the country has changed, too. It is more diverse than ever, with less deference and higher expectations. Broadcasters have finally entered the 1970s in the representation of diversity. In the meantime, young viewers today are likely to live into the 22nd century, although that is perhaps less likely for you and me, Mr Streeter. Sir Lenny Henry said last year:

“The evolution of BAME involvement in British TV seems to lurch one step forward and two steps back.”

According to the House of Commons Library, people with disabilities still make up fewer than 1% of people appearing on television, despite being 20% of the audience.

One area where little progress has been made is the representation of working-class people, particularly those not in London. It was telling for me that most of the briefings I received for today’s debate from many organisations—including the BBC, for example—did not even mention socioeconomic background or the regions. Perhaps those organisations took one look at me or my name and made assumptions about where my interests might lie. Tim Hincks, who I quoted earlier, said that

“no measure of diversity can be truly meaningful without measuring…social background and social mobility.”

Ofcom does look at regional background. It recently found that London and the south-east are still the most highly represented regions in daily broadcasting. Viewers from across the UK were more likely to think that too many people from London and the south-east are shown on TV, compared with other regions, and I am inclined to agree. Despite two thirds of people agreeing that it was important, only 44% of English audiences scored public service broadcasters highly when it comes to portraying their region. I was quite upset when last year’s Great North Run Million—a spectacular event on the banks of the Tyne, with fireworks, Sting, Ant and Dec, Jimmy Nail and various other stars—was given no live national coverage, although I am glad to say that the recent BBC coverage of “Hadrian’s Wall of Sound” was a great tribute to our region and to my city.

Touching on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made, negative stereotypes of people and regions are more likely to find their way on to the airwaves when there is a lack of those people or residents of those regions in the cast, crew and, most importantly, leadership of those organisations. Those stereotypes apply to socioeconomic background, gender and the regions in which we are born, as well as to those with a disability, BME people and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Specifically on regional background, two years ago the “BBC Breakfast” business presenter, Stephanie McGovern, who is from Teesside, said that she got a break only because of one editor taking a gamble on someone with an accent. She said that

“despite being a business journalist at the BBC for ten years, working behind the scenes on our high-profile news programmes, I was viewed by some in the organisation to be ‘too common for telly’.”

I might prefer the Geordie accent, but I still want to hear my friends and neighbours on Teesside as much as I do my friends from London, Wales and south Devon.

There are no doubt many similar stories. One example is that of Aaqil Ahmed, the head of religion and ethics at the BBC. Last year, he said that while he had no problem climbing the first few rungs of his career ladder, when it came to senior management,

“there are few people with similar cultural or socio-economic backgrounds to mine and that has in my opinion hindered me, not completely but enough for me to find it hard to navigate a way forward. There is a lack of diversity of socio-economic classes the higher up the food chain you get”.

I make it clear that I do not support diversity in broadcasting simply because I admire the Geordie accent, or the folk singing of the Unthanks, or the original writing of the Live Theatre, or the music of Hawthorn school’s symphony choir, or the original productions of Northern Stage, or the artistic expression of the Wilson Twins, or the comic timing of the Theatre Royal’s annual pantomime or all the great stories from young and old to be found in Elswick, Benwell and Scotswood, West Gosforth, Westgate, Wingrove, Kenton, Blakelaw or Fenham in my constituency. Nor is it simply that I want to see more northern and working-class culture on the national stage, although I do. I support diversity because there is an economic benefit associated not only with having a vibrant artistic culture, but with being known for having it.

Since becoming an MP, I have been appalled by the lack of knowledge of north-east culture among some of those tasked with selling the north-east abroad. Whether it is about retaining the talented graduates of our great universities or attracting inward investment, we need north-eastern working-class culture to be valued abroad and at home. The working-class environment in which I grew up had many stories to tell—it still does—but we seem to hear the same types of story from the same types of people. “Coronation Street” was revolutionary when it was launched and I pay tribute to ITV for it, but it is an indictment of the industry that, 50 years later, we are still talking about it as revolutionary in representing the working class.

We are not in this position because of some plot, or even because of incompetence. A great deal of effort has been made by the public service broadcasters, and others feeding into and from the same talent pool, to improve diversity. In the past 15 years, 29 initiatives have been aimed at increasing BME representation alone. The BBC has a fund for increasing BME representation and has asked to be judged on its progress in the coming years. Channel 4 has recently doubled spending, with its new Alpha Fund schemes to support new diverse writing talent from the north of England, and regional outreach programmes. It has also introduced commissioning diversity guidelines. ITV does not have figures or targets, but it says that it is committed to ensuring that commissioners “play a full part in maximising the growth of diverse talent and increasing diversity on screen”.

The trade body for independent producers, PACT—the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television—has a diversity programme that is now in its third year, and it takes part in the pan-industry monitoring programme known as Project Diamond.

There is not a lack of effort but a lack of results, which means a lack of will at the highest echelons. True will to change would mean more resources but also proper targets and incentives through monitoring and mainstreaming the challenge—that is, making it part of the culture of an organisation, so that a wide range of executives, commissioners and producers are accountable. The problem may manifest itself to me and my constituents through a lack of northern or working-class stories and people on air, but it actually starts far higher up. Selection or recruitment bias is a well-known phenomenon in which people tend to hire people who look or sound like themselves. That might explain why, a couple of years ago, Radio 4 had an all-male panel discussing breast cancer the day after an all-male panel discussed teenage pregnancies—truly a low point.

How can public service broadcasters fulfil their purpose of representing diversity and alternative viewpoints if they exclude certain voices, or hear from them only in benefit tourism-type orgies of disapproval? How can we be sure to discuss issues that are important to people in Newcastle as well as in London? Why is more original independent programming not commissioned in the north-east, by independent north-east companies?

The Minister takes diversity very seriously, and I pay tribute to him for that. Indeed, I should perhaps have declared a familial interest, in that my brother is an independent TV producer who has been involved in one of the Minister’s review boards. I am sure that the Minister will mention the £100,000 that he recently gave to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop guidance on diversity in broadcasting. Nevertheless, the fact is that that guidance does not mention socioeconomic background once. Why is that?

Some 83% of new entrants to journalism do internships that are almost entirely unpaid and are predominantly based in London. No one from my council estate could have supported themselves on such an internship in London. I ensure that all my internships that last longer than a week are living-wage internships—the real living wage, not what the Chancellor announced in his Budget, which had the young as one of its principal targets and will not improve the ability of talented young people to enter broadcasting. Without action, we are unlikely see improvements to the current situation in which 54 of the top 100 media professionals and 26% of all BBC executives went to independent schools, compared with 7% of the public as a whole.

In 2013, I challenged Radio 4 “Woman’s Hour” over the number of female guests on the programme from an engineering and scientific background. I was struck by the fact that not only did the programme makers not know, but they seemed to think it was rather indecent that they should be expected to keep track of the voices to which they were giving a platform. If such things are not even monitored, how can we hope to improve them? In an era of big data—a policy area that, interestingly, is also part of the Minister’s brief—it is surprising that big media does not routinely collect those sorts of data across all channels and programmes. I am sure that there are many geeks who are willing to show them how to do it.

There are many schemes, but if we have little idea of the scale of the challenge, no idea of how effective the schemes are and no targets or incentives to meet them, it is little surprise that the situation is not changing very quickly. I have previously written to Ofcom on the representation of regions. Although it monitors a variety of on and off-screen diversity data, it too does not seem to look at people’s regional and socioeconomic backgrounds. Why not?

I want to make it clear to the Minister that I understand and champion the independence of the BBC and all broadcasters from Government interference. Indeed, I should be clear that I do not think it is for the BBC to implement social policy. One of the characters in the excellent BBC comedy “W1A” suggested that if the BBC could not make itself more diverse, it should work to make the population at large less diverse. That was satire. However, by charging the BBC with implementing benefits for the over-75s, the Government are blurring the distinction between satire and reality.

I strongly support the BBC and broadcasters more generally being independent and having clear and transparent funding, but, as with any aspect of our society or economy, I have a duty to speak up for my constituents where public sector broadcasting might not be acting in their interests, just as I criticise the UK tech sector for its lack of diversity.

I have a few questions for the Minister. Does he share my concern that our creative industries are missing out on a huge pool of creative and managerial talent? Does he agree that, as well as gender and ethnicity, socioeconomic background and region are important? Does he further agree that much more progress must be made in those areas? Will he mandate or encourage the collection of data, so that we know the size of the challenge? Is he aware of the different initiatives that are being undertaken, and what is his assessment of them? For example, I welcome Channel 4’s commitment to increase from 3% to 9% its investment in productions from outside England by 2020, but neither Ofcom nor the BBC Trust publishes figures on the proportion of funding that goes to independent producers. Will he rectify that? What steps will he take to ensure that working-class kids have a voice in broadcasting? What steps will he take to ensure that film and radio are produced independently in the north-east? Finally, does he think that it would be possible to get a casting agent to go to a show at a northern state school?


Debate wind up

Chi Onwurah: Thank you very much, Mr Streeter, for chairing what has been, as I think we can all agree, a very well informed and reasonable debate with a good deal of consensus—apart from when the question of the BBC’s charter renewal was touched on, which was not necessarily within the original remit of my debate.

I thank everybody for their contributions, including my hon. Friends, the Front Benchers and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). In this wide-ranging debate, there was a great deal of agreement on the importance of diversity, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) set out, to both sides of the House, as well as economically and in terms of fairness for a big, bold BBC.

I am pleased with the Minister’s response about the casting director, and I look forward to choosing the show. In general, I agree with much of what he said; I agree that there are many initiatives and that he has a focus on them. I would like, however, to see more of a focus on socioeconomic background; perhaps that can be his next area. Whereas I talked about fairness and the business need for diversity, he made a very good point in saying that the issue is about showing role models to all of us. All of us need role models, which can be significant in changing the opportunities and ambitions of people more generally.

I shall nevertheless send the Minister all my questions in a letter, because the questions about data and their collection were perhaps not covered fully. I also say to the broadcasting industry that the data can effectively be collected automatically, because there is voice and facial recognition, and in future there will be nowhere to hide. I suggest to the broadcasters that they share the data now, while they can have some control over how it is understood, before they are exposed by big data in relation to all the gaps within their diversity representation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered diversity in public sector broadcasting.

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