Helping broadcasters reflect the whole UK
Speech by Sharon White to the Westminster Media Forum on broadcasting diversity.
I am delighted to be here.
I wanted first to congratulate Tracy for the leadership she has shown on diversity and inclusion in broadcasting, particularly around the issue of social class.
Those themes are exemplified here at St Martin’s. This church was home to the BBC’s first religious broadcast back in 1924, and its music continues to be heard around the world.
St Martin’s is also a meeting place for people of all faiths, and a charity campaigning against social exclusion – a fitting example of how an established, cultural institution can speak to the widest sections of society.
And nothing has the power to shape our culture, values and national identity as much as television.
Today I want to discuss the urgent need for broadcasters to reach and reflect every corner of modern Britain – through the programmes you create, and through the people who make them.
The diversity challenge
The UK’s creative industries lead the world for innovation and imagination. And by drawing on the best and brightest talent across all our communities, broadcasters can expand their horizons and deliver programmes that thrill and entertain.
Creativity thrives on diversity of thinking. The more diverse our industry, the more compelling and ground-breaking the stories that can be told on screen. We know this matters to viewers; yet many do not see themselves represented on screen.
Three in four viewers say it’s important that public-service broadcasters show different kinds of cultures present within the UK. But only two-thirds see this happening.
For some communities, the issues run deeper. Half of disabled people feel under-represented on TV. Large numbers of older people, especially women, say they are negatively portrayed.
And people living in the nations and regions of the UK. or who come from an ethnic minority group, see themselves portrayed neutrally or negatively on screen.
Achieving greater diversity within broadcasting is an urgent priority for Ofcom, and we are working with the industry to make progress.
People from under-represented parts of society struggle to get into television. The evidence for that is no longer anecdotal; we now have it documented for the first time. In September, Ofcom published the first findings of a major programme to monitor the make up of the UK’s broadcasting industry.
We found women and ethnic-minority employees were significantly under-represented in senior roles across UK television. Disabled people were particularly poorly represented at all levels of the industry. Our report shed new light on the scale and nature of the diversity challenge.
Next year, we will publish our findings on radio. We hope those findings will help broadcasters to increase the breadth of voices on the UK’s airwaves, and the range of talents behind the microphone.
Numbers, of course, can never tell the whole story. Diversity is about people, not percentages. The experiences they have acquired; the skills they can share; the perspectives they provide. And the opportunities they may never have.
Progress will not be made on paper. It will be made on the screen, behind the camera, inside the editing suite, around the commissioning table, out on location and across the newsroom floor.
These are the places where passionate, talented women and men – of all ages and backgrounds, from every section of society – deserve the opportunity to contribute.
Take the example of drama – perhaps the most powerful genre of all. Great dramas tell stories that really connect with audiences. They stimulate conversation and debate. Flagship productions like Gunpowder, Broadchurch, Fortitude or The Crown can symbolise a broadcaster’s identity and ambitions.
The UK has an unrivalled tradition of producing brilliant drama. But how wide is the circle of commissioning editors who determine what gets made? How deep is the pool of senior writers and directors who develop those stories?
Commissioners may be turning repeatedly to tried and trusted writers and editors. That’s an understandable instinct, but it risks forming a closed circle of talent. Emerging voices are excluded, and safe formats triumph over risk and innovation.
As Helen Grant has pointed out, commissioning more diverse programmes can help establish and sustain the industry’s demand for diverse production teams.
Until then, a lack of diversity in those off-screen roles can translate into a dearth of leading parts for actors from under-represented communities.
It’s a familiar problem in Hollywood, where the BFI has analysed female roles over decades of movies. It’s really quite striking, in a genre like action films, how few strong, leading female roles have been cast.
When BBC One aired Undercover last year, it was one of the first primetime UK TV dramas on a major network to feature two black leading characters – Adrian Lester and Sophie Okonedo. It was a gripping show. But the fact its casting drew attention speaks to a wider problem.
One fundamental challenge is ensuring that a steady supply of talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds can make it in television.
When Tracy published her report on performance diversity in August, she led with a telling quote from Steve Coogan on how to make it in TV: “It’s not enough being talented. These days you need cash”.
In the same month, Jon Snow also warned of elitism in the industry. He spoke movingly in Edinburgh of the anger he faced from the previously-unheard communities outside Grenfell tower; people from whom journalists had become disconnected.
Clearly there is a gap between the social make-up of the media industry and the wider population we are here to serve.
To help address this, we need better numbers. So we are working with broadcasters on ways to assess the social and economic backgrounds of their staff. The BBC and Viacom have made progress already.
We are also calling for an end to unpaid internships, which can potentially reinforce the problem by excluding those whose financial position prevents them working for free.
In any industry, of course, established norms can be hard to shift. Habits and routines may defeat the best intentions to attract new talent and thinking. But I sense a real desire to fix these problems in television.
We know it cannot be achieved overnight. What matters is that broadcasters demonstrate their commitment to the task – by taking clear, positive steps to broaden the make-up of their staff and casting, and to foster a working culture of collaboration and inclusion.
Sky is among those aiming for an equal number of men and women in senior roles. The company is requiring balanced shortlists for senior vacancies, and rolling out sponsors, networking and personal-development support for its female employees. It is also delivering work-readiness training and placements for people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Viacom and the BBC are offering apprenticeships and paid internships for under-represented groups, partnering with bodies such as Creative Access and youth charities.
ITV has introduced coaching to support women on maternity coming back into the workplace. Separately, it has formed a working group to develop company policy and support for transgender staff.
And Channel 4 continues to lead the way for many under-represented groups – including disabled people, who accounted for half its apprenticeships last year. Similarly, the BBC is ensuring that at least 10% of its apprenticeships and internships are taken up by disabled people.
The BBC is also trialling new systems to monitor the gender, ethnicity and age of those appearing in live shows. And many of our local TV broadcasters are providing a daily voice to people in their area – including those in poorer communities – who seldom receive positive airtime.
I want broadcasters to build on these initiatives in the coming months, exploring every opportunity to reach new audiences – including concerted on-screen work, such as Channel 4’s successful Year of Disability.
When it comes to workforce diversity, we expect to see every company take three important steps.
First, we need to close the data gap. Every broadcaster should be measuring and monitoring the make-up of their workforce. They should give staff at every level, in every position, the opportunity to offer information on their age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, maternity, race and religion or belief. We also want companies to consider the diversity of their colleagues’ social and economic backgrounds.
Last month, we called out 38 licensees for not providing any diversity data when asked. Clearly that is unacceptable, and those who fail will face enforcement action by Ofcom.
Second, every broadcaster should set meaningful, ambitious diversity targets. Each time we report on the state of the industry, we expect to see progress on those aims.
Third – and most important of all – we need ongoing, committed leadership from broadcast chiefs and senior decision-makers across our industry.
To help deliver this change, we have today published new diversity guidance for broadcasters, based on the best practice we have seen in the industry.
We want this to become a reference point for equality and diversity measures in the creative sector. It sets out how broadcasters should achieve their obligations by meeting a new industry standard.
The guidance also asks broadcasters to ensure they have a written plan, embedded within each organisation from the top down, and properly monitored. I would urge everyone to follow it.
The BBC, as the national broadcaster, should lead the way. Behind the camera, our new operating licence will make the BBC publicly accountable for achieving its workforce diversity targets. These include 15% of staff to be from ethnic minority groups, and 50% of all staff and leadership roles to be held by women by 2020.
We are also requiring the BBC to implement a new Commissioning Code of Practice for diversity, covering on-screen portrayal and casting, as well as workforce diversity. This will make diversity an explicit part of the BBC’s production and commissioning decisions. Where the contract goes to an independent producer, the BBC needs to be satisfied that the company has a proper diversity plan in place.
And to ensure the BBC delivers on screen, in the coming year we will launch an in-depth review to understand how well the corporation represents and portrays all sections of society.
We will examine the range and portrayal of people on screen, including popular peak time shows. We also plan to explore the possible link between the commissioning chain and the ability of shows to appeal to different sections of society.
The regulator, too, must take a lead. Ofcom is committed to increasing our own diversity, and we have set challenging targets to achieve that.
Wherever there is positive change, we must build on it. The best way to do that is to share our experiences, and to learn collective lessons about what works, and what does not. I have been really struck, for example, by the transformation achieved by ABC in the US, which has taken two decades of sustained focus.
So Ofcom will host a summit on diversity with the major UK broadcasters in the spring, to share lessons about what measures are most effective.
Those are Ofcom’s priorities for the coming year. Many of you will be setting out your plans today.
I’m an optimist. I believe the industry can make visible progress over the next twelve months.
But it will demand committed leadership, stretching targets, and co-ordinated work across every major broadcaster.
Only then can we unlock opportunities for the best and brightest people at every level of our industry; at each stage of the production process; and across the range of brilliant programmes we enjoy each day.