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Diversity in broadcasting

01 Tachwedd 2016

Sharon White, Chief Executive, Ofcom
Speech to industry event on diversity at Sky in London


I’d like to thank Sky and Jeremy [Darroch, Sky Chief Executive], for organising this event. It’s a pleasure to be speaking today on a subject that is so crucial to the health and vitality of broadcasting in the UK.

Our society has never been so diverse.

Today, some eight million people – or 14 per cent of the population – has an ethnic minority background; while around six per cent is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

There are almost seven million disabled people of working age in the UK. And as we live longer, we have a higher proportion of older people in society today.

And over the last 20 years, greater constitutional devolution has granted more powers to the Nations and regions.

Our cultural sectors will be enriched if they are rooted in, and reflective of, our growing diversity.

The UK’s creative industries already lead the world in innovation and imagination.

That position can only be enhanced if brilliant individuals from all backgrounds are able to forge a successful career in TV – behind or in front of the camera.

The more diverse we are as an industry, the more compelling and ground-breaking the stories we will tell on screen – and the wider the audiences that we will reach, grip and inspire.

This is crucial too because of the unique role broadcasting has in shaping and reflecting our society and its values.

Where are we now

We know we have some way to go to reflect the country as it is today.

A number of groups struggle to get into the business – or to get on once they’re in.

This has opened up a big gap between the people who make TV and radio, and the people who watch and listen to it.

For all the reality TV out there, television is still playing catch up with reality.

So when Sir Lenny Henry highlights how few people from an ethnic minority background work in broadcasting; or Coronation Street’s Claire King says that as an older woman she had to have a facelift to get acting work; it’s clear that these failings represent a stain on the whole industry’s reputation.

This is something we all want to change.

Without change, audiences will simply switch off – a problem for public service broadcasters and commercial operators alike.

For example, our annual research into the UK’s public service broadcasters showed that half of disabled people feel under-represented on TV.

A considerable proportion of older people, especially women, feel they’re negatively portrayed on TV.

The same is true for one in five viewers in Scotland, and one in four viewers in Northern Ireland.

And people from a minority group – whether from a distinct region of the country or from a particular ethnicity – feel that they are neutrally portrayed at best, but negatively at worst.

What sort of message does this send out about how open the industry is to people from a range of backgrounds?

This is not about ‘box ticking’.

It is about the broadcasting industry reflecting UK society back to itself by putting forward an inclusive portrayal of the country’s diverse make-up.

Positive Change

We are seeing positive change, and there is cause for cautious optimism.

Project Diamond went live this summer. It’s an important initiative that I hope will go a long way in identifying those genres and channels doing well and highlighting where there is more work to do.
Sky has shown us what can be done, by becoming the first broadcaster to set ambitious new targets for a fifth of its on-screen talent and writing teams coming from minority backgrounds.

I’m pleased to see the BBC’s recent commitment on commissioning from the indie sector.

New guidelines will see the BBC asking producers to follow detailed proposals to improve representation on-screen and behind the camera of ethnic minorities, disabled people and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

This builds on an existing commitment by the BBC to hit a broad range of diversity targets by 2020.

As well as ensuring that half of its roles are occupied by women, it is aiming to ensure that 15 per cent of staff and its leadership come from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and that those with disabilities and LGBT employees each make up at least eight per cent of staff.

I’m also delighted to see Sky working with the Creative Diversity Network, leading the push for greater diversity both in front of and behind the camera.

Initiatives like these show what can be done when broadcasters are committed.

And Channel 4, also represented here today, is helping to transform the public perception of people with impairments through its Paralympic coverage.

Ofcom’s role

As the regulator of UK broadcasting, and soon to be of the BBC, Ofcom has an important role to play: tackling barriers, providing guidance and holding the industry to account.

It is an area where we have not done enough in the past, and it is now a priority for us. So what are we doing?

Last summer we launched with the Equality and Human Rights Commission new guidance for industry, called “Thinking outside the box" ((PDF, 4.1 MB)).

The guide is aimed at tackling misunderstandings about what steps organisations can take to improve fairness and diversity without falling foul of the law.

It promotes the use of paid internships, and the use of databases that can lawfully identify potential employees from under-represented groups.

There’s also guidance on using the so-called ‘tie break’ provision, which allows an employer to select the person from an under-represented group if two candidates are equally qualified.

Over the last year, we’ve also been working with the Creative Diversity Network and PACT to identify barriers to diversity, as well as practical solutions.

Today we are launching a new dedicated web resource, which provides practical help for broadcasters – large and small – on how to develop a strategy for diversity, broaden recruitment and monitor progress.

The new tool will highlight some of the good work broadcasters are already doing.

There is more we will do to hold broadcasters to account.

That’s why, today, I’m pleased to announce that we are launching a new annual Diversity in Broadcasting monitoring programme.

We’ll be looking at diversity data across the broadcasters we regulate. This will enable us to get the most comprehensive picture yet of how well each broadcaster is doing.

This is an important step towards greater transparency and accountability.

We will collect a range of information from broadcasters – the make-up of staff, the steps being taken to improve diversity, and the strength of commitment at different levels of each organisation.

This will allow us to report on progress being made across the industry, tracking targets and how well broadcasters are doing in working towards them.

We aim to collect the data in early 2017 and publish before the summer.

As we take on regulation of the BBC from next April, we will be holding the BBC to account in relation to diversity.

The new Charter sets the BBC a strong objective or public purpose: “To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the United Kingdom.”

As the soon-to-be regulator, we are right now in the process of deciding how we will judge if the BBC has delivered on diversity – and its other public purposes too.

We will be consulting on this in the next few months.

Given the unique position of the BBC within the UK it is right that it is held to the highest standard and sets an example to the rest of the industry.

As we hold the industry to account we are also committed to improving our own diversity within Ofcom.

For the last four years we have published the diversity make-up of our staff. We’re making progress but we too have more to do.

We have set ourselves targets for 2020.

A 50:50 gender balance across the organisation, and a 60:40 male-female balance in senior roles.

We’re also aiming for close to 15 per cent of our senior jobs to be filled by people from an ethnic minority background.


In the UK, we are fortunate to benefit from a wealth of world-leading creative content.

But we must broaden the scope and depth of talented people who sit within and behind that content.

Our leadership is crucial.

By working together, and drawing on the best and brightest talent across all communities, audiences will enjoy world-class content that reflects our rich and diverse society. Thank you.