3 September 2020

Diversity: Ofcom prioritises actions over words

Vikki Cook, Ofcom’s director, content and media policy, outlines what we are doing to improve minority ethnic representation in television.

The thought, back in January, that 2020 was going to be a challenging year now feels like the understatement of the century. Shortly after the pandemic took hold in the UK, we slammed into lockdown and everyday life as we knew it was upended.

Covid-19 dominated every headline. Viewers tuned into the news in record numbers as reports of its merciless spread and millions of victims shook us to the core. But then came the horrific story of another victim who was also shown no mercy. The deplorable killing of George Floyd, in May, sent shockwaves through our society.

The subsequent outpouring of hurt and anguish on to the streets of cities across the globe rightly forced every one of us to sit up and listen. It triggered long-overdue conversations about the inequality that persists throughout modern life.

Within Ofcom, our Race (Raising Awareness of Culture and Ethnicity) network led many discussions and held a mirror up to the organisation, which revealed just how much more we have to do. We will continue to talk. We will continue to listen. We will prioritise actions over words.

Broadcasters played a vital role in keeping this debate in the public eye. Alongside daily coverage, they aired hard-hitting and thought-provoking dramas and documentaries.

Like so many industries, broadcasters have struggled in achieving greater diversity and equality in their workforces over the years.

Since joining Ofcom four years ago, I have overseen our diversity and inclusion work within the broadcast sector. Before that, I spent more than 20 years working at the heart of broadcasting. It’s an industry full of brilliantly creative people and is increasingly diverse – but not enough.

The reaction to George Floyd’s killing highlights how the debate around diversity in the media industry goes to the heart of the wider conversation about social inequality. Broadcasters must work harder to be leaders of change.

The UK is a rich mix of cultures and identities that people rightly expect to see reflected on-screen and within creative industries. We know, from our extensive audience research, be it our representation and portrayal review, our review into news and current affairs or our current review into PSB, Small screen: Big debate, that people want to see and hear people like themselves portrayed on-screen.

Greater diversity in front of and behind the camera – and among decision-makers – is key.

Ofcom’s voice is also crucial here. We use our regulatory powers to hold broadcasters to account in our annual diversity reports, highlighting where things are improving and where broadcasters need to up their game. Because of our work, there is unprecedented transparency as to who is working in TV and radio.

Since launching our ‘diversity and equal opportunities in television’ work in 2017, we have seen the amount of information on people from under­represented groups working in UK broadcasting grow. This is crucial to help us understand the state of the industry.

The percentage of TV employees from whom data is collected has risen across a number of different characteristics: from 83% to 89% for race/ethnicity, from 49% to 65% for sexual orientation and from 41% to 59% for religion or belief.

The representation of people from minority ethnic backgrounds increased from 11% to 13% across the industry as a whole, compared with 12% of the general UK working population. This is far below the equivalent figures for the major UK cities, such as London (36%), where most broadcasters have their head offices.

And we need to see more progress at senior levels in television, where representation stands at just 8%.

But it is not just in data that we are making a difference. Our close relationship with broadcasters of all shapes and sizes enables us to further influence attitudes and drive real change in the sector. With the support of a panel of independent experts, we have been able to highlight some of the different ways inequality is present within broadcasting. We held the first ever industry round table on social mobility, which focused on socio-economic status in the sector. We revealed in our 2019 report that TV workers were twice as likely to have attended a private school as the average person in the UK.

We believe that increasing social mobility in the sector is one of the key hurdles to overcome, which is why it will also be at the heart of our own new diversity and inclusion strategy, out later this year.

This year, we will again assess broadcasters’ delivery against their public commitments, with an even greater focus on people from minority ethnic backgrounds. We will expose the employment trends for different minority ethnic groups. We will also look at how broadcasters have considered diversity in their commissioning decisions. This is pivotal to increasing opportunities for minority ethnic talent and other under-represented groups, off and on screen.

Audiences expect high-quality content that reflects the world they live in. And talented people across the UK expect to have opportunities in the broadcasting industry – wherever they come from. Ofcom’s role in making this happen is more important than ever.

Covid-19 is creating the risk that diversity in the industry will be eroded. If companies cut back on recruitment and risk-taking, there is a fear that broadcasters may revert to tried and tested “factory settings” within commissioning as the production sector fires up and scrambles to meet an unprecedented demand for content.

But there is also an opportunity to place diversity at the heart of future recruitment drives. Collaboration is more important than ever. One of our key messages to broadcasters throughout 2020 has been to collaborate more, so that equality of opportunity can be achieved throughout the sector.

We are supporting that goal of shared working by hosting regular round tables with broadcasting diversity leads. And we are agreed on the need for shared best practice and collective action. New cross-industry initiatives are currently in development as a result.

Critics often become frustrated by what they perceive to be a lack of progress – and I have shared similar frustrations in the past – but recent events have forced an acceleration in thinking and brought about a change of pace and commitment from the very top of the industry.

It would be unfair of me to single out individuals, but I can honestly say that I am working today with some of the most dynamic diversity leads within our major broadcasters. These are people, working closely with those at the apex of those organisations, who are driving genuine change. So, with this renewed focus, I am optimistic for the future.

At Ofcom, we, are also working on ways to improve our own diversity. We will do more and faster, to better reflect the society we serve. We acknowledge that we, too, have further to go, specifically on ethnicity at senior levels, broadening the diversity of our boards and advisory committees, and improving our own data.

As we emerge from the current crisis, we will continue to work with industry leaders to hold them to account and challenge inequalities. We will continue to listen, learn and work with partners committed to this cause.

From the shocking events that have dominated 2020, we must pull together to seize this unique chance and make a lasting difference.

We are unequivocal in our message to industry – the time for talking has passed, the time for action is now.

This article was first published on the Royal Television Society website.

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