OPINION
13/09/2020 08:11 BST | Updated 15/09/2020 22:25 BST

Too Much TV Is Made Through A White Gaze. That Has To Change, And The BBC Must Lead The Way

HuffPost's reporting on Black employees at the BBC show nothing has changed in the 30 years since I was a journalist. Our media still doesn't represent modern Britain, writes Diane Abbott.

HuffPost UK has been ahead of the pack with a hard-hitting investigation of racism at the biggest broadcasting organisation in the world, the BBC, in which Black staff allege systemic bullying and a glass ceiling for Black journalists and programme makers.

It is important to stress that many of the issues raised in the investigation are also issues in commercial television. Long before I became an MP I worked as a television journalist, first for then London region broadcaster Thames Television and then for breakfast television provider TV AM.

Everything that HuffPost report happens at the BBC now was an issue in ITV over thirty years ago. But it can be argued that the BBC has a particular responsibility as a publicly-funded, pubic service broadcaster.

The BBC is admired around the world. So it is important that our national broadcaster is an example of best practise when it comes to fairness and diversity. Put simply, what the BBC does matters. 

For 12 years I walked into the BBC newsroom every week to present the This Week politics review show. For those 12 years, I was usually the only Black person in a busy newsroom.

I support the licence fee, but one of the justifications for it is that the BBC should set a gold standard. Those high standards should not just be about the programmes, it should also be about how it treats staff and programme makers.

Some things have improved at the BBC in relation to race. The main advance is that there are many more Black and brown faces on screen. For decades, the majestic Moira Stuart ruled unchallenged as one of Britain’s top newsreaders and virtually the only Black one at the BBC. Now there are many others, including the great Clive Myrie, but it is noticeable that many of the non-white faces that we see on our screens came up through children’s programmes, like Andi Peters and Floella Benjamin, or cookery shows like Ainsley Harriott. This is possibly a clue as to how the decision makers at the BBC see Black people. But it is the diversity behind the cameras that has moved much more slowly.

For 12 years I walked into the BBC newsroom every week on a Thursday evening to get ready to present the This Week politics review show. For those 12 years I was usually the only Black person in a busy newsroom. There was occasionally a solitary Black camera operator, but that was it. 

Jeff Overs via Getty Images
Andrew Neil; Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and Michael Portillo on the set of This Week.

London is one of the most diverse cities on earth. The BBC’s failure to recruit people of colour for even quite ordinary roles like production assistants, let alone camera crew and producers, remains remarkable. 

Some people might argue what does it matter who is behind the scenes, but I argue it is absolutely crucial – more important, in some ways, than the colour of the programme presenter or newsreader. It is the people behind the scenes – at the top of the production food chain in television, the commissioning editors, the heads of department, the executive producers – who decide what programmes get made and who gets promoted.

When almost all those people are white, it creates all types of difficulties for Black programme makers and would be programme makers. And further down the food chain producers, assistant producers, researchers, production assistants, camera operators make hundreds of decisions in the course of a production that shape television drama, documentaries and news bulletin.

And when crucial decisions are made and there is no Black person in the room, or no Black person who feels senior enough to intervene, no wonder you get issues like the row about the use of the N-word on BBC television. Too much current affairs television is made from a particular white perspective, by teams of people who don’t look like modern Britain.

If we want to build a world where there is more social and racial justice, the media is key.

Tacking on a Black or brown presenter at the end of the process does not alter the systemic problem. And it is striking, as the HuffPost investigation reveals, that Black staff are increasingly disillusioned by what they are experiencing

So why does it matter if there is institutional racism at the BBC? Partly because these stories are simply very sad. But it is also the case that if we want to build a world where there is more social and racial justice, the media is key. It is not just about the careers of individual journalists or programme makers. Although everyone is entitled to a workplace that is fair and just.

The media frames how we see each other and the world. And a media that is made by people who look like the society, will be a better and more informed media. And in turn we will be a better society. 

Whenever the issue is raised, the media makes promises. Usually the proposal is some traineeship or the other. The BBC has recently appointed the estimable June Sarpong as its first director of creative diversity, and we all wish her the very best. The BBC also told HuffPost in response to its investigation that it had set a new mandatory 20% diverse off-air talent target in all new network commissions from April, and a prioritisation of £100m of its commissioning budget over three years towards diverse and inclusive content, with £12m for radio.

This all sounds excellent. So let us hope that, after decades of painfully slow progress, the BBC is on the verge of a transforming moment around race and diversity. It will be better for the BBC and better for our whole society.

Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington