As a dark skinned Black woman from a working class background, I became acutely aware of my difference growing up – first consuming British media and then working within it from the tender age of 16. This was, of course, a great opportunity and a privilege, and one that has put my life on a different trajectory from others from similar backgrounds. But it has also meant that I have had the experience of being the anomaly – often the only one in the room – and, ultimately, facing the battle to belong.
Encounters from the very start of my career – being excluded from a photoshoot which had included all of my fellow female presenters, or being frustrated by a TV executive having concerns about putting two black presenters on a show – are just some early examples of how I experienced the world of the media. It was a world in which I was a part and yet not fully part of. These experiences and others during my career are perhaps not unique to anyone who has felt different, but have in fact gifted me an insight and the ability to see patterns of exclusion, that to those unaffected go unnoticed.
It would be wrong to suggest that nothing has changed from those early days of my career, but progress has often been too slow and there is still a way to go. That is why I am proud to have joined the BBC as the first Director of Creative Diversity. In my first two months here, I have been impressed by the work already happening and the steps being taken to address issues. Diversity is not a “nice to have” but an essential part of the BBC’s agenda and positive action is already underway with urgency. I welcome Tony Hall’s bold plans to rapidly increase BAME representation at senior levels through the appointment of advisors to leadership teams – ultimately we want to see more diversity of thought at the very top of the organisation. I welcome too, the plans to boost disability representation on and off screen next year.
One such positive example is Charlie Swinbourne who joined the BBC’s Writer’s Room Access Group for disability, and is now writing for Casualty and CBBC. Our plans include a series of targeted efforts to help underrepresented talent gain the career opportunities they deserve. We are also looking at ways to ensure socio-economic diversity is reflected throughout the corporation and have recently launched an internal staff network (called RAISED), committed to raising awareness of this issue within the BBC.
We can’t escape the fact that the makeup of Britain’s viewing audience and workforce is rapidly changing. And we can only continue to make the case for the BBC as a broadcaster of choice by cultivating inclusion and harnessing the power of our diversity. Put simply, we need to reflect and engage with the UK’s diverse communities both on and off screen, and to produce the inclusive conditions required for diversity to thrive. However, there is no getting away from the very real barriers that exist, which have slowed progress and led to the emergence of roles like mine across all industry sectors in an attempt to help circumvent them. Part of the problem is that these barriers cannot always be seen, but they can definitely be felt if your lived experience of being different has exposed you to them.
All too often, those barriers are ignored because it’s easier to stick with the familiar, but it should come as no surprise then that we continue to see the same results. In the words of Einstein: “The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” It is why I am excited by the ways we are looking to innovate and create change at the BBC.
I have already mentioned the plans to inject diversity at the top of the organisation and to increase representation. This spring, we will host the BBC’s first ever Creative Diversity Festival, and the preeminent BAME-focused creative festival in the world. This three-day celebration will connect the best of BAME creative talent with the BBC and the industry at large by leveraging the convening power of the BBC. We know some in the UK’s BAME communities have felt disconnected from the BBC. As a public service broadcaster, it is crucial that we find more ways to reconnect and reengage with this important, yet underserved audience, and bring them back home to the BBC where they belong. The Creative Diversity Festival will aim to address this issue not just for the BBC but for the industry as a whole. We can only succeed in building a more diverse BBC if diversity is embraced by all corners of the media, and I will set out the plans for the festival in more detail soon.
In my excitement and enthusiasm I have not lost sight of the fact that the journey towards inclusion will be uncomfortable at times. It will require us to ask difficult questions and to challenge some of our core beliefs and established wisdoms. In the pursuit of diversity we are not looking to exclude those who have already succeeded, but to allow room for new voices to be included. Ultimately, I believe the BBC’s window into the UK will be all the richer as a result, and hopefully one that more people see themselves reflected in too.
June Sarpong is BBC director of creative diversity.