Marcus Ryder: What the BBC White Paper means for diversity

Marcus Ryder: What the BBC White Paper means for diversity

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By Marcus Ryder,
Monday, 16th May 2016
Marcus Ryder
Marcus Ryder

Following last week's presentation of the BBC White Paper in Parliament, Chair of the RTS Diversity Committee, Marcus Ryder, looks at what the announcement means for diversity

Thursday was an important day for diversity in the media as the government announced a White Paper which enshrined diversity in the BBC charter– but what it really means in reality will all be in the small print.

The Royal Television Society is a charitable organization whose remit is to encourage and celebrate the understanding of television and its related fields. As Chair of the Diversity Committee here is my guide as to what people should be looking out for in the coming months:


It is a cliché to say that 'the devil is in the detail' but in this case it really is true. When it comes to the BBC Charter the 'devil' actually lives in two other documents that many people would hardly notice after all the pyrotechnics of a White Paper.  The first is simply called The Agreement.


The Agreement is: “An Agreement Between Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation” on how the corporation will practically meet the requirements outlined in the White Paper. It is usually written by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the BBC Trust together over a few weeks following the publication of the White Paper. This might take longer than usual however as the Trust is going to become a Unitary Board and so it is unclear if this will be negotiated between the current BBC Trust and DCMS or whether we will have to wait for the new Board to be in place.


The second document will be written by the BBC Trust - or the new Unitary Board. According to past practice, this will be even more detailed than The Agreement, and sets out the specifics of what the BBC needs to do to meet The Agreement made between them and the government. It will outline in painstaking detail things like the number of hours of news and current affairs programmes, arts and music programmes and drama that should be played out at peak-time and on what channels. Last time, it also outlined details such as the minimum number of hours of programmes that should be made in outside of London, in order to reflect nations and regions appropriately. Unlike The Agreement, this second paper is usually open to public consultation.


These are the two documents where the 'devil' of diversity will live.


Finally, process-wise, what Ofcom does will also be critical. Ofcom has always been a media regulator, but the new White Paper has said it should regulate the BBC more closely than ever before.


The two documents plus what Ofcom does together will determine whether the major announcements on Thursday really make a difference.


So what to look out for then from the documents and Ofcom? I would suggest there are three possible 'targeted devils' that could all be fulfilled through the documents and Ofcom action, plus three 'other devils' outside of these processes.  In addition, it is also worth noting that all the targeted devils in particular will require explicit or implicit definitions too – both because this is a very new area, and of course, if you’re going to meet a target you always need to know what you’re measuring!


So first, the three 'targeted devils':


1. We should look out for targets and definitions of 'diverse productions'

The new White Paper makes diversity a core programme commitment. Normally to meet its core programme commitments, the BBC has to do so in terms of either programme spend or the number of programme hours it has to produce in a given year.

With the new announcement, this means the BBC Executive, the new Unitary Board and the government should now put into at least one of the documents explicit targets for how many hours or programme spend the corporation should commit each year to diverse programmes. These numbers will be very interesting to look at and compare to the numbers for other core principles.

The definition of what a diverse progamme is will also be key. In the past, for example, to help work out nations and regions targets, Ofcom defined what was and wasn’t a Scottish / Welsh / out of London production. Defining what is and isn’t a 'diverse programme' might seem like a thorny issue, but it might have a simple solution that Lenny Henry presented at a Parliamentary round table on diversity in June 2014. He suggested adapting some existing criteria for 'out of London' productions to 'diversity' including key off-screen roles such as executive producers, writers and directors, key on-screen roles and the proportion of staff spend on BAME employees. The British Film Institute’s Three Ticks Scheme, which is mentioned in the White Paper, is similar to this.

Whatever the definition, someone will need to provide it. Since Ofcom have created definitions in the past, and subjected them to public consultation, this might be the clearest and fastest way to proceed. But there are other options.


2. We should look out for targets and definitions of diversity on-screen

The White Paper outlined the need for more programmes for Britain’s under-served diverse audience. One way to think about this is to define diversity as a specific genre, similar to genres like News & Current Affairs, Religion, Drama or Childrens. Thus, a target for how large this genre could be within the BBC will need to be set in the documents or by Ofcom.

However, some of the genres above are very loosely defined, and diversity would be no less confusing. For example is EastEnders a diverse programme due to the large number of BAME characters in lead roles? Or is a Panorama about racism in the police force a 'diverse' programme because racism is a 'black issue'?  As before, Ofcom looks like it will be the regulator that will set out the genre or 'on-screen' definition and criteria.

It is also worth noting that these same criteria could be used for another idea proposed in the White Paper, the pilot of 'contestable funds'. This is the idea of setting-aside a special fund of £20 million a year, independent of the BBC, available to all broadcasters to compete for, to make programmes for underserved audiences. This has been widely interpreted to mean BAME audiences but reading the small print reveals this is not necessarily the case. The funds have been specifically earmarked for children’s programmes but the other 'underserved' audiences could range from BAME programmes to music and arts programmes to educational programmes.  Therefore it is feasible that children’s programmes could get the vast bulk of this money with the rest being divided up between other underserved audiences, of which BAME’s would only be a small part.

Also if the BBC competed for, and won, these funds for a programme, it is unclear if this would count against other targets they would (should) have been set, or whether this would be 'additional' programming.


3. We should look out for targets and definitions of diverse employees

In his presentation to Parliament, the Secretary of State also emphasised the importance of the general level of BAME staff at the BBC.

The BBC already has a commitment of 15% of its staff to be BAME by 2020, however how this is measured is not simple. The current headline figure for BAME staff at the BBC is 13.4%, however a recent article pointed out the number of BAME staff working on actual programmes for a UK audience, excluding administrative support and people working for other global audiences like the World Service and Persian or Swahili Service, is only 9.2%. Similarly, a Freedom of Information request released this month showed that the percentage of BAME news staff falls from 17.4% to 10.7% if you exclude the World Service.

The numbers are further complicated by the large number of people who work in independent production companies or work freelance for short-term periods and make programmes for the BBC but do not directly work for the corporation. The more programmes that are made in this way going forwards needs to be considered in any definition in order to give a clear picture.

It is reasonable to assume again that Ofcom will have oversight of how this is measured. This could build on a system recently launched by UK broadcasters called Project Diamond.


These three are the 'targeted devils' to look out for in the two documents and action by Ofcom. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are two 'other devils' which may not be covered in the documents or by Ofcom, but will nevertheless also have a major impact on meeting the Government’s objective of creating a diverse media industry.


4. Look out for the diversity of governance of the BBC

While press attention has focused on the possibility of political inteference in the composition of the new Unitary Board which will replace the BBC Trust, there is also the issue of the diversity make up of this board and whether there should be specific places for women and BAME people on the board. The position of non-executive board member to represent the interests of BAME’s might be a possibility.

The White Paper also discussed the idea of a BAME audience panel, similar to the different Nations audience panels, to give the audience a systematic say in BBC decisions. This should be relatively straight forward if it is modeled on the existing audience boards.

There is an additional governance question around the £20 million 'contestable funds': How the priorities of this fund are decided, and which body has control of this fund will also need to be ironed out.


5. Look out for more specific initiatives from the BBC

The White Paper mentions and welcomes a number of initiatives already put in place by the BBC to increase diversity, for example training and programme development. It says more still needs to be done and that the BBC must also give consideration to the full range of ideas for how it can enhance its performance. Such initiatives or means are not usually laid out in Charter agreements. This is because they are a means to an end of achieving the requirements set out in the Charter as opposed to being an end in itself.



It is worth noting that the White Paper itself proposed the BBC should consider creating a Centre of Excellence for BAME programmes and BAME staff. How this would work has not been spelled out. Whether programme budgets would be committed to the Centre of Excellence as they are with other Centre of Excellence such as Drama in Cardiff or Natural History Programmes in Bristol is unclear.


These five 'devils' might seem like a lot to consider, but they may well decide the fate of how the media industry looks for years to come. They might not be as exciting as a Lenny Henry speech at Bafta but they might be even more important.  


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Following last week's presentation of the BBC White Paper in Parliament, Chair of the RTS Diversity Committee, Marcus Ryder, looks at what the announcement means for diversity