The BBC has announced plans to invest £100 million pounds in 'diversity' for its television output. Bravo. I’m a great believer in diversity. A thriving, vibrant democracy needs as much diversity as possible in public discourse – a plurality of voices, of outlook and of background.
But I suspect that the BBC is thinking of 'diversity' in only the narrow, fashionable sense of today – in gender, race and sexuality, but little else. Of course, BBC TV output should reflect society in these respects. It’s made huge progress, for example in its news bulletins where the gender and ethnic background of presenters and reporters roughly seems to reflect the proportions of ethnic minorities in the wider population. But David Olusoga’s remarks yesterday at the Edinburgh TV Festival shows there’s still much room for improvement, particularly in the way the BBC treats black people.
My fear is the BBC will concentrate on certain much-discussed forms of diversity, at the expense of other major neglected groups.
First, age. How many TV presenters or producers are over 60? Yet the elderly are loyal BBC listeners and viewers. Second, I hope the BBC strives for greater diversity in class, and in both representing and employing people from working-class and poor backgrounds. Third, how many BBC staff these days didn’t go to university? Yet still only a minority of the population go into higher education. Add to that a lack of rural and northern representation among BBC employees and it’s not hard to see why the 2016 Brexit vote came as such a shock to most BBC staff – a serious failing which has since been acknowledged by Corporation bosses.
But until the BBC definition of 'diversity' entails a lot more emphasis on the elderly, on people who didn’t go to university, on working-class people and the poor, and people from outside the big conurbations, then the Corporation will never understand its whole audience. It will grow ever more out of touch with the have-nots, the left-behinds, and the people who voted leave the EU.
The BBC is not the only broadcaster to suffer this problem. In 2016, several members of the Channel 4 board were so worried about left-wing and anti-Brexit bias on Channel 4’s main news programme that the board secretly commissioned the former BBC News boss Richard Sambrook to examine the problem. He concluded that ITN staff who made the news for Channel 4 had almost total uniformity of background and outlook. Sambrook has been asked to carry out a similar inquiry into the BBC’s online output, and I suspect he will reach similar conclusions – that when your staff all come from the same liberal, left-leaning milieu you find it hard to understand why people might vote for Brexit, or for Boris Johnson, or for Donald Trump.
I love the BBC. It employed me for 21 years. I would hate to see the Corporation weakened or destroyed. BBC journalism can at times be pedestrian and predictable, but it’s still far superior to that of any other British broadcaster. The BBC is Britain’s most important cultural body, and traditionally the Corporation has done more to bind the nation together than any other institution.
But if the BBC sticks to a narrow, liberal, academic, middle-class definition of diversity it will be severely handicapped in the looming Battle of the Licence Fee. If large parts of the population – the old, the less well educated, the have-nots – no longer think the BBC is for them, that battle will be lost. People will stop buying TV licences in their millions and the movement will be hard to stop, encouraged no doubt by campaigns by the BBC’s enemies. The licence fee will become unenforceable, a matter of choice, like a donation to Oxfam.
Unless the BBC adopts a genuine commitment to true 'diversity', its £100 million proposed investment could end up costing a lot, lot more.