What does diversity success look like to Ofcom?

Racial diversity

The lovely thing about computers is that they have search facilities when it comes to scouring key words in documents. When you put ‘diversity’ into Ofcom’s Annual Plan 2014-15 it makes five references in its thousands of words.

All of them are rather anodyne, giving the impression to those of us passionate about diversity that it really is not at the heart of this regulator’s thinking, even though it is. Take, for example:

“We will be mindful of the diversity of the UK and its nations. We will aim to be innovative, responsive and effective in everything we do.”

The questions here are: what do you mean by ‘innovative, responsive and effective’?  What does diversity success look like to Ofcom’s Executive?

“In 2011 we published our Single Equality Scheme (SES) which brings together and strengthens Ofcom’s commitment towards diversity and equality. The SES sets out clearly the work we have done so far and what we hope to achieve in the future. As part of this we have set ourselves equality objectives that we hope to achieve by October 2014. We report annually on the progress we make against our equality objectives.”

Missing a trick

Here, Ofcom has missed a trick. A simple link to the SES and where we can find what Ofcom has achieved would have been useful.  You can find it here: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/consultations/promoting_equality_diversity/statement/ses.pdf

Just take a moment to read what Ofcom has written concerning one aspect of diversity:

• Race

“Our activity on race equality has focused mainly on external projects, where almost every Ofcom department has made progress. Projects have ranged from a market competition enquiry into pre-paid telephone calling cards to radio licences awarded by Ofcom to serve minority ethnic groups. Overall, we found that Ofcom is already working on a wide variety of internal and external projects to promote disability, gender and race equality. Often, our initiatives are relevant to all three strands. However, our performance is not consistent across all of our departments, nor the three equality strands. We will continue to use what we’ve learned as we track our progress and review the impact of the SES. The exercise will also have given us important data when we come to carry out Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) (see Page 12 for more details).”

In all honesty, this really does not tell us much and probably does Ofcom no justice to its commitment. What progress? What about mainstream broadcasters? How are they being held to account? What targets are they set? What happens if they do not meet them? How deep does Ofcom’s enquiry into diversity go?

Big deal

Why am I making such a big deal about one word, after all this is just an Annual Plan and Ofcom will be judged by what it does? Yes and no. In my view, Ofcom needs to do more than write sentences which really do not reflect its intent to tackle an obvious problem.

You have to demonstrate, at every opportunity, that you are doing things which will have an effect on diversity. Otherwise people think you are doing little, at best, and nothing, at worst.

I was seated at Lenny Henry’s BAFTA Lecture a fortnight ago. Long after it ended, one comment resonated in my head over and over again, and still does. For every Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) person who left the industry since 2009, two white people replaced them.

Racial diversity

Lenny got his figures from Creative Skillset. It tells me that when it comes to racial diversity we are going backwards. The eye has been taken off the racial diversity ball. But we knew that already. The incomprehensible questions to me are: how did we allow this to happen? Was no race impact assessment done by broadcasters?

My role as a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Council for England (ACE) is to be a critical friend. It is also to give a voice to listeners and viewers. Lenny happens to be one of them. He would like a meeting with Ofcom and in our next meeting my ACE colleagues and I will be discussing how we might make this happen.

I know my ACE colleagues truly care about diversity in its widest sense and we are its champions. We discuss diversity at most meetings. We reflect and embrace diversity and are passionate about it.

Searching questions

I get Ofcom is not just about diversity. But my personal view is that it does not matter if diversity is embedded into every Ofcom policy. It is about interrogating one question: what difference have the policies made to mainstream broadcasters? Now is the time to ask searching questions of those it gives licences and hold them to account. 

The two people seated next to me at Lenny Henry’s BAFTA lecture were independent film producers. They seemed perplexed wondering what more they could do. The danger is that we alienate the good guys who feel that nothing is ever enough for us. I have some sympathy.

But Lenny’s message seemed to be quite simple and, not having spoken to him, I hope I am not misinterpreting him in any way. He appeared to be saying that: we need to find ways of being truly representative of those who live in the UK. American television seemed to be better at reflecting its multi-cultural population on the screen.

And Ofcom, as the country’s broadcast regulator, has to be visibly seen to be leading the charge to make sure that happens here.

Barnie Choudhury is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for England


Follow-up Radio Coverage of Barnie Choudhury's Post

Barnie Choudhury's post led to follow-up interviews on BBC Radio. He was interviewed on Sunday 6 April 2014 for:
1. BBC Radio Stoke at 7pm
2. BBC Radio Sheffield at 7.20pm
3. BBC Radio Northampton at 7.37pm
4. BBC Radio Derby at 9.20pm

Barnie was able to convey a number of points, including the fact that ACE takes diversity seriously; that Ofcom needs to be seen to be acting and being more proactive rather than simply having diversity among its policies; and that BAME groups need to take ownership of this challenge as well to reshape the content across the media.

Great to see Advice to Ofcom stimulating and informing debate on diversity.