Tokenism Rules Okay

It appears that Trevor Phillips is in one of his making a complete arse of himself moods yet again, if this report from the Meeja Grauniad is anything to go by…

Writing in the Beeb’s in-house, Ariel, Phillps has argued for an amendment to the Race Relations Act requiring the Beeb to publish information on training, retention rates and complaints, as well as data it already provides on targets and recruitment, clearly having failed to notice that the BBC is covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for everything except for information held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature – so he could just submit an FOIA request like everyone else and save the trouble of adding yet more unnecessary legislation to the statute books.

However, its not just information that Phillips is after, as he goes on to explain here…

The duty would make them subject to regulation by the CRE in terms of their programmes for promotion of ethnic minorities – to some extent, the balance of what they broadcast and to a large extent, what they do on training and how they treat different ethnic groups among their staff

So the CRE want to regulate the Beeb, which is supposed to be an independent and impartial public service broadcaster, in terms of programming and employment – to what end exactly?

Apparently, this one…

The BBC currently employs 10.2% of its staff from black and ethnic minorities, and 5.2% of its senior management. Targets for the end of 2007 are 12.5% and 7% respectively.

Mr Phillips said the BBC’s targets were still too low.

"It’s fine for [the BBC director of television] Jana Bennett to aim for a 10% target on screen, of characters and contributors, because that chimes with, or even exceeds, the percentage of minorities in the national audience.

"But on employment, the pool from which the BBC draws two-thirds of its staff [in cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester] is one-third ethnic minority.

"Do the sums: 10.2% is way underperforming. It’s not hideous, but it’s not good."

Now hang on a minute there, Trevor, what’s all this the pool from which the BBC draws two-thirds of its staff [in cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester] is one-third ethnic minority all about?

For one thing, the Beeb, being a national broadcaster, is likely to attract applicants for any number of positions from across the whole of the UK – it might be likely that applicants for admin jobs, etc. would be mainly local but for many of the technical jobs and particularly jobs in journalism, production etc. the actual pool from which the Beeb draws its employees will be the whole of the UK and maybe, even, beyond. There are plenty of people out there looking for a career of some sort in the broadcast media who will, and do, relocate to take a job at the Beeb, so on that basis alone you’re stretching the point with your one-third ethnic minority population line.

Then there’s the little matter of commuting to take into account – if one is talking about the potential ‘pool’ from which an employer might draw his employees, that pool is delimited not just by the city in which the employer is based or has a workplace but by the effective distance that potential employees are willing to commute to work. Birmingham, which of the example given is the city I know best, may have a minority population of just under 30%, but if one looks at the figures for the West Midlands Region, which one could reasonably regard as the commuter area for Birmingham, this figure drops to 11.2% – in which case 10.2% is hardly underperforming by much and if the Beeb hits its 12.5% target it’ll be overperforming by comparison with the regional statistics as a whole.

Phillips then goes on…

Mr Phillips said BBC News was in danger of failing to address its black and Asian audience because of the under-representation of ethnic minorities.

"There’s a whole panoply of rules that govern BBC journalism, all directed to one end, which is to tell the story fairly and comprehensively," he said.

"People tend to focus on that in party political terms, but actually, in modern Britain, the more serious bias is about whether huge chunks of the community are not having their voices heard or their perspectives addressed.

"Newsrooms which are monocultural are in danger of being like comedy that isn’t funny. Without cultural knowledge, you don’t ask the right questions.

"You can be the most brilliant interviewer, but if the team that’s briefing you has no idea about the influence of South Asian culture [in] west London, you can conduct interviews there in the most profound ignorance of what most matters.

"This is not about doing the job better, it’s about whether you can do the basic job at all."

Okay, Trevor. I can go for the bit about the importance of cultural understanding and sensitivity in approaching and working in minority communities, after all I’ve been doing just that on a regular basis for the last ten years or so, even though I’m white.

It’s actually not that difficult, in my experience, to work in minority communities if you have right attitude which, generally speaking, comes down to treating people with a basic degree of respect, not making assumptions and not being afraid to ask questions and let yourself be guided by the community you’re working with. You can get a long way simply by treating people as human beings and sometimes, as an ‘outsider’, you can get further in some matters than someone from the ethnic background of the community you’re working in either for practical reasons; i.e. you’re seen as being neutral and an honest broker with no particular agenda or axe to grind, or because you’re exempt from some of the cultural forces and social mores of that community and given rather more latitude than someone who they consider one of their own.

There are advantages and disadvantages that come with working inside your own community, whichever community you’re from. You have an edge in understanding the social and cultural values of your community, but some of those values may mitigate against your work, especially as a journalist, where such affiliations may lead you to compromise your objectivity out of a desire to present your community in the best possible light. You may even yourself under greater social pressure to gloss over issues as an insider than you would as someone coming from the outside, for the ‘greater good’ of your own community.

So while a monocultural newsroom is, on balance, rather limiting, it doesn’t follow automatically that employing individuals from a particular cultural background in order to match local demographics is necessarily a major improvement – it may be, it may not, depending entirely on the individuals you’re employing, their skills, knowledge and experience and how well they do the job.

However, that being said, what the law says explicitly is that discrimination in employment is permissible only where there is a genuine occupational requirement to discriminate on grounds of ethnicity, gender, disability etc. and I dubt very much that 30% of the jobs at the BBC would meet the test of there being a genuine occupational requirement for an individual from a minority community, even allowing for the usual ways in which the law is quietly circumvented – i.e. by specifying that candidates must possess one or more specific community languages – having worked with many ethnic minority voluntary organisations over the years, I’m rather an old hand at working the system, but that’s another story – and as Chair of the CRE you know that as well as I do.

So what’s the real game here, Trevor? You know as well as I do that it isn’t going to happen, not least because if there’s the remotest sign of the government caving in to this demand then both the Equal Opportunities Commission and Disability Right Commission will be wanting exactly the same type of oversight over the Beeb.

But then you know that as well, don’t you, Trevor? Because this is all just part of the turf war leading in to the creation of the Single Equality and Human Rights Commission, just a bit more jockeying for position and bigging up your own organisation in an effort to grab the biggest possible slice of the pie when all three commissions are merged together.

And that’s what pisses me off more than anything else here – you’re not on the level, you’re just playing the same old political games and it doesn’t really matter that somewhere out here in the real world there are going to Black or Asian kids with their heart’s set on a career in broadcasting who might just be naive enough to believe that you’re actually serious and putting up these idea because you’re in it for them, and not just for yourself and the status of the CRE.

That’s the real price of tokenism like this – you raise false expectations and then piss off to the next bit of game-playing without a thought for those who might have believed you were going to something for them, only for them to find that when push comes to shove, you’ve done nothing at all and never seriously intended to anyway.

2 thoughts on “Tokenism Rules Okay

  1. Two observations: (1) If Phillips is seriously arguing for proportionality based on the ethnic composition of major English cities, I’d feel sorry for any Black Geordies or Asian Scots applying for jobs at the BBC; (2) Would a public school-educated Black British reporter be more ‘down with da kids’ than someone a bit more working class who might be (whisper who dares) white?

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