EESE 2/2005



"... Not Just Looking At Everything Through One Set of Filters"
An Interview with Sue Caro,
Senior Manager at the BBC's Diversity Centre

Eva Ulrike Pirker (Freiburg)


 

"Diversity" has become the buzzword for a new concept in Britain's cultural politics. At first glance, this concept seems to have simply replaced earlier idea(l)s as multiculturalism and antiracism.1 The idea of diversity, however, has its roots in various discourses that go beyond the race relations debate. One of those discourses is the struggle for the reconstruction of Britain's national identity, strongly promoted by Tony Blair's New Labour. This debate around national identity has an international context: The growing competition on increasingly globalised markets has lead polititians to advertise their countries as business locations in order to attract international investors. The necessity to refashion Britain's image abroad has been expressed in different vision-papers of the late 1990s.2 Diversity fares as one of the key-features of that new image. In 1998, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown describes his "vision of Britain" as coming "not from uniformity but from celebrating diversity, in other words a multi-ethnic and multinational Britain." (quoted in Alibhai-Brown 2001: 100)

The process of remodeling the nation can be perceived most immediately in its institutions. Having experienced pressure to reconstruct their corporate identity from within and without for the last decade, the national institutions are currently undergoing considerable changes. In the institutional landscape the BBC as the national broadcasting corporation with the capacity to reach millions of Britons at home plays a special role. In its 1995 vision paper People and Places, the corporation presents itself as "one of the key institutions through which all of us form a picture of the kind of society Britain is" and emphasises its special obligation towards minority ethnic groups/audiences that should "recognise [...] and celebrate [...] the value of cultural and ethnic diversity" instead of falling "back on old stereotypes and prejudice." (BBC 1995: 163) It took the corporation another few years and incentives to implement measures and set targets. Today, however, a decade later, some significant changes have taken place.3 One of those changes is the creation of a diversity centre. Interviewee Sue Caro, the BBC's Senior Diversity Manager for Portrayal, sheds light on the way in which the centre operates. The interview was held on Wednesday, 25 August 2004 at the new BBC Media Centre in White City, London. Other issues addressed in the excerpts below are the corporation's idea of diversity and the representation of diversity in programmes.

 

 

EUP: Cultural diversity has become an important issue in Britain's institutions; diversity departments have emerged all over the place - how is diversity defined by the BBC?

SC: We need to be quite clear here what we're talking about. Cultural diversity, I take to mean ethnicity. The diversity department of the BBC does not concern itself only with ethnicity. We concern ourselves with a broad range of different groups, if you like, or different areas, and that's ethnicity, gender, sexuality, faith, age, disability. That's what we mean by diversity.

EUP: Do you think that it is an advantage to work with such a wide range of features?

SC: Yes. I think it's absolutely essential if the BBC is going to maintain or to meet its commitments to reflect the nation unto itself. Diversity is what we're all about. All of these things have to be considered when they're making programmes. You need to remember this: Although London is nearly one third ethnic minority, the whole of the UK is only 7% And the BBC takes money of everybody in the UK through the licence fee, so we have to look after all those interests. And, although I believe very strongly that ethnic representation is low, gender is also not terribly good and [women] make up more than 50% of the population; the representation of disabled people on television is appalling; other faiths [than Christianity] are not properly or adequately represented; so I don't think you can separate them out; I think it's really important that you think about them all together.

EUP: How did you come to be involved in this area of work?

SC: I have worked in television, in production or commissioning, for independent production companies for most of my working life. I have always felt very strongly that people of colour, be they black or Asian, or in fact everybody who is different from the white majority in this country have had a really bad deal as far as the media is concerned they've been misrepresented. I know this from first-hand experience because I have many friends who are black or Asian or Chinese or other. My own children are mixed-race: Their father is Jamaican. Police racism, institutional racism I know exactly what it's like and I know how much the media has to do with that and the way they represent black people in particular; now the issue is also including Muslim Britons, and I see exactly the same thing happening with them that has happened with the black community twenty years ago. So my own personal background: the belief that the media actually misrepresents people and that if we are to fully tap into everything that that community has to offer - which is to the benefit of the UK - then media representation about them has to be changed.

EUP: How long have you been working for the BBC?

SC: Only three years. Prior to this job I couldn't even get an interview at the BBC.

EUP: So it was an interest on the side of the BBC to recruit people with "diversity experience".

SC: Yes. I think the fact that I got appointed, or even got an interview to be appointed, was an indication of how things are changing at the BBC. Even for jobs that I consider I was far better qualified to do than the one I'm currently doing, I never got an interview, because there was very narrow understanding of the sort of person that the BBC wanted to work for them and I didn't fit that.

EUP: Can you say a bit about the history of the diversity centre?

SC: The diversity centre came about under Greg Dyke's reign as director general. He came from outside the BBC as I did myself, and he was horrified by the narrow social representation that was here in terms of the staff and to some extent the programmes we were making. He made a very famous statement about the BBC being "hideously white".4 But it's also hideously middle class. It's full of people with first-class degrees from Oxford and Cambridge; there's very little or not nearly enough diversity of thought because so many people in programme making come from the same kinds of social backgrounds. They don't come up with a broad range of ideas that will connect with large sections of our audience. So the centre's work is about the survival of the BBC; and also representing Britain as it is today, not how it was fifty years ago.

EUP: There certainly is pressure from outside the BBC as well.

SC: Yes, there is pressure from outside the BBC, but one of the other things that Greg and the new director general Mark Thompson were both very keen to change was this very arrogant sense that the BBC can do no wrong and the dismissal of outside opinions unless they came from on high somewhere. Mark Thompson has pledged us to be far more open, to listening to criticism from outside; if we do what we pledged to do I suspect the effectiveness of external pressure will increase. But a lot of the black community groups don't feel that the BBC listens to what they say, anyway.

EUP: How many people work for the diversity centre?

SC: There's probably twenty of us. There are five senior diversity managers like myself. And then, there's a head of diversity and a deputy head; there are project coordinators and some administrative staff, all based in the diversity centre, but we have diversity people in divisions in the regions, so there are more than twenty of us altogether, but there are twenty of us in this centre.

EUP: How is the centre involved in the organisation as a whole? How does it connect with the other departmens?

SC: The BBC is split up into divisions. The senior diversity managers are assigned particular divisions to work with; I work with the programme-making divisions, and there are various different forums within the programme-making divisions for contact; there are diversity forums within drama, entertainment and children's, there will soon be something similar in factual and learning, which is one of our other big programme-making divisions, but it's about personal relationships, it's about influencing people, it's about making strategic partnerships or alliances with influential people, and sometimes it feels like a real uphill struggle. And how we tend to work as a centre is that we share and pool our information, knowledge and resources. I used to be the only person in the centre with the programme-making background - most of our colleges are HR or training specialists; we have got another programme maker with us on a six month attachment at the moment; that's helpful, because programme-making is huge and one person cannot possibly do all of that. But between us, we have a great deal of knowledge. We try to encourage people to call or contact the diversity centre if they have got questions or they want assistance with something, because usually one of us has got the answer or can help. So it works on a number of different levels: We have strategy, we have day-to-day contact and targets: There are targets for ethnic minority employments which the whole BBC is committed to; there are disability portrayal targets which have been recently announced, there are disability employment targets, and I'm almost certain that the next big area that we'll be focussing on is age, because the legislation is coming in 2006. At the moment, the BBC's workforce profile is extremely young and much younger than the general population and also much younger than the average workforce profile. Interestingly enough, the fastest-increasing population groups in terms of the young are the ethnic minority population, so we really have to get these issues right; we have an awful lot of young white people working for us.

EUP: You say that you encourage people from the different divisions to come to you with questions. Do they make use of that opportunity or do you feel that you have to more or less push them?

SC: There's no blanket answer one way or the other; there are some brilliant people who are totally committed to the whole idea of diversity, wouldn't have a problem with asking for assistance in whatever form and are great champions and practise what they preach in their own areas of influence as well; and there are others who are totally resistant and who say all the right things but everything they do says otherwise. So there is no one overall attitude or approach; it's very different, depending on what particular area you're talking about. But the BBC is so huge that it takes a long time to sort of turn it around nothing changes quickly.

EUP: Would you say that your centre consists of a diverse staff?

SC: Our head of diversity is black, there are two senior diversity managers who are black, one of Nigerian origin and one Bajan; we have an Indian senior diversity manager; we have a Chinese disabled administrative assistant; we have a profoundly deaf project coordinator; we have one black project coordinator, one mixed-race coordinator; the head of our access unit is deaf; we have people of different sexuality. We don't have anybody much over the age of 45, that's an area where I don't think we do too well. So, yes, generally speaking. We don't have that many men, there are more women than men in the department.

EUP: That's not representative of the whole corporation, is it?

SC: No, the corporation does quite well on its gender mix, but less well at senior levels.

EUP: What about the staff of the whole corporation, in terms of diversity?

SC: We had ethnic minority targets; 10% of the overall work force and 4% of senior management; and these targets were to be met by the end of 2003; the ten per cent of the overall workforce does not include security, cleaners and catering staff, because all of that is contracted out to other people, so they're not BBC employees. We met our targets at the end of 2003 and slightly exceeded them. But in areas of production, we've got more work to do.

EUP: Are minority ethnic employees predominantly working in areas as your centre or fields that are especially designated for them?

SC: Production in general needs to do better, but if you look at children's [programming], for example, their production figures are excellent, because they really have diverse staff right across the board making programmes, appearing on the screen, everything. Other areas of production are not nearly so good and there is a real understanding that we need to do better. People are beginning to understand that you need diversity of thought to come up with really good creative ideas and we haven't got enough of that in certain areas of production.

EUP: One question about the production side: A study published in 2001 shows how difficult and problematic it still is for black filmmakers to gain access to major programming and broadcasting spaces.5 Do you share that view and do you think that the BBC and your centre in particular can help improve things?

SC: I think that we have to increase awareness, but there is a big issue about black or Asian independents. A lot of them went out of business. Until relatively recently the BBC didn't work with independents, so I don't think the BBC could be held responsible for that, although I don't think that they have helped. But I certainly know, because I've worked for Channel Four for a while and there was a very strong feeling that Channel Four had, intentionally or otherwise, under-developed that area of the production community. And that obviously has a knock-on effect. And I think that as far as black and other ethnic minority production staff are concerned, a lot of them who are freelance won't even bother trying to get work at the BBC because historically they have not been able to, and although things have changed, the whole television production business is done through networks and contacts breaking into those is almost impossible. And it's difficult for everybody: if you're not plugged into a good network, you will struggle. I think that's a double whammy for minority ethnic freelance people. And I do think that there is still a perception, when it comes to senior creative roles on inhouse productions but also independents that we commission, that to appoint a black or other minority ethnic person to a senior role is a risk and that is a mindset that we need to try and change and it is one that is right at the top of our list of things to do.

EUP: How does your centre gather information about viewing conventions of diverse audiences?

SC: We don't do that. There's a huge department in the BBC, audiences department, which does nothing but analyse our audiences, different sections of our audiences, they break them down into age, social class, ethnicity, disabled or otherwise. About a year ago, we had a special six months project that was looking at ethnic minority audiences; at the end it was presented to programme makers, basically asking if they understood this section of the audience and revealing information and statistics that would surprise them because it doesn't fit with their view of, for example, the black audience. The BBC is continually researching its audiences and trying to work out what they think of us, so that we can also understand them better; the diversity centre gets informed of that work, but we don't carry it out.

EUP: The BBC is perceived as a through and through British institution. It certainly represents a specific set of ideas about Britishness. Are those ideas discussed at all?

SC: Yes; Britishness is constantly changing and evolving; all the things that I mentioned feed into that change and evolution. Black culture is fashion in this country - what's hip is almost always derived from black or more increasingly from Indian culture at the moment. It's about adequately representing that and giving credit where it's due. And also not just looking at everything through one set of filters; we all have prejudices and preconceived ideas about people who are different from ourselves.

EUP: So it is about representing different forms of identity?

SC: Yes, and not representing one very narrowly focussed point of view and way of life which is white and middle class, which is what the BBC has been accused of doing previously.

EUP: What sorts of programmes or projects have you been involved with lately?

SC: Test the Nation, for example, which has had two editions so far and they're working on a third that's made for the BBC by an independent production company.6 I've been talking with that production company about how they ensure that the people that they have in the studio are diverse and are properly representative; so in terms of ethnicity, but also disability, making sure that people with disabilities are included. So that's one thing. Another thing that I've been doing is working with people in radio and music, for the first time to get the BBC diary which is something that every member of staff has and that can be purchased by the public. Next year's diary will actually have next year's festivals and holy days in it that are other than Christian. So there will be islamic festivals and holy days, Hindu and Sikh and Jewish as well as Christian ones. This is the first time that this has ever happened. And to me, that makes a statement about the BBC. It sounds like a small thing, but it's a major step. Because people who use the diaries will suddenly see something and go: "What's that?" And then it's, say, Eid - the end of Ramadan, stuff that normally goes completely over their head and they don't know about. So it's big statements, it's small things, it works on so many different levels.

EUP: Are there any future programmes that you would particularly encourage?

SC: BBC Two are considering putting together an Islam Season; that will be programmes across all different genres which involve Islam and British Muslims; I think that's really good, because the British Muslim community is suffering a lot at the moment in terms of feeling besieged and constantly having to answer and to say that they condemn terrorism etc. all the time in a way that nobody else is asked to do. So I think it's very important. We're doing a massive coverage of the Paralympics this year which is the first time we've ever done that; two and a half hours a day on peak-time on the main channels. There is a series of Bollywood shorts currently in production which are ten-minute films with a British-Asian/Bollywood theme to them; they will see new talents on the screen and also behind the camera in terms of writing and directing which is very important as well.

EUP: A change in both rhetoric and concept seems to have occurred here: About ten years ago, the BBC's publications were addressing the creation of programmes for minority ethnic groups, that is targeted programmes. By now, the idea of programmes about and by people from the different communities has entered the concept.

SC: Well, one could have said that the targeted programmes were about them as well. The ideal is to have targeted and mainstream programmes. Often targeted programmes have a much wider appeal than the audience that was in mind when they were commissioned originally. We made two series of Babyfather, and that is one of our biggest-selling programmes in the States, for example.7 So it's about a combination of both, targeted and mainstream.

EUP: Do you see a lack of any kind in specific programmes and formats concerning the representation of diversity?

SC: We've been heavily criticised for the first series of The Crouches, a sitcom about a black family written by a white writer.8 And I think some lessons have been learned from that. The second series is now in production with a black writer and a black senior producer on it, and hopefully it will be much better this time around. I think there is still a tendency to look at these communities from a particular perspective, that is the white middle-class perspective. And that needs to change.

EUP: You mention sitcoms and soaps, but there are other formats that may have to be addressed. What about serious documentary? Take, for instance, the Windrush series in 1998 which was also mainstream and targeted together.9 Was that a one-off?

SC: No. That's a landmark series in television-talk terms. That was a big statement in intent. I think that there is an acknowledgement in senior levels at the BBC that we're still not getting it right; it's all or nothing; feast or famine. We need to have these programmes on a far more regular basis and not just do some major thing every three years or so and say, "oh we've done that now, let's forget about it and move on to something else." There are people within the BBC who recognise that that's not an ideal state of affairs and that we need to do better. But there was Motherland, a documentary series which was all about people (basically three black British persons) tracing their roots through DNA;10 in the case of one woman they were able to target really specifically where her ancestors would have come from which was a small island in Africa, so we went back to Africa with her; it was incredible, it was a really interesting programme that sparked off a lot of interest in people tracing their ancestry, and not just black people; we're now doing a lot online around tracing personal history, which is for everybody. So I think that's a really good example of a programme that speaks to a much wider audience than perhaps was initially thought of.

EUP: History seems to be booming at the moment. Consider Simon Schama's History of Britain, that was a huge and expensive production.11 In programmes like that, minority ethnic issues are addressed, but they are still represented as problematic parts of British history and society. Do you think that there is a chance at all for the future for there to be history documentaries about Britain that embrace Britain's culturally diverse history or even feature a presenter from a minority ethnic background?

SC: I would hope that that's where we're going. We've been criticised over the Second World War coverage because we haven't actually paid any attention, or very little attention, to the contribution of Commonwealth troops from India, from the Caribbean, from Africa. Those kinds of areas need to be addressed, there's no doubt about that. There is a tendency to be fixated on certain aspects of black culture, and/or Asian culture, and of course at the moment Bollywood is the flavour of the month or the year. I think when we get more people from ethnic minorities working in programme production, but also working in senior levels within production, we will see these issues addressed, because they need to be addressed.

EUP: From audience reactions, do you think that there is a need to produce certain types of programmes?

SC: Definitely. For example, a lot of people in the black community get extremely fed up with the portrayal of black men. There is a series called The Trouble with Black Men, which is one person's view.12 And he's actually not talking about all black men, he is talking about African-Caribbean black men, and people who are African take huge exception about being included in this, because it's not accurate about them. So we made mistakes. I think that because there is still not enough programming about or of interest to the black community, when there actually is something on air, it's expected to deliver all the hopes and aspirations of that community, and no one programme can ever do that. If there's a mix of programmes, then I think we would get a lot less criticism than we do; then there wouldn't be just one programme or one series every year that the black community felt was for them, and therefore they would criticise it, because it couldn't possibly deal with everything. We need to do better.

EUP: What do you think the BBC can contribute to those issues of representation and portrayal that independent broadcasting companies couldn't?

SC: I think because it is the BBC, because it's public service broadcasting, because it has a huge international profile, I think it can make things happen far more quickly and influence things more than small independents, but I think you need both, and I think that the BBC can use its influence to help bring about desirable changes more quickly; it's really trusted overseas, and that's a result of our World Service, and the interesting thing about the World Service as opposed to our national news is that it is staffed by people from those countries and cultures that we're reporting to in order to make sure that we're accurate and fair. We need to have a similar approach in our nationwide, national news. We could learn a lot from the World Service in terms of how things are done. Another thing is drama production: the BBC produces massive amounts of drama, both long-running series like soaps and one-offs; we are obviously extremely well-known for our period drama. In drama series, the head of casting, with the full support of the controller of drama series, has told casting agents that she wants a diverse range of actors presented for every role and not just for a role that is designated as black or Asian in the script, so that we get integrated casting. And once the BBC starts telling casting agents to do that, then they do it, because they want the business, and then that practice starts to spread to other work that they do. We actually have the ability to influence and bring about change, and we haven't always used it as well as we could have done. And I think we have a responsibility to reflect society as it actually is, but also to use our influence to bring about change when it's necessary and desirable.

EUP: Do your children watch BBC programmes?

SC: Yes. Certain programmes they really like. Little Britain they love.13 My younger son watches a lot of CBBC. Kerching is a really good example of a drama written by a black writer with a totally diverse, but majority black cast, and to my children, who are mixed race it just feels real.14 It represents to them their experience. And I think, why we don't do well with ethnic minority audiences is because they don't see themselves represented, or the reality represented; The Crouches was a failed attempt - we got things so wrong on that, it turned people off rather than it turned them on. We watch a lot of the Olympics' coverage, that is obviously diverse in its very nature. They watch other stuff as well, but they do watch BBC. I wouldn't say it was top of their list.

EUP: Are you concerned at all about the possibly negative effects that watching TV may have on them?

SC: I think it does; it's getting better, but a lot of the black and ethnic minority communities have felt completely disconnected because they don't see themselves reflected, represented on the screen, so they don't see how they live. But I could say that about a lot of white people as well, working class white people or people like myself who have a truly wide and diverse range of friends that's just normal and natural, I don't see that reflected on the screen, really. Lesbian friends don't feel that their experience is reflected adequately on the screen. There is always going to be room for improvement.

EUP: It is still only the screen, it is not real life.

SC: Exactly, but I do think that there is something about belonging; I mean there is a black comedian called Junior Simpson who made a comment about one of his routines about ten years ago, about how he can't call himself Jamaican because he was born in England, and he can't call himself British because he's not an athlete. And I think that still holds true today to a large extent. You know, to be black and British, you have to be an athlete, and preferably one that wins medals. I think there's still a big disconnect.

EUP: Or a singer or an entertainer?

SC: Yes, but particularly in sport, because then you can win medals for Britain. And then we embrace them. And at other times we don't.

 

Bibliography

  • Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin. 2001. Who Do We Think We Are? Imagining the New Britain. London: Penguin.

  • BBC. 1995. People and Programmes. London: BBC.

  • Stuart Hall. 1996. "New Ethnicities." David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, eds. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London/New York: Routledge. 441-449.

  • Leonard, Mark. 1997. Britain TM: Renewing Our Identity. London: Demos.

  • BBC Scotland. 2001. "Dyke: BBC Is 'Hideously White'." 6 Jan 2001. news.bbc.co.uk/ 1/hi/scotland/1104305.stm. Accessed January 2005.

  • Phillips, Mike and Trevor Phillips. 1999. Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain. London: HarperCollins.

  • Watson, Paula. 2001. Pitch Black: From the Margin to the Mainstream: A Report on the Commercial Values of Black Producers Working in British Television. London: NESTA. Also accessible as online publication under www.nesta.org.uk/assets/pdf/pitch_black.pdf.

Notes

1 Indeed, the weaknesses of those concepts, that were largely formulated in opposition to the xenophobic and right-wing political atmosphere of the late 1970s and 1980s, soon began to show - their tendency to create simple dualisms and promote what Stuart Hall has called the idea of the innocent "essential black subject", (Hall 1996: 443) thus (intentionally or not) encouraging the split in society instead of offering solutions for the integration and coexistence of the various groups.

2 Compare, for instance, the publication Britain TM: Renewing Our Identity by the government-bound think-tank Demos. (Leonard 1997)

3 At first glance, the process may seem slow in Britain. Compared to other European broadcasting institutions, however, the BBC plays a leading role in matters of diversity and its advise on those matters is sought by other European braodcasting and media companies and institutions. That diversity is currently becoming a European theme can be seen in the increasing number of organisations and events devoted to the issue. One example is the European conference Tuning in to Diversity 2004 that took place in September 2004 in Noordwijkerhout/the Netherlands and addressed, among other issues, the role of the media in multicultural societies. The programme and other information on the conference is accessible under www.commedia.org.uk/tuning2004/.

4 In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland in January 2001, one of his first interviews as Director General, Greg Dyke was asked whether he found the BBC "hideously white" upon which he replied: "I think the BBC is hideously white. I think the BBC is a predominantly white organisation. The figures we have at the moment suggest that quite a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds that we do attract to the BBC leave. Maybe they don't feel at home, maybe they don't feel welcome." (BBC Scotland 2001)

5 See Watson (2001).

6 Test the Nation, a successful quiz show that is advertised as "national IQ test", was first broadcast on BBC One in May 2002 and continues to be produced once a year. The programme offers audience participation via the internet.

7 Two series of Babyfather were broadcast in 2001 and 2002. Their action centres around the everyday lives of a number of black men in their thirties, addressing themes as love, friendship, fatherhood. The series features an all-black cast and was written by three black screen-writers.

8 The first series of The Crouches, a sitcom about three generations of a black family living under one roof, was broadcast in autumn 2003.

9 Windrush, a four-part documentary series written by Mike and Trevor Phillips (who also wrote the book: Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain) and directed by David Upshal, was broadcast in Summer 1998 around the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush 1948, the first ship that brought a significant number of West Indian migrants to Britain.

10 Motherland: A Genetic Journey, a two-part documentary based on a genetic study, was broadcast in February 2003. The documentary shows the story of three black Britons who find out about their genetic roots and eventually visit their ancestors' home.

11 The fifteen-part production A History of Britain (BBC 2000-2002) attempts to cover British history from 3100 B.C. to the present. The documentary series, which unites a conventional form of presentation (the authoritative, male scientist as presenter) with acted-out scenes and computer-animated material, was a huge success with the audience.

12 The Trouble With Black Men: A Polemic, a three-part factual series presented by journalist David Matthews, was broadcast in August 2004 on BBC Three. Matthews picks up on the problems African-Caribbean men face in British society today.

13 Little Britain is a comedy series on BBC Three that takes viewers on a tour of the UK, exploring Britain and Britishness. As is often the case in the genre of British television comedy, the programme is based based on a highly successful radio series that bears the same title.

14 Kerching, a sitcom featuring a multi-cultural cast, is set in London. In it, the fourteen year old "entrepreneur" Taj Lewis seeks his fortune through his dotcom business. The series is on air twice a day on CBBC.