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Monday, 5 September 2011

A Problem Of Trust

I have worked in television for over 20 years. During that time, I have never met a racist person in my professional life. Neither have I met anyone with a pathological hatred of disabled people. And while I’ve heard a few questionable jokes, I’d be hard pressed to label anyone sexist.

For the most part I like the people I work with. They are liberal and open-minded. There are some whose views I don’t agree with, but heated arguments are part of the currency of working in news and current affairs.


My colleagues invite me to their homes for dinner parties. They ask me to join them for drinks and trips to the theatre just as much as anyone else.

They know that I went to the local comprehensive and an ordinary redbrick university. They don’t seem to look down on me or treat me any differently from the people who went to private schools and graduated from Oxbridge.  This is why writing the next statement is so difficult and puzzling: the broadcast industry is prejudiced. 

The broadcast industry seems to dislike women, clearly has an aversion to ethnic minorities (especially blacks and Pakistanis) and positively hates disabled people.

How do I know that I – and people like me – are hated?  Despite all my nice colleagues, every time I go to a management meeting in London or Glasgow, I realise I am consistently the only non-white person sitting at the table.

And it’s the only logical conclusion I can draw from reading the latest and final annual report published by the Broadcast Equality & Training Regulator (BETR).

According to the BETR report in 2010 women are struggling in broadcasting despite the fact that 44% of people who work in broadcasting are women.

When it comes to senior management, men outnumber women two to one. If you look at executive and non-executive board members men outnumber their female colleagues three to one.

As for ethnic minorities it seems, surprisingly, as if the industry likes them a lot more than women. Ten per cent of people working in broadcasting are non-white.

At first sight this doesn't look too bad considering that approximately 12.5% of the UK working age population is non-white. However, do a bit of digging and it’s clear this figure reflects the obvious - that most of broadcasting is based in London, where 24% of the population is non-white.

All of a sudden 10% vs. 24% doesn’t look too good. Dig a bit further and go up the pay scale and BME numbers keep dropping; only 8% of managers and less than 6% of senior managers are non-white; by the time you get to board members, it drops to a paltry 4%.

But if BME people thought they weren’t liked, then disabled people are positively loathed by the industry.
According to the BETR report, 16% of working age people in Britain is disabled, yet they comprise only 2.3% of the broadcasting workforce. Again, the numbers keep falling the further up the hierarchy you go; less than 1% of executive board members are disabled.

As a black man working in television these kinds of reports can start to make you feel paranoid. Everyone in broadcasting is nice to your face. But take one look at the statistics and you can’t help but feel that, at best, they like you because you are “not like the rest of them,” or, at worst, television is full of closet racists.
However, I doubt very much that the people who invite me to join them at picnics and concerts after work are really closet neo-Nazis performing a massive charade. I also realise that if my paranoid fears are well-founded, then as a BBC executive producer I too am responsible for employing other black people, women and disabled people.  Am I doing my job properly or am I being discriminatory?  Surely not.
Assuming that other broadcasting executives are like me, and the industry is not full of secret two-faced bigots, what is happening?

Why are the figures so bad for BMEs, women and disabled people?

I believe the answer to the apparent contradiction of a profession loaded with nice liberal people who at the same time seems to pathologically hate anyone who is not white, able bodied and male men can be found in the same BETR report. It’s all about trust.

Throughout television and broadcasting we have to trust the people we employ. We don’t just need to trust their technical proficiency.

We need to trust their taste as to what makes a good programme and their editorial judgement. Almost every week I give a director a large sum of money and tell them to come back with a great programme. Yes, s/he has to pitch the idea to me, yes I read treatments, yes I have meetings during the course of the production process. All of this is designed to mitigate risk and increase the possibility of success.

But essentially any media executive has to eventually trust the person they employ – irrespective of how much micro-managing they can and may want to do.

Trust is such a difficult beast to pin down. What makes you trust someone? Salesmen know from experience that trust can be decided by the way a person walks, talks or just the cut of their suit.

Other industries have tried to certify trust by implementing professional qualifications. In broadcasting, there are few academic and professional qualifications.

So while all the nice people I come across try and be as fair as possible when employing people, I believe it all comes down to whether you trust the person.

And that’s where all manner of subconscious fears, prejudices and feelings come into play.

Now, according to the BETR, companies that invest in training and developing their staff invariably do well on measures regarding Equal Opportunities. In other words, they employ more BMEs, women and disabled staff.

What this tells me is that if you believe in your staff and believe they can be professionally trained, you are less likely to rely on gut instinct when it comes to trust.

In short; you can train people to do a good job regardless of their background, race, gender or disabilities. You don't have to only have faith and blind trust.

That trust also pays dividends. According to Lucy P. Marcus of the Harvard Business Review the more diverse a boardroom is the more profitable it is.

Diverse boards are more flexible, draw on the widest pool of talent and are better at solving difficult business problems. And if diversity is good for the boardrooms I am sure it is beneficial for the rest of a company.
So from now on I am no longer going to be paranoid as to whether people really like me or not, or whether the industry is really full of two faced closet sexist-disability-hating-racists.

Instead, I'm going to be more concerned about their training budgets and how much they invest in their staff.
The big question will never be whether you like me enough to invite me round for dinner, but whether you trust me enough to put me in charge of your next multiple-million pound project.

If you believe you can invest in people and train them to get that trust, you are more likely to employ a diverse work force.

If you are still going on vague gut instincts then we’re unlikely to see any progress in diversity in broadcasting anytime soon, and that would be a real shame.

First Published In Television Magazine RTS September 2011

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