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Big Sister won’t rest until radio’s ticked every diversity box


Self-righteousness is a luxury: one of the advantages of being a successful organisation is that you can normally afford it. Penguin Books, rightly called out last week by Lionel Shriver (and by Fionn Shiner on TCW) for their immensely silly obsession with diversity, have dozens of safe, established authors, and are in any case part of an enormous multinational conglomerate. More to the point, however, this is their commercial decision. If they get it wrong the rest of us – readers and authors – don’t have to buy or write their books, and it is just the Bertelsmann billions backing Penguin which stand to take the hit.

This story about print media, however, overshadows a more serious one, partly also from last week, about UK radio. Ofcom, whose CEO Sharon White needs no introduction to TCW readers (she appears, among other places, here and here), has interfered bigtime. It has reported that radio in this country is appallingly unreflective of the population and demanded change. The report is here, on what Ofcom is pleased to call its ‘Diversity and equality hub’. Horror of horrors, at the time of the survey only 6 per cent of radio employees were from an ethnic minority, as against 14 per cent nationally; 5 per cent self-identified as disabled against 18 per cent nationally; two-thirds of senior employees were male. (LGBT people were, however, over-represented.) And numbers of stations did not provide details despite being required to do so.

To this report, which makes dreary reading, are attached recommendations, which are far from dreary but depressing and unsettling by turns. Every broadcaster must set diversity targets, tackle cross-industry under-representation and focus on women in senior positions. And, in something which could have come out of an Eastern European regime, Ofcom ‘want chief executives to be accountable for delivery against their diversity targets. Comprehensive diversity policies need to be embedded from the top down. Senior managers should lead the agenda, undergoing regular appraisals against diversity objectives, along with completing “unconscious bias” and diversity training’.

This is worrying because unlike Penguin, which can – subject to discrimination law – take its own decisions on such matters, radio stations can’t simply tell this interfering organisation of busybodies to go fish. Whether public or private, it is a condition of their licences to broadcast that they provide information on how they promote equality and diversity in terms of race, sex and disability, including information about their workforce and any details on current arrangements they have in place. If they don’t, or fail to co-operate with Ofcom or have regard to its guidance, they risk fines or in the last resort being shut down.

And Ofcom know it. They ‘commit to action’ against those who think they have better things to do than fill in Ofcom’s endless forms demanding information; and as for slackers in the diversity stakes, they ‘will be contacting those we feel to have inadequate arrangements and will work with them to ensure progress is made’.

Looked at from anything other than the position of a professional organiser of other people’s affairs, this whole prescription is a colossal waste of time, money and talent that could otherwise go into broadcasting. With television someone might – however implausibly – suggest that a visible presence of BAME people or women on set in their ‘correct’ proportions has a beneficial effect. With radio this cannot be true. What listener cares – or, one might add, ought to care – about the skin colour of the person reading the script, or whether the presenter is in a wheelchair or is blind? Still less is it of the slightest interest whether the assistant sound engineer is 25 or 50, male or female, straight, gay or two-spirit.

Ms White’s answer? ‘Our radio industry,’ she says, ‘must reflect the breadth of modern society and offer listeners engaging shows that speak directly to their lives and experiences. And to do this effectively broadcasters must take further action to attract a wider range of talent, both on and off air.’ This is simply fatuous. A large proportion of the time of many presenters is spent acting as glorified disc-jockeys (tune in to local radio at any non-peak time and you will hear what I mean). Even where this isn’t so, you don’t normally listen to the radio to be reminded of your existing humdrum life but to be transported out of it (most gritty kitchen-sink dramas, one suspects, are listened to by those who emphatically self-identify as middle-class but rather like to hear how the other half live). And if a radio manager tells a black presenter that he assumes her real talents lie in speaking directly to the lives of other black people, he won’t have much to complain about if she promptly floors him with a quick one-two.

One suspects the real aim isn’t so much good radio, or radio that people want to listen to, but radio in a middle-class mandarin image that allows the regulators to go home to Wimbledon or Islington with the feeling of boxes ticked and every official group into which they have mentally regimented the people of England properly and proportionately represented. Including, of course, their own: ‘Open the prosecco and then hurry up and turn on the World Service, Tarquin: we’re missing Cultural Frontline.’

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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