Auntie’s quota-led new faces

The BBC risks putting social justice over excellence

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The cover of the BBC’s latest 40-page “diversity and inclusion plan” features a photograph of staff merrily posing for a selfie. If the image of cosy inclusivity is meant to represent a snapshot of how the corporation would like to see itself, then it sends out a confusing message, highlighting the strange inconsistencies embedded within the plan’s so called “50/20/12 workforce drive”.

Over the next three to five years, the corporation aims to change the face of public broadcasting, quite literally, by making sure that half of those faces are women; at least 20 per cent are black, Asian or minority ethnic; and at least 12 per cent belong to people with a disability. Of the seven staff featured in the selfie, three are men of colour (one in full African garb), three are women, and lurking at the back is a sole white male. All are aged around 35. (The image above is an uncropped version). 

Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, says he wants to “create an organisation that reflects more accurately the society we serve” a pledge seconded by Anne Foster, the Head of Workforce Diversity & Inclusion, who joined the BBC in October 2019. If they were serious about wanting to reflect UK demographics then surely they’d be using official ONS statistics as a guide, thus making sure that 86 per cent of staff are white, 7.5 per cent from Asian ethnic groups, 3.3 per cent black ethnic and 18 per cent disabled people of working age. And what about our vast aging population, an under-represented sector apparently missing from the BBC’s diversity drive? 

For a man who claims he wants to “dismantle bureaucracy in every area of the BBC”, it is hard to imagine a more laborious and costly box-ticking exercise; one that could easily end up doing more harm than good. 

BBC chiefs have already been criticised after it was revealed that the Diversity Tsar, June Sarpong, is being paid £267,000-a-year for a three-day week on the BBC’s executive board, where she is in charge of a £100 million budget to boost “diverse and inclusive content”. This equates to more than Tim Davie’s annual income of £445,000 if she were to become a full time employee. The former presenter has also been criticised for stating “there is unfairness baked into our system” and that “there are benefits even if you come from a low income and you’re white.” 

The corporation’s latest diversity and inclusion plan includes an inevitable reference to last year’s BLM protests. Jackie Christie, the BBC’s “Workforce Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Race” describes “the turmoil and agony of racial tensions and global calls for social justice” as inspiration for her current remit to make sure “that our identities and lived experiences are not ignored or marginalised when we look at how to transform the organisation for the better”. 

Christie goes on to imply that cuddly old Auntie has been guilty of “preventing Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff from achieving their potential”. This is a serious allegation that needs backing up with evidence, but the rhetoric is apparently enough to warrant a radical transformation of one of the most respected institutions in the world. 

It seems unlikely that the impeccably liberal BBC is responsible for holding minorities back but we may never know because to question an assumption of guilt is now taken as evidence of one’s “white fragility”, a doctrine invented by Robin DiAngelo in her book of the same name. 

DiAngelo’s doctrine assumes that bigotry towards minorities is “systemic” amongst predominantly white populations and thus is hard to spot, often hiding in plain sight. As penance, the BBC is demanding that 95 per cent of its staff complete mandatory training in Unconscious Bias and Disability Confidence by January 2022. 

Consultations within the corporation have apparently highlighted what the report describes as a “range of behaviours that risk undermining our aim to grow an inclusive and kind culture”. It would be fascinating to know what sort of non-inclusive, unkind “behaviours” they are referring to but again no evidence is forthcoming. If the corporation has been harbouring bigots, then why hasn’t there been an investigation? Licence fee payers have a right to know if they’ve been funding an organisation that breaks the law by discriminating against minorities. 

The BBC promises to “educate and equip” all staff “to be inclusive every day in everything we do.” As such, employees will have “to tackle their own biases”. But what will “a new suite of learning and development resources and coaching support to tackle non-inclusive behaviours” actually achieve other than terrifying staff into unquestioning “allyship” with minorities via a regime of enforced “kindness”?

To keep the privileged in check, “direct leaders” will “convene action learning groups to spread discussions about, and understanding of, inclusion throughout the BBC”. For those not fully on board with the corporation’s prescriptive embrace of difference, an “inclusion toolkit” will provide “guidance and resources on how to embed inclusivity into our day-to-day work and management practices, including a framework for anti-racism and tools for improved listening and decision-making”. Certainly, it would be good to know what a “tool for improved listening” looks like.

The exercise feels like a repudiation of the BBC’s democratic principles

As usual with these top-down mandatory diktats there is no room for debate or dissent or even a suggestion that this might be politically motivated. But building on “the success of their LGBTQ+ Allies training”, the BBC says it is rolling out a similar scheme aimed at “other areas of allyship including disability, and anti-racism training”. Staff will be encouraged to “communicate in a more inclusive and authentic way, through simple and effective channels”. Meanwhile over at BBC Studios they have introduced an “Embed, Educate and Elevate” programme that offers staff “the right tools, knowledge and skills to change how they think and act” moving “from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion”.

Isn’t this little more than a plea for justice and fairness for all? In Cynical Theories, the maverick academics, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, portray “social justice activism” as a postmodern power-grab aimed at hollowing out traditional institutions leaving them cowed and vulnerable to bad ideas. The BBC is a case in point. It is acquiescing to demands that it dismantles many of its business models — such as hiring the best people for the job — that have made it such a trusted voice of excellence. 

According to Lindsay and Pluckrose “diversity”, in the critical social justice sense of the word, is “almost entirely based on physical and cultural differences, which it evaluates according to conceptions of privilege and marginalisation”. It cares not a jot for diversity of ideas or opinions but instead aims to “privilege the marginalised and marginalise the privileged in order to redress the imbalances it sees in society”. Hence the absence of older people and white males in the BBC’s action plan. 

According to Lindsay and Pluckrose, critical social justice theory posits “that a person’s ‘way of knowing’ about anything is tied to their identity and its position in relation to systemic power in society”. The doctrine therefore demands “uniformity of viewpoint” when it comes to ideological matters — all must be onboard for the doctrine to spread effectively. 

By demanding that so-called privileged employees (read: white males) admit culpability and seek penance for undisclosed crimes based loosely on the death of George Floyd, the BBC is effectively accusing the majority of its workforce of guilt by association. The entire, divisive exercise feels like a repudiation of the corporation’s democratic principles, prioritising social justice ideology over a duty to inform, educate and entertain. It’s a shameless act of bad faith levelled at the very people the BBC has chosen to employ. 

It would be reassuring to think that the BBC’s intentions were benign, but the evidence suggests it is fully onboard with the critical social justice doctrine and impervious to any argument that questions it.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope. Buried within the 40-page document is a short but revealing pledge that, if implemented correctly, might achieve some lasting good. By offering more entry-level opportunities to those from socio-economically deprived backgrounds, the BBC might finally break the stranglehold of wealthy, middle class Oxbridge types who continue to dominate almost every level of the corporation. 

If the BBC is courageous enough to follow through with this pledge it can confidently ditch all the obfuscation around gender and race. This simple act would benefit every marginalised group from the LGBTQ+ community to ethnic minorities, women and the disabled. It might even open up opportunities for all those impoverished white males and vulnerable older citizens that the BBC has thus far chosen to ignore in its rush to appear more inclusive. 

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