The BBC can’t fix its class problems with quotas

The Corporation’s diversity obsession is the problem, not the solution

Artillery Row

Last week the BBC produced its annual plan for 2022-2023. Buried among its usual fulsome praise for its staff, plans for geographical diversity and vows of better representation for non-Christian festivals like Holi, Vaisakhi and Vesak (relax: I had to look these up too), is a five-year plan for class diversity. As part of its programme to “reform” itself, the Beeb wants 25 per cent of its staff to be from “lower socio-economic groups” by 2027, to ensure it “reflects the extraordinary diversity of the lives, backgrounds and experiences of the whole UK public.”

They are not really talking about employees at all

At first sight one might think this project had something going for it. Unlike divisions based on race, or sex, or disability, which are pretty arbitrary, don’t very neatly mirror social attitudes or intellectual viewpoints, and are difficult to justify in an organisation like the BBC, the class divide in the UK is culturally very important. It is a very fair inference that a lorry-driver in Leicester or a hairdresser in Hartlepool will probably have a rather different outlook from a solicitor in Surrey or an accountant in Islington.

Nevertheless, when one looks more closely, the idea that this is genuinely aimed at reforming the BBC, or at genuinely changing its ethos, becomes less plausible by the minute.

For one thing, it is fairly obvious that when the BBC talk about employees from a “lower socio-economic background”, they are not really talking about employees at all, but rather about their parents. It seems a racing certainty that what they envisage is supplementing the corporation’s already voluminous HR paperwork with an extra box to be ticked if a given operative grew up in a household where the chief earner came from groups C2DE in the Office for National Statistics’ standard classification (which encompasses skilled manual occupations, semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations, unemployed and lowest grade occupations) or some such.

Since there is no guarantee that children think like their parents or share their social attitudes, this immediately suggests that what is being looked for is something other than broadening the range of views encountered at Broadcasting House, but some more general social aim.

Secondly, if we are indeed talking of C2DE or something like it, this is a pretty odd category to use to classify family circumstances for the purpose of filling a “lower socio-economic background” quota in a cultural organisation. Taking the socio part first, this kind of box-ticking exercise certainly doesn’t reflect what we would normally see as social class. Think bookbinders, landscape gardeners, craft producers or graphic designers, none of whom fits neatly into our idea of “working class” but who still presumably fall within C2DE and thus should under this scheme have an advantage in getting their children in to work for Auntie.

Nor does it do much better with economics. Plumbers, electricians and computer technicians are in, although being pretty well-paid: certainly better-off than, say, actors, priests, middling authors, middling journalists, and even a good number of the less successful lawyers or accountants, all of whom belong to the class whose children the BBC apparently wishes to see fewer of in its ranks.

In fact it seems highly plausible that, despite pious references to an aim to make the BBC reflective of the diversity of lifestyles in the UK, the only diversity seriously in mind is the BBC variety we already know: not diversity of outlook or philosophical belief, but rather diversity as social justice — or in modern HR-speak, equity. There are certainly some suggestive indications tending this way. In the final summary at the end of the report, it is tellingly lumped together with other, more traditional, targets as a general feature of EDI.

The BBC, it is said, “has set workforce targets of for gender, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), socio-economic diversity (SED) and disability.” Earlier on, there is another interesting pointer. The BBC is, it candidly admits, particularly concerned about how it is rated by organisations such as the Social Mobility Foundation, and is determined to raise its rankings in that respect.

Of course, I could be being unjust. It may be that the BBC top brass actually does want to hear more voices raised in the canteens in London, Cardiff and Salford Quays supporting the views of Red Wall voters in Darlington or Cumbria who consolidated Boris’s power just over two years ago.

To the rest of us this might seem a tad controversial

It would certainly be interesting to have large numbers of programmes where journalists supported, for example, scepticism over comfortable Londoners’ aspirations to reach net zero by 2050 in so far as these seriously threatened the jobs and living standards of those currently just about managing in Bridgend or Birmingham; where wokery was as a matter of course dismissed as nonsense as it is on, say, TalkRadio or GBNews; and where socially conservative views on such matters as marriage, abortion or gender fluidity were readily expressed and sympathetically covered.

But somehow I doubt if that is quite what they have in mind at Langham Place. One rather suspects that the senior management at the BBC are quietly confident of their ability to ensure, if necessary, that the organisation’s headcount includes the right number of people who are able to to tick the magic C2DE box while still sharing its traditional metropolitan mindset.

Moreover, they probably have grounds for such confidence. For one thing, the predominance of liberal views among existing staff ought to be sufficient to knock the rough edges off many recruits who might otherwise slip through without holding the right opinions. And if that doesn’t work, a few dinner parties with BBC management ought to do the trick.

In short, we can be fairly confident that this is an exercise aimed not so much at reforming the BBC from inside as at projecting the organisation as a catalyst for social change outside it. To the rest of us this might seem a tad controversial. To Auntie’s insiders, one suspects, it’s absolutely business as usual.

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