BBC: Diversity Debate

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Kwasi Kwarteng

Main Page: Kwasi Kwarteng (Conservative - Spelthorne)

BBC: Diversity

Kwasi Kwarteng Excerpts
Thursday 14th April 2016

(5 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab)
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I am from a generation in which the cathode ray tube ruled supreme. Many moments of my life have been mediated through the idiot box—sometimes it has been in the foreground, forcing me to sit up and take notice; sometimes it has been in the background, flickering like a fireplace.

When I first went to school, we were probably the only family on the block, in the hood or whatever we call it—I was dragged up—to have a black and white set. Among my early memories of TV is watching “The Black and White Minstrel Show” on a monochrome set. Even at my tender age, it was baffling to me. For those too young to remember that light entertainment show—is that what we would call it?—it ran for 20 years, from 1958 to 1978. It had white actors and singers blacked up to imitate American minstrels of the 19th century. At best, that can be described as bad taste, and there are many other words—unparliamentary language—that we could use to describe the programme. Even in the ’70s when I was tuning in, the accusation could have been made that the BBC was not representative of the population in modern Britain.

I welcome this debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on bringing this subject to the House. There are parallels with this place. Ethnic minority representation both on TV and in politics is a case of “could do better”.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con)
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I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady’s speech, but I have sat through 45 minutes of this debate—I apologise that I was not here at the beginning, Mr Deputy Speaker—and must point out that this is an issue across the media. I suggest to the hon. Lady that the situation in this House, though bad, is considerably better than that across a large portion of the print media. I am surprised that journalism and political journalists have not been brought up. This is a broader problem, not just one at the BBC, and it is a much more acute problem at newspapers, magazines and across the print media.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that at The Guardian newspaper, they have all been to one of the two greatest—sorry, oldest—universities in this nation. I went to one of them myself, so perhaps I should not say that—pot calling kettle and all that.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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I will plough on because other people want to speak. I imagine the hon. Gentleman went there. He did—he was a contemporary of my sister at that place wasn’t he?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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Indeed, I was. The Guardian is the only newspaper that consistently misspells my name. I just wanted to get that out.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
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On that basis, we will want to know when it improves.

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Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry
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Absolutely. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to him for making that point. There has been a long period of injustice: this is not just about the last couple of years.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for intervening at this point. He is making a compelling speech. However, in respect of the rights and the amounts of money spent on them, I must point out that in many instances—although I am not referring specifically to the one that he has mentioned—the price is market-driven. If it is felt that, in order to secure rights for the English premiership, the BBC must pay £68 million, that is a price that it may have to pay if other bidders in the market are willing to pay up to the same amount.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry
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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because it allows me to highlight once again that Scotland is paying 10% of the licence fee. The BBC is paying what it believes is a market price of £68 million for the premiership and other league rights in England, yet it is unwilling to pay more than £1 million or so when the marketable value is estimated to be about £10 million. All that is being asked for is between £3 million and £4 million. That is a serious inequity.

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Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry
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I could not agree more. My hon. Friend has made the point compellingly that this is an injustice that needs to be addressed. The BBC has a right to educate, inform and entertain—

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry
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No, I will press on and finish my speech, because I have been given the icy stare by the Deputy Speaker.

This is a long-standing injustice, as will be clear to anyone who speaks about football to fans in Scotland. Heaven forfend, by the way, that what has happened to the international game at the top level should also happen to women’s football, and that we should lose it to public broadcasting altogether. However, that is a side issue.

The inequity in Scottish football has been going on for far too long. We have had to put up with coverage that does not encourage people to watch the games, and does not encourage young people to get involved in the sport. Football is a huge source of advertising, and everyone knows how that works around the world. It is about time that the BBC addressed this injustice, and corrected the position for the fans of Scottish football and, indeed, the people of Scotland.

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John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson
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The right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly made that very clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) made a passionate call for fairer funding and representation for Gaelic. Alas, as he knows, I am the first member of my family not to speak the language of my island family and bitterly regret it.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) gave us a fascinating tour d’horizon, illustrating the shamefully narrow social background of BBC governors through the ages.

The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) also walked us down memory lane with “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”, Alf Garnett and the black and white minstrels. How we all shuddered. I shudder every time I watch Mr Humphries. [Interruption.] I was terrified that that would become a natural part of my growing development as a teenage gay boy.

There has been a remarkable amount of agreement in all parts of the House, which highlights the important role that the BBC plays in our national life and the responsibility it has as a public service broadcaster to ensure diversity on our television screens and, crucially, within the organisation itself.

As the motion recognises and many speakers have reiterated, one of the key public purposes outlined in the BBC’s charter is to represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities. The BBC should mirror the society in which we live. We are not all white, able-bodied, English, heterosexual men, and the BBC should reflect us in all our glorious diversity, but for too long it has not. It is clear, however, that Members of this House want to see greater progress in the representation, both on and off screen, of under-represented groups, such as gay and lesbian people and older women.

The BBC must acknowledge the different needs of the nations of the UK and cater more effectively for them, not least in the provision of news. During this period of BBC charter renewal, there is a perfect opportunity to enshrine further the principles of diversity and ensure that the people of these islands see themselves portrayed accurately, fairly and without stereotypes.

On screen, the BBC has its work cut out to persuade ethnic minority viewers that it reflects them. The BBC Trust’s purpose remit survey found that less than one third of black people believe that the BBC was good at representing them—the worst performance in the public remit survey. Critics of the BBC argue that ethnic representation on screen is often just window dressing. Simon Albury of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality says:

“On-screen representation which is not matched by off-screen employment is a hollow, deceptive and superficial gesture. Editorial power and influence lie behind the screen not on it.”

He is right. I know. I spent my television career on screen.

Although the BBC’s black, Asian and ethnic minority workforce is at an all-time high, data from the Broadcast Equality and Training Regulator show that only 5% of those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds become executives in the TV industry. Other broadcasters have been significantly bolder in their attempts to diversify. Sky is on target to have people from BME backgrounds in at least 20% of significant on-screen roles, to have 20% of all writers on entertainment shows from BME backgrounds, and for every production to have someone from a BME background in at least one senior role.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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Does the hon. Gentleman find it strange that the publicly owned BBC should perform so immeasurably worse on these measures than the private sector represented by Sky?

John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson
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Yes, I do.

Sky will announce this July whether it has been on target. I know many Members would like the BBC to emulate Sky’s ambitions, and it has made strides in placing women in senior executive roles—and should be applauded for it. Some 41.5% of senior managers are now female, but there are still significant areas of weakness on screen. While John Humphrys and David Dimbleby stride manfully through their eighth decade at the helm of BBC flagship shows, anyone would be hard pressed to find a woman over 60, let alone 70, in a prominent role.

When Miriam O’Reilly was booted off “Countryfile”, she had to fight BBC bosses tooth and nail to prove her unfair dismissal on grounds of age. Only after their defeat in an employment tribunal did they apologise and offer to change. It was BBC management arrogance at its worst. Olenka Frenkiel, an award-winning BBC correspondent and superb broadcaster, had this to say in her article in The Guardian about her treatment as a woman over 50 at the BBC:

“I could see the guys of my age thriving but the women were gone…No more films were being commissioned from me. It was a struggle to get any assignments. HR had no record of me and my managers had omitted to appraise me for three years…I was treated as though I wasn’t there”—

even though she had been working for it for 20 years. Before they are pensioned off, of course, women are often placed in a subordinate role on TV—and not just in the news, where we all know they always sit on the right.

A cause close to my own heart as a gay man is the representation of LGBT people. The creative skillset survey reports that 8% of the television workforce are gay, which is probably a fair representation of the UK population. What is certainly not fair, however, is the on-screen representation. Equity has noted its concern at the scarcity of incidental gay characters in drama—characters whose raison d’?tre is not their gayness. While we all know much-loved gay TV personalities, they are overwhelmingly in light entertainment and comedy, as they were when I was a child. Gay people are seldom seen on screen in serious authoritative roles.

I can speak from personal experience. I came out as gay when I was presenting “BBC Breakfast” on BBC 1, which I did for a number of years. To my astonishment, I found I was the first mainstream TV news presenter to do so. When I told BBC press officers that I had been interviewed by the Daily Mail and asked whether my home life had been honest, they were alarmed rather than supportive. I would go so far as to say that the reaction of some of my bosses was hostile. That was in 2000, and I am not sure that much has changed. In fact, I cannot think of a single BBC 1 news anchor who has been openly gay since. Why does it matter? It matters for many reasons, but not least this: gay kids growing up should be able to dream that they can do anything and play any role in society, not just the stereotypical ones.

One television channel that has been a trailblazer for minorities and women is Channel 4. “Channel 4 News” has a higher proportion, at 14%, of BAME viewers than any other public service broadcaster in the UK. The figure for “BBC 1 News” is a lamentable 5%. In 2014, audiences rated Channel 4 as the best public service broadcaster for representing BAME viewers fairly. Channel 4 scored 30%; BBC 1 got 14%. Channel 4 was rated best for reflecting lesbian and gay people, at 28%. The figure for the BBC was 5%. And for people with disabilities Channel 4 again beat the BBC, by 26% to 9%.

Channel 4’s commitment to diversity stems from its statutory remit to appeal to culturally diverse groups, to offer alternative perspectives and to nurture new talent. This is all underpinned by Channel 4’s unique not-for-profit model. How ironic it is, therefore, that as we debate how to advance diversity at the BBC, the UK Government are putting one of our best and most diverse public service broadcasters at risk through a threatened, albeit sleekitly planned, privatisation.

Let me turn to Scotland. “Channel 4 News” was one of the few news outlets where viewers felt the Scottish independence referendum was covered fairly. Few thought, by contrast, that the BBC covered itself in glory.

So how could it change? I believe that if the BBC is to reflect properly the UK’s diverse nations and regions, it must decentralise and devolve greater financial and editorial control. News is a particularly good example. In recent months, the BBC “News at Six” has deluged Scottish viewers with stories about the English junior doctors strikes and English schools becoming academies. I do not doubt that Scottish viewers watch the coverage and think, “There but for the grace of God”.