BBC’s D- Notice, the Mission Impossible but there is an Ethan Hunt

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Your head of diversity is leaving. In recruiting the next one give the person power and money to hire and report directly to the DG, inline with other senior managers. Former BBC Executive Marcus Ryder’s mission to the BBC is detailed in his blog. This message will ….

Will the BBC do this? Is there an Ethan Hunt in the organisation that can navigate the labyrinths of social and cultural silos and hierarchies ? No car chases here and gizmos to get you out of a hot spot.

It’s called the impossible job. But why is this?

I knew or had meetings with a number of people in BBC diversity from both working in the BBC and being part of an outfit looking to increase BAME recruitment in the 1990s, supported by Jon Snow. I did not know Tunde Ogungbesan who’s leaving the organisation. But the conversation around the position, going back years, was circular.

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The BBC has a BAME problem. BAMEs want to work at the BBC. If they were “fortunate” they’d get to go on one of its training exercise (too many). They’d apply for a job and not make the cut. They’d write to HR and the head of diversity. A meeting with the head might happen, where they might learn something. The head was sympathetic but had no hiring power. Please keep trying, was often the sentiment. You could easily leave the meeting begrudging the diversity head as incompetent. There was a lot more going on.

If you have a long memory of this drama, the hiring of BAME has morphed over the years. In the 80s the perception was altruism; 90s, common and liberal sense; and in 2000 economic and business imperatives, as BAME spending power became visible. Still it stalls.

While the BBC executive message encouraging diversity (hideously white) made the right noise, I learnt that management deeply resented the idea that a BAME could be brought onto their programme by a head of diversity. Who were they? What did they know? Won’t they destabilise my programme? There is this perception that BAME, whomever they are, just aren’t good enough. Hiring requires lowering the bar is the facile and erroneous perception. And they aren’t up to the pub test.

Working at the BBC
I got my first taste of working in the BBC in 1987 whilst an undergraduate in Leicester. My programme boss Vijay Sharma was both an astute executive and defacto, in some way, head of diversity (the post didn’t formally exist). Sharma wielded power enough to set up the Asian Network and hire talent.

In 1990, I applied and was brought onto BBC GLR’s Black London with Sheryl Simms. As a freelancer I co-presented a weekly show (part of Community programming, where Vanessa Feltz and Peter Curran presented Jewish and Irish London respectively) for £30 a week. A sparky presenter on Saturday had his show, Chris Evans. They money was pittance, but it was my co-presenter and I told ourselves a way of building up our experience.

Eartha Kitt interview from BBC Black London

I’d been to Falmouth for a post grad, yet one application after another couldn’t get past the impasse to a permanent job. Cue that letter to BBC HR who wrote back inviting me to a meeting. I would become part of a BBC experiment. Instead of interviewing for a job, BBC executives were to interview me. That day around sixteen personnel prodded me and two others.

Weeks later I got a call from HR — another interview. This time for a job. It was a tough interview. From six applicants I was chosen for a placement on BBC Newsnight. It drew suspicion from some members asking how I got the job, but from a series of events I believe I proved my presence. Some from Newsnight back then have remained friends today.

The other two candidates from the experiment would also at some point join Newsnight and have since carved out stellar careers as senior management within the corporation. In all these events, it struck me that there were negotiations between parties — an exec, with hiring clout, acting as diversity lead speaking to programme makers — it worked.

The grandest experiment for hiring BAMEs and not fearing broadcasting might collapse (speaking to management here), falls to the revolutionary outfit cable station Channel One. Three thousand people applied for a job, and the executives behind it ensured the mix of staff reflected the population.

Former BBC Head of Nations and Regions, Pat Loughrey

Channel One, did many things, and to cite the BBC’s Head of Nations and Regions whom I would interview for my doctorate Pat Loughrey, the station was a model for the future.

John Barnes on Question Time this week, poignantly presented the pub test from Liam Neeson’s fall out. Who would you prefer as your neighbour from perceptions and constructs framed within our society mainly by the media, he put to the man asking the question.

What therefore is preventing the BBC from appointing someone with the power to hire, similar to practices I’ve highlighted and even the steps Channel One took more than two decades ago?

Is it that:

  • the corporation fears giving the head of diversity hiring powers would create division?

Mind you, haven’t there been enough frank conversations and it’s time for some action? Hunt’s movies always end with success, the BBC could show fact can outdo fiction.

Writer Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. He’s a former BBC and Channel 4 News producer. He’s an RTS juror and international award winning journalist and innovator.

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Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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