Ofcom accused of on and off-screen diversity failures at BBC

Jane Martinson
David Lammy has called on the government to improve Ofcom’s powers regarding the BBC. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

A former culture minister has accused the media regulator Ofcom of shirking its responsibilities to improve diversity both on and off screen at the BBC and has called on the government to ensure that improvements are made to its powers.

David Lammy, the Labour MP who was instrumental in the parliamentary push to include diversity in the current BBC charter, expressed concerns over Ofcom’s draft regulatory framework, which failed to include specific targets or any attempt to monitor off-screen employment as well as on-air talent.

In a letter to the digital minister Matt Hancock to be sent on Tuesday, Lammy says he is “deeply disappointed that Ofcom has not proposed that BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] employment should be a performance measure and has not proposed any regulatory conditions for off-screen representation at any level”.

He told the Guardian: “Ofcom cannot and must not abdicate responsibility. Improving representation on-screen without progress off-screen is hollow and deceptive.”

The charter, which allows for external regulation of the BBC for the first time in its history while a new board is to govern the corporation, allows for the board to manage internal appointments.

An Ofcom spokesperson said: “While the charter places duties on Ofcom to regulate the BBC’s on-air and on-screen diversity, we also recognise the importance of off-screen and off-air diversity. We expect the BBC to increase diversity off-screen and off-air and to report on its progress.

“We’ll consider the case for a review if we don’t see early and continued progress by the BBC. We’ll also closely monitor and report on the workforce diversity of all broadcasters, including the BBC, in our forthcoming diversity report.”

Lammy and the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality believe that Ofcom’s draft framework (pdf), published at the end of March, runs counter to the spirit of the charter agreement and the proposals from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in failing to grasp the issue of behind-the-scenes employment directly.

“Editorial control, influence and the power to drive real change all lie behind the camera, not in front of it,” Lammy said.

Clause 14.1 in the BBC charter, which came into effect at the beginning of 2017, says: “The BBC must ensure it reflects the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom in the content of its output, the means by which its output and services are delivered (including where its activities are carried out and by whom) and in the organisation and management of the BBC.”

A DCMS information sheet provided at the same time as the charter review gave equal weight to on and off-screen diversity. It said: “The BBC should be at the forefront of representing diversity both on and off screen.”

In his letter to Hancock, Lammy calls on the government to “end this inconsistency and ensure that the amended, final Ofcom operating framework for holding the BBC to account adequately reflects the equal weight given to on-screen and off-screen diversity by the BBC, the government, other broadcasters and the broadcasting sector more generally”.

In its draft framework, Ofcom said it was “not proposing regulatory conditions at this stage regarding the diversity of the BBC’s workforce,” but it expected the corporation “to increase diversity off-screen and off-air and to report openly on its progress”.

Ofcom, which took over regulation of the BBC for the first time at the beginning of April, added that it would consider “an ad hoc review of the BBC’s performance around diversity if we do not see early and continued signs of progress”.

A diversity report to be published this summer on all broadcasters regulated by Ofcom insists that they do more to increase diversity behind the screen as well as in front of it.

Lammy said that leaving the BBC to its own devices had failed to achieve enough progress to date. In his letter he cites internal figures that suggested the percentage of the BBC workforce from a BAME background had grown from 10% in 2003 to 12.2% in 2011 and 13.1% in 2015.

He said none of the 10 members of the BBC’s executive committee and 9.2% of the BBC’s senior leadership team were from a BAME background.

  • This article was amended on 17 April 2017. An earlier version said David Lammy was a former culture secretary. This has been corrected.
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