How the BBC Risks Eroding Its Neutrality
A spate of well-meaning initiatives is undermining the UK public broadcaster’s mandate to remain impartial.
When Tim Davie took over as director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in September 2020, he called for “a radical shift in our focus from the internal to the external, to focus on those we serve: the public.”
Announcing an end to navel-gazing was a remarkable act of contrition for the UK’s public broadcaster. It was prompted by Davie’s concern that on current trends the BBC “will not feel indispensable enough to all our audience.” In an effort to avert a fatal slide into irrelevance, he promised to create “an organization that is much more representative of the UK as a whole”: one that is 50% women, 20% ethnic minority and 12% disabled.
I was startled by Davie’s introductory speech. In my three decades as a BBC journalist, I had heard complaints of slant and self-absorption leveled at the corporation from many quarters, but never from its very top. And it had not struck me as a discriminatory place: a glance around me suggested recognition that talent had no gender or skin color. Indeed, as one of many foreigners working at the heart of a national institution, I considered myself a beneficiary of remarkable inclusivity.
But as a white male, maybe I was missing something. There is only so much a few years of sporadic unconscious-bias training can achieve. Diversity had long been a BBC priority—two of the last four bosses chaired Britain’s Creative Diversity Network, an industry body. Davie was pointing towards the next stage in a long evolution.
His vision of a “50:20:12 organization,” though, was short on detail. Was it about hiring, the focus of previous efforts, or something else? How would the targets be enforced? The answers came with the publication of a new “Diversity & Inclusion Plan” in early 2021. It confirmed that targets for ethnic and disability representation in the workforce had been raised by a third. But the exercise went further: demographic representation was to be a guiding principle for BBC output. “Our 50:20:12 commitment,” the head of the news division told her staff in an email, “should underpin everything we do.”
The plan built on an existing “Equality Project” that had boosted the on-air presence of women. My unit, the international online desk, had been conducting daily head counts on front pages and tracking our progress towards visual parity. To achieve broader 50:20:12 representativeness, we were now expected to monitor the gender, ethnicity and disability status of bylined authors and experts quoted in stories.
The updated Equality Project, like its gender-centered predecessor, was presented as voluntary. Each unit would decide whether to monitor its own contents and determine steps that would lead to proportionality on a month-by-month basis. This approach led to a management method that could be termed “leadership by exhortation.” Emails hailed programs that had done the right thing, implicitly asking others: “Are you on board?” There was a “50:50 challenge month.” Teams were encouraged to share their data “in a spirit of positive competition.” A series of pep talks included testimony from the producer of the religious TV program Songs of Praise, who admitted to initial reluctance about “what seemed to be yet another internal BBC project that we probably wouldn't have the time to get involved in,” but then saw the light (“How wrong I was.”)
But there was a hard edge to the exhortatory method. When he took charge, Davie warned BBC leaders that “they will not get promoted without us assessing how happy your staff are and how you’ve delivered against diversity targets.” No quotas will be forced on managers: it's just that those who want to get ahead must meet them.
Since its founding in 1922, the BBC has prided itself on remaining free from any political or commercial pressure. That commitment is more than a matter of professional pride for staff: their livelihoods depend on it. The corporation, as a public broadcaster, is funded by taxpayer money. If it is seen to defend a particular ideology, its claim on the public purse—which is being increasingly questioned—evaporates.
There is nothing wrong or abnormal about a media organization changing its practices. Journalists constantly debate how to cover news and remain relevant to audiences. The question for each change is: how do the new and the old fit together? In this instance: is the 50:20:12 consistent with the BBC's tradition of neutrality?
Managers argue that they are entirely compatible, but the tension is obvious to those working on news desks. During my years of helping enforce gender parity on the website, the daily count was widely treated as a distraction—a worthy one, perhaps, but a distraction nonetheless. Pictures of female demonstrators could often be found to illustrate a protest, or a story featuring a male leader might be pushed down the page. But such adjustments were endured rather than eagerly embraced—not least by female editors.
The response to the new diversity drive has been equally unenthusiastic. A year on, the tool recording race and disability data for online stories is still not ready. And the face count has been suspended during the Ukraine crisis. This is a tacit admission that the plan which underpins “everything we do” is hard to reconcile with serious news: when it comes to illustrating the (male-dominated) theater of war, the need to present a gender-balanced picture of the world had to take a back seat.
You may defend the diversity drive in the name of a higher good: it signals a commitment to a fair society. Such an ambition was spelled out by a BBC executive with regards to the previous Equality Drive: “Our aspiration is for 50:50 to be a pan-creative industry tool so, together, we can change behaviors and thoughts to reach greater equality.”
But statements like this inevitably make journalists uncomfortable. Their public-service mission will never be compatible with efforts to “change behaviors and thoughts.” The Guardian, Fox News, and The Economist can promote their version of a good society, but not the BBC.
When it comes to reporting, I trust my former colleagues not to let “inclusivity” trump a century-long tradition of objectivity. But that tradition now risks being eroded through a drip of concessions to advocacy journalism. You can see it in a growing number of pieces whose subjects are selected for their inspirational value—from an annual series on 100 women who are “playing their part to reinvent our society, our culture and our world,” to stories about “bringing LGBT fans back to football.”
Of course, the travails and achievements of those who stand for something greater than themselves have always had a place in journalism. In days gone by, bobbies on the beat, war veterans or men of the cloth provided ready material for uplifting stories. In today's diverse societies, the representatives of disadvantaged groups have joined members of particularly meritorious professions as natural objects of media interest.
The problem arises when cheerleading becomes routine on some desks. Alternating in tone between the celebratory and the denunciatory, these tales increasingly boil down to simplistic morality tales of justice versus injustice. Their subjects are never pure individuals: stripped of group identity, their stories would lose their illustrative power.
Take disability reporting: BBC stories such as “Down’s syndrome: ‘Inclusion revolution is happening, finally’” or “Cerebral palsy won't stop me becoming a lawyer” are perfectly legitimate; but the steady stream of such feel-good tales marks a departure from the “no triumph, no tragedy” approach embodied by Peter White, a former disability correspondent who refused to be defined by his own blindness. His stance fit in with the BBC's tradition of detached neutrality. It was also remarkably effective at making audiences empathize with White's subjects. Most people’s lives are not characterized by tragedy or triumph: the disabled are not much different from anyone else.
“Community affairs” reporting has moved in a similar direction. Until a decade ago, it covered all issues affecting minorities in the UK: discrimination, social deprivation, but also difficult topics such as extremism and forced marriages. BBC correspondents brought their normal probing perspective to build a complex picture.
Today, the desk’s main mission is to give marginalized groups a voice. A recent BBC Community Affairs Correspondent told a UK trade magazine that she was seeking to break the “distrust in [certain] communities at how they felt represented in the media.” This is an admirable aim. The desk has done a good job of reporting on both inspiring individuals and race-based disparities. But their more focused brief results in coverage that is dominated by stories of triumph and tragedy to the exclusion of everything else.
The in-house publication, Ariel, reflects the top-down nature of the diversity drive. When I joined the BBC, it was a news sheet rife with on-message platitudes like: “Hurray For Upgraded Leeds Studio”; “Tears And Laughter As Good Old Nigel Retires”; “No More Blades: Our Future Is Digital”... Ariel may have lacked originality—it was affectionately known as Pravda—but it had a down-to-earth feel to it.
As I prepared to leave the corporation last fall I renewed my acquaintance with Ariel, which had moved to the BBC intranet. Thirty years on, I was Old Nigel and considered submitting my own “tears and laughter” piece. I was faced with such headlines as: “50:50 Project At The Forefront Of BBC Monitoring's Thinking”; “Neurodiversity: The Next Paradigm Shift In Inclusion”; “New Inclusive Leadership Workshop. Book your place now.” I decided to leave Ariel alone: the valedictory piece was best suited for my Medium blog.
Britain, like many countries, is becoming more diverse. This evolution requires all organizations to adapt—including by broadening recruitment.
But there is no reason for the BBC to change the way it covers news. On the contrary, in an increasingly ethnically mixed society, it is even more important for a public broadcaster to stress the ties that bind. The top-down obsession with representativeness is not a software update on old-style impartiality: the two operating systems are incompatible.
Beyond the credibility of individual desks, the future of the corporation itself could be at stake. At a time when it is facing existential threats—youths tuning out, right-wing Conservatives fuming about “bias”—wading into culture wars is self-defeating. Ultimately, the way to achieve Davie’s goal of remaining “indispensable” to the whole nation is not to try to represent every group and opinion within it. It is to stick with the old-fashioned BBC practice of rising above it all.
Henri Astier is a London-based journalist who worked for the BBC from 1991 to 2021 and writes for French and English-language publications.