Arranged at short notice, this event had a dual purpose. First, it gave a platform to Eno Alfred, a well qualified 27 year old television journalist now working for Nigeria’s Cool TV as a presenter – after having fifteen job applications to the BBC rejected without explanation or an interview.
Her case, unearthed by Simon Albury when he started to investigate whether there really was a shortage of suitable black and ethnic talent, and which he then highlighted in a powerful speech at a Royal Television Society/Broadcast debate a year ago, has become a key case study for the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality he leads.
The meeting also became a forum for a broader group of till now largely voiceless and aspiring BAME men and women, suffering from similar blocking, finding it difficult to establish careers at mainstream media companies, due they believe, to the colour of their skin, and, perhaps their names, unfamiliar to white British recruiters.
They are pursuing multifarious careers in blogging, websites, marketing and copywriting, recruitment, educational administration, drama writing/directing, television/ radio production, journalism and playwriting. They added their eloquent testimony to Alfred’s as the evening progressed, and to the findings of Ofcom’s Public Service Broadcasting Review (published July 2), which said more than half of people from black ethnic groups felt under represented and unfairly portrayed.
Further input came from veteran Dr Yvonne Thompson, a founder of Choice FM, the South London station set up 25 years ago – renamed Capital Xtra. She also founded ASAP Communications, the first black PR company, serves as president of the European Federation of Black Women Business owners, and is part of the 20/20 Campaign to encourage more racial and gender diversity on corporate boards.,
She said the issue had not changed since she campaigned 30 years ago. “Obviously this is not an isolated case”.
“How do black people get into an organisation like the BBC, the mainstream press?”. She advised:”If you want to be heard, hit the bottom line? For me it’s….get a bit radical”, though she stopped just short of advising people not to pay the licence fee.
Lucy Pilkington, an experienced Channel 4 and BBC broadcasting executive and currently a founding partner of independent Sugar Films, (with an emphasis on diversity) chaired the meeting, saying Alfred’s experience was “such a powerful and shocking story”.
Alfred who has a master’s degree from the Columbia Postgraduate School of Journalism, New York, after studying politics at the LSE, had interned for the BBC while in America, and worked at the UN, the Daily Beast and Fortune. But she was unable to land a job interview at the BBC on her return to London on 2011, and in subsequent attempts, despite being very flexible in the fifteen jobs she hunted down. She was visiting London on a break from her current job as the presenter for Good Morning Nigeria, and an investigative documentary weekly, 30 Minutes.
She said:“ Anyone who ever applied for a job at the BBC will know how horrible the application is, you really have got to invest a lot of time. When you get the first no, you think something has obviously gone wrong, I kept trying and trying and trying and it never worked out. There was no feedback, just an automatic rejection. If it’s a no, it’s a no”.
“I had people from the BBC get in touch with me after Simon’s speech, I always get the same (response), why has this happened, you’d be great, you’d fit in… so I think okay, but you don’t even (give me) the chance to sit down for an interview”.
“I have met so many people who just say, forget the BBC, there is no point, no way in. When I first went to Nigeria, I thought, let me get these extra skills, on a flagship daily show, it should mean if I come back, (with a show reel) it will be, oh, you can do it. But it seems like an unattainable dream, what is the magic formula to get in?”
“It’s so hard to know, all these applications, (they) need to short list somehow, I can’t and couldn’t work out what is it that is missing, to the point I can’t be in that pile” (for an interview).
“ I know I am not the only person trying to get a job in major broadcasting companies, especially the BBC. We are paying for the BBC. Look at private companies like Sky doing a much better job than the BBC. It just feels like they should be doing a lot better. They don’t have to give me a job. The BBC is good with training and apprentices, but if at the end of it no job comes out of it, what is the point?”
“Someone I met from the BBC, an influential person, last week, he was telling me, he’s not sure why I’m not getting a job, he offered to mentor me, then I later discovered some of the jobs I was applying for were in his Empire, when I found that out I thought, he’s just charming me…….”
Dr Thompson responded by saying: “It’s absolutely shocking. Some things just shouldn’t be allowed. For me that kind of feedback needs to be challenged as far up as we can challenge it, up to the BBC Trust. Any kind of policy…. needs to be started at the top and worked through”
She advised the audience to conduct an experiment, applying with a very English name and see what happens. “Camilla Hughes, Camilla Winterbottom. Jonty is very popular. See if you get a phone call back. Because institutions like this, people in there pull people in related to them, friends, who look like them”.
“The only way to change it is for us to get a bit radical”. She quoted Albury’s article of July 3 published in the media guardian which suggested adopting the American Independence slogan: “No Taxation without Representation”.
“We are still paying the taxes and if you want to be heard you have to hit their bottom line. If they can feel the difference of us not paying that fee then they are going to start thinking about it seriously. Whether we directly approach the BBC, lobby Government, BBC Trust…. we need to make our feelings known, to make that change”
“Whether withholding licence fees – I’m not advocating we all end up in prison – there are things we need to do as a community to make our views known”. She also suggested adopting the change.org approach, by collecting 100,000 signatures so the Government will have to discuss it. “We have to be seen to be taking control of our destiny, we can’t just sit here and moan”.
In the subsequent discussion, first to speak, Jeff Bannis, a graduate in film and TV in the 1990s said: “ I did go on to work there, trained as an assistant producer, I was told you’re not a BBC person “.
He said the BBC was “shallow and unreflective of the incredible changes that have happened in this country last few decades”. It needed to be brought “kicking and screaming for its own sake into the modern era”. He backed Lenny Henry’s campaign for ring fenced funds as “a very solid plank to campaign on”.
Kafiya Hussein, of Somalian parents, a graduate of Bristol University, was interviewed for a BBC Journalism course, but did not get selected. She is writing for several specialist web sites. She was critical of the poor reporting about Somalia, the “weird narrow frame” from which it is depicted, often by journalists in Nairobi. She said a friend on a BBC scheme, who wears a hijab, was told by one of her broadcast idols” you can’t go on TV like that”.
Pijeet Aujla, a freelance development producer on a mentoring scheme with Channel 4 said it did better than the BBC, she was matched up with a commissioner, to discover more about the commissioning process, “I’m glad to be on it, though it is a bit patronising”.
Letitiah Obiri, graduate of the London College of Communications described how the BBC launched new diversity scheme, and came to the college urging everyone to apply.“I filled out the application, only one person got a call back. No feedback was the hard part. Feedback would have been really helpful…. The culture of the BBC, on TV, comes across as very elite, Oxbridge, old white men”. She works in marketing and copywriting.
David Osei tried to bring a more rounded view to the event. He said that “Diversity schemes, when they are initiated, and the product is more white faces , that might because a person from Middlesborough (is chosen). They need to be more specific. Withdrawing the licence fee, that’s an opportunity for people from diverse groups to create their own brands and media strands, do something yourself, you’ve got your own audiences who know where to find you”.
But others thought it was a shame, to walk away from the BBC which can put content in front of people.
Waris Islam, an experienced television director and writer said. “I want to work on the biggest platform, the BBC. My skill set is directing great drama, I’ve done high volume soaps, Channel 4, written drama series.” But he described how he had been passed over for a drama by an executive who told him he didn’t have enough experience, only to find the next week they had hired someone from a film school with no experience, who found himself as the only non white person on a production, apart from the security guard. “The interview process is very ambiguous, mid level producers take people they have an affinity with. I’ve been told I don’t have enough experience”. The key issue of earning a living was raised by a representative of the not for profit Media Diversified website, which promotes BAME writers, and in March started a Media Directory. “ We are struggling with sustainability, we can’t pay writers”, she said, and broadcasters, while using it, expected it to be free.
The discussion included views on whether the BBC is becoming irrelevant as the media fragments, and people find themselves not represented in its output. Alfred pointed out the BBC was in danger of losing the younger audience, Others pointed to the BBC’s internal belief it was doing quite well, fixing the problem with a generation of BAME producers, presenters.
Albury concluded the event by advising people to contribute to the House of Lords Communications Committee, which is asking for views on the BBC Charter renewal, which it will publish, and to lobby the Government. “Clearly talking to the BBC is a waste of time, talking to House of Lords and the Government is the way to get heard”.
Maggie Brown is a leading media journalist, has written for a wide range of publications including the Observer, Guardian, Independent and Broadcast. Maggie is the author of “A Licence to be Different – The Story of Channel Four” and has a column in The Stage.