Media: Wanted - a director general who can lead the BBC out of the imperial past

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The Independent Culture
While the governors of the BBC decide who should be the next director general of the corporation, the interminable games of power are played out. Leaks, deals, whispering campaigns and other trivia have taken up much of the attention. We know that Alan Yentob once wore shoes (or was it socks?) that didn't match, that Tony Hall wears unexciting spectacles and that Greg Dyke has many friends in high places and many enemies too. We have also been subjected to the predictable rows over digital broadcasting, dumbing down and whether the BBC can bring Dennis Potter back to earth.

But where are the bigger questions about the future? Which candidate will steer the BBC towards a proper recognition of they way in which this nation has been transformed since the war, and the complex, globalised world in which we now live? At present the BBC is failing to project a multiracial view of the nation, and has been abysmal at creating a new international agenda for itself. To hear obsessive accounts of how many Britons died in a disaster is not global thinking.

This is equally true for the rest of the British media, of course, but the BBC is paid for by black, Asian and white cosmopolitan Britons through the licence fees. Now I write as someone who is frequently on the BBC (and people never stop reminding me of this - I wonder if they do the same to Mark Lawson and Melvyn Bragg?) and as a devotee of the World Service, which has played a pivotal role in the collective histories of post-war immigrants. Yet today there is a feeling that the institution is not what it could and should be at the end of the 20th century.

There has been some progress. Just ten years ago, black people were twilight folk who cleaned and cooked for white staff. Today they make up 8 per cent of the workforce and include exceptional journalists such as George Alagiah, Rageh Omaar and Rita Chakrabarti. Refined white journalists like Fergal Keene can communicate about our changing world with depth and respect, and the BBC gets properly excited over race issues and the anniversaries of big events such as the arrival of the Windrush.

But look closely at the programmes where real influence is exerted, and it becomes clear that they do not reflect the diversity of this nation. The news values and perspectives which dominate ensure that a British Asian nanny in the US in the same situation as Louise Woodward gets scarce attention in comparison. They ensure that British Muslims do not feature in the long discussions over Kosovo, despite the fact that the community is deeply affected and has raised millions of pounds in aid money. Alternatively, how much coverage would the six British men currently incarcerated in Yemen be receiving if they were white?

Vast numbers of BBC journalists were flown to Hong Kong to weep as the flag fluttered down. For millions of Britons, including those from Hong Kong, this exaggerated requiem for the Empire felt unseemly and irrelevant. When the 50th anniversary of the birth of Indian independence was marked by the BBC, no modern Indians were deemed capable of telling us about it. Correspondent, a brilliant strand on BBC2, often tackles the oppression of women in countries such as Pakistan. But why do they not also tell the story of the Pakistani feminists, who are the bravest and most inspiring women in the world today?

The high-powered political discussions need to examine how they are dealing with the issues of the day, and who is being called upon to debate ideas. And diversity in the Arts programmes should by now mean more than intimacy with Salman Rushdie. Lifestyle programmes also need to undergo a similar reassessment. Where are the Asian chefs on the BBC? Would it not be interesting to see how an African Briton decorates his or her home?

Monitor the output of Radio 4, as I did for my forthcoming book Who Do We Think We Are?, and it is quite shocking how white the influential programmes remain. Programmes such as Analysis, The Moral Maze, the Reith Lectures and others rarely feature black and Asian voices, and lack the imagination to include other world views in the way that Woman's Hour, for example, does.

Last year I was benevolently given two discussion programmes for the Any Questions slot. For the first time ever, a multiracial studio audience gathered to discuss such mainstream subjects as sex, social responsibility and even Thatcherism. At the end of one recording session, the white producers swooped down on the guests, picking them out as if they were chocolates in a box. They had never seen so many such people in Broadcasting House before, they said.

Quite. The World Service, too, needs to break from its imperial role and create a new reputation based on how well it reflects the world as it actually is today. Ironically, it is the much-maligned News 24 which has become the showcase for modern multi-culturalism and internationalism.

Hall deserves credit for quietly pushing this vision. The programme which epitomises the best of this is Dateline London, which has foreign and British journalists discussing current affairs. Many of us have appeared on it, and you always come away with your views challenged in unexpected ways. It shouldn't be - but it is - extraordinary to hear erudite journalists from Russia, the US, India, Africa, and the Arab nations talking about Kosovo, Blair, or the bomb in Soho.

Ironically, this programme is now under threat. That such decisions can be made proves how deep-rooted the problems are. They must now be confronted. If this is not done, the BBC will cease to be the institution that today's diverse Britain and the new global society deserve.

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