The BBC should be proud of its discrimination

Five years ago, the idea of having women football reporters was almost unthinkable
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The Independent Online

As a row, the Blue Peter racism controversy has it all. There is a blonde former beauty queen. There is the terrible spectre of young minds being influenced. Regional, class and generational jealousies are involved, as are the responsibilities of our increasingly beleaguered public broadcaster. That reliable stand-by, political correctness, is waiting in the wings. Even the politics of Northern Ireland get a look-in.

As a row, the Blue Peter racism controversy has it all. There is a blonde former beauty queen. There is the terrible spectre of young minds being influenced. Regional, class and generational jealousies are involved, as are the responsibilities of our increasingly beleaguered public broadcaster. That reliable stand-by, political correctness, is waiting in the wings. Even the politics of Northern Ireland get a look-in.

It is no surprise that the cause of this spasm of public concern is that friend to the scandal sheets, Blue Peter, but, on this occasion, it is not the coke-sniffing or sexual adventures of its presenters and stars that are the problem.

Mr Dorian Wood, a retired teacher from Somerset and paid-up member of the awkward squad, noticed something odd about the way the programme advertised for a new presenter. The lucky candidate, Zoe Salmon, a former Miss Northern Ireland, had said in an interview that she had spotted an advertisement in her local paper. When Mr Wood looked into the matter, he discovered that there had been advertising in only four regional newspapers, two of which were based in Belfast and two in Scotland. Here was a case of discrimination, he said, and contacted the Commission for Racial Equality.

Gamely, the corporation has responded that it had in fact advertised both in The Stage and Disability Now but, for all its sensitivity to actors and the handicapped, it seems to have been caught bang to rights, favouring two particular regions above all others. "Crackpot political correctness" was at work, according to Mr Wood.

Reports of the row have revealed that, within a few weeks of starting her new job, Zoe Salmon had revealed herself to be accident-prone. Discussing a competition for the best designed livery for a Boeing aircraft, she suggested that the "best of British" might be represented by the proud symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster. A sociology professor from Strathclyde complained about the broadcast, arguing that even to mention the word "Ulster" breached the programme's guidelines.

A week later, Zoe was in trouble again when she recommended a design in another competition which dared to show the UK covered by a Union Jack.

It is a tricky business, this political correctness. One month a programme is criticised for spreading the seeds of British imperialism in young minds, the next it is being too specifically local. One moment, there is too much of the Union Jack, the next not enough.

But behind this latest objection lies a serious question. Is it the duty of any large corporation, particularly one involved in mass communication, to redress the balance of a culture which historically has given power and advantage to the white, middle-class and male - people like Mr Wood and me, for example?

Discrimination is unfair, of course, and a certain amount of apologetic hand-wringing will probably be required from the BBC to appease the usual regiment of complainers. But in a broader context, what they have done is not only rather sensible but also a good example of how it has taken to behaving like a public body prepared to lead rather than follow, looking for talent in new areas, even if that involves tipping the scales now and then.

Do we want Michael Grade, Mark "Biter" Thompson and their staff influencing national attitudes? I rather think we do. We need those in power to shake up sclerotic social attitudes and challenge preconceptions. Five years ago, to take a trivial example, the idea of having women football reporters was almost unthinkable. It was decided in various sports departments that to increase the number of female correspondents, to discriminate positively and ignore the objections of traditionalists, would be good business commercially and, almost by accident, socially. Today, only the most bone-headed of blokes would argue that football is too intrinsically male to be understood by Gaby Logan or Celina Hinchcliffe.

With accents, broadcasters are faced with a trickier problem. All sorts of ingrained prejudices are brought into play by the way a person happens to speak. Not long ago, a marketing survey revealed that the north-eastern accent was generally trusted by consumers (an attitude which the electoral efforts of Alan Milburn may help to change), while comedy regularly plays up to national stereotype, with the fey Irishness of Father Ted, the foul-mouthed Scottishness of Billy Connolly, the gentle, fatalistic Welsh jokiness of Rob Brydon's Keith Barret.

The BBC presumably think that the moment has come to counter these stereotypes. They have Jim Naughtie on the radio and the Welsh newsreader Huw Edwards on TV. Given that the public voices of Northern Ireland have been those of John Cole, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, they have wisely decided that Zoe Salmon presents a rather more attractive and contemporary image.

The most effective form of propaganda is one aimed at young viewers. If, while looking for children's TV presenters, the BBC is favouring dark skins over light, regional accents over received English, it is taking a brave stand of which it should not be in the slightest bit embarrassed. In fact, it deserves its own Blue Peter medal.

terblacker@aol.com

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