Goodness gracious me! The BBC is still a white, middle-class ghetto

Click to follow
The Independent Online

My mother, 80, has been thinking about what she will miss when she dies. In the list, among her beloved children and grandchildren, are Michael Buerk and Nick Ross. For this Asian pensioner, who speaks only rudimentary English, these two men represent the best there is because they are on the BBC.

My mother, 80, has been thinking about what she will miss when she dies. In the list, among her beloved children and grandchildren, are Michael Buerk and Nick Ross. For this Asian pensioner, who speaks only rudimentary English, these two men represent the best there is because they are on the BBC.

The experience of decolonisation, post-colonial politics, immigration and racism has left most black and Asian Britons quite rightly suspicious of Perfidious Albion, but through all the years of reckoning, the BBC has retained its place in our hearts. We love and trust the institution in this country and across Africa, the Caribbean and the subcontinent. But the relationship, alas, has been one-sided, the love mostly unrequited. The BBC takes our affection and money and yet ignores us and the post-war transformations which changed forever what it means to be British.

This was the theme of a keynote speech I delivered last week to the corporation's governors, the Director General, policy makers and influential black and Asian Britons whose disaffection was palpable. It was, for me, a depressing task, because I do know that insiders - black and white - have tried to get the beast moving on these issues, and because the BBC is a precious treasure. But whether one is talking about equality in employment or diversity of output, the picture you see is pretty dismal. This is simply not good enough during a time of massive media revolution with howling commercial hyenas at the door. For its own survival, if for no other higher reason, the corporation has got to wake up to this multiracial and cosmopolitan world where white, middle-class Britons can no longer hog all the stories. You only had to compare the coverage of the suffocated 58 Chinese immigrants and the deaths of the young people in the Australian hostel to see just how we are being failed.

Yes, I know we have that dependable George Alagiah (who chaired the event and was impressively bold in his own criticisms), and that the Windrush anniversary was marked with many programmes, and that East, Black Britain and the brilliant Goodness Gracious Me are now regulars. But is that it? Is this all the BBC can show for the millions of pounds we have paid in licence money over five decades?

We should, suggested the usually cautious Baroness Shreela Flather, negotiate a rebate. I think that things actually got worse under those two dour gentlemen, James Boyle and Sir John Birt, and sadly, the cheeky chappie Radio 5 Live has, so far, not shown the old fogeys how it should be done. The station seems to have no shortage of star spots for failed Tory politicians but cannot seem to locate any black broadcasters to front its programmes.

Incredibly, Radio 4 is today whiter than the white it was five years ago. There is no black or Asian Melvyn Bragg or Sue McGregor. Go though the key political slots and you may hear Paul Boateng or Keith Vaz being interrogated but that is it.

Class bias is slowly changing with people such as Arthur Smith moving in. Scots, Welsh and Irish voices thankfully also seem to have settled in. But we must peer in but not stay to define what is being produced. Little wonder then that we still get programmes about a white man discovering poverty in Calcutta, the fat-cat lives of the wives of British diplomats and From Your Own Correspondent where intrepid topiwallahs risk all to tell us about the latest barbarisms thousands of miles from this nice place. As for television, the list would fill this page. How many black and Asian people have been on Great Railway Journeys? Why are holiday programmes all fronted by toothy blondes who are clueless about the problems of travelling to certain countries if you are a black or Asian tourist? Do we not garden? Or buy clothes? Indian food is the nation's favourite, but no Asian chef can be trusted in a studio so we have to leave it to Delia or Jamie. Why not cast a stylish black dude to talk about cars instead of the tiresome Jeremy Clarkson? Why are we not seen more often on Question Time?

I should say at once that the print sector has an even more abysmal record and that nothing is being done to redress this. In contrast, those now in charge at the BBC - Greg Dyke, Jenny Abramsky and Tony Hall - seem genuinely eager to tackle these failures. So here's hoping.

My arguments have little to do with old-fashioned multiculturalism where institutions need to be seen to be doing the worthy thing for "minorities". These changes are essential because they show the face of modern Britain as a nation unafraid of diversity and confident in a fast-changing, globalised world. And this is what the BBC needs to understand.

Comments