As a former BBC executive, I believe there is really only one solution to all of the corporation’s ills

Study after academic study shows that institutions come to better decisions when they have better diversity

Marcus Ryder
Tuesday 01 September 2020 09:25 BST
Tim Davie to replace Tony Hall as BBC director-general

As the new BBC director general, Tim Davie officially takes over the reigns of what is undoubtedly the most important media organisation in the UK. But in some ways, it is also the most important media organisation in the world. I know some people might baulk at the latter suggestion but the influence the BBC has over the global conversation and political agenda is almost unparalleled.

I worked at the BBC for 24 years but for the last four years after leaving the corporation I’ve lived in China. Chinese people have a very simple way of describing their country; “Zhong guo hen da”, which literally means “China is very big”. I know, it hardly sounds profound, but the meaning is multi-layered.

China has the largest population in the world, at 1.3bn. It is the second largest country by landmass at 9,326,410km2,. And it is the second largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $14.14trn (although by some measurements China now has the largest economy).

This is weirdly relevant for the incoming director general because when Chinese people say “Zhong guo hen da” what they really mean is, until you fully grasp the size of the country you cannot understand it.

Similarly, the “BBC hen da”.

In terms of annual revenue it is only the second largest UK broadcaster, with just under £5bn – Sky is the largest – and is dwarfed once you compare it to the likes of US players such as Disney or Netflix.

But it is the largest broadcaster in the world in terms of its number of employees.

BBC News is also the largest news operation in the world with over 48 news gathering bureaux. And every week almost half a billion people (468.2m) watch, listen or read its content.

It is important to understand the BBC’s size to understand the current problems facing Tim Davie on his first official day. And they are multiple.

He has a looming financial crisis. The corporation has been haemorrhaging £35m a month making up the shortfall of the government not paying the over-75s’ licence fees.

Long term, this could be just a drop in the ocean compared to the money the corporation could potentially lose due to the decriminalisation of not paying the license fee and whether there is public support for what is effectively a “media poll tax”.

It faces losing its cherished connections with the country’s communities as it recently announced that 450 jobs would be cut in English regional TV news and current affairs, local radio and online news. And more will follow in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It is at risk of losing a generation of viewers as figures show younger people abandoning it for the other forms of media.

Following the Brexit referendum and subsequent coverage, its ability to deliver accurate and impartial news is being questioned like never before.

And in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent debacle surrounding its use of the N-word, it is at risk of losing the trust and confidence of its non-white (and international) audience for years to come.

Like every former BBC executive, I could easily fall into the habit of becoming an “armchair director general” and pontificate on how Tim Davie should address these and many other, issues. But the truth is no one person knows how to solve the BBC’s problems.

The BBC is “hen da”. It is too big for one person to solve. And that is why I believe there is really only one solution to all of the corporation’s ills: increase diversity.

Davie needs fresh solutions grounded in real experiences and knowledge if he has any hope in devising new solutions to new and impending crises.

Academic study after study shows that institutions come to better decisions when they have better diversity. A Boston Consulting Group study showed that companies with more diverse management have 19 per cent higher revenues due to increased innovation. Another study by Peterson Institute for International Economics proved that companies with more women in the C-Suite suite positions are more profitable. And management consultant firm McKinsey recently published a report that found corporations that embrace gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 per cent more likely to experience above-average profitability.

And yet – despite its public pronouncements – the broadcaster has serious shortcomings when it comes to diversity. According to yet to be published figures by the BBC, but seen by the HuffPost, it has only 41 black people in its ranks of approximately 2,000 senior managers, and less than 1 per cent of its 319 most senior managers are black. As well as race, the BBC also acknowledges that it has serious diversity issues when it comes to class, disability and other underrepresented groups.

It was also recently revealed that despite the high profile creation of a director of creative diversity who sits on the BBC’s highest executive board, the powers of the role are limited, and has no remit to look at certain decisions affecting diversity made by news and current affairs for example. The division that has made two high profile U-turns in less than a year over race (the sanctioning of Naga Munchetty for expressing an opinion on Donald Trump’s tweet about four female politicians of colour and the use of the N-word).

But this is not about just one position and where someone with “diversity” in their job title comes in the corporate structure – remember the BBC is “hen da” – and no one person can solve its diversity problems. Diversity must be embedded throughout the organisation.

Tim Davie has a metaphorical in-tray overflowing with problems that need addressing. But to have a fighting chance of solving them he must be able to call on the best people to come up with new and fresh solutions. And all the research points in the same direction – he should start by rectifying the corporation’s biggest problem, and that is its diversity.

Marcus Ryder is the Chair of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity

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