Marcus Ryder: UK Networks Cannot Continue To Let Diversity Executives Slip Through Their Fingers — Guest Column

Editor’s note: Marcus Ryder is a veteran UK and international news journalist and editor, academic and executive. He is among the most-respected figures working in British media diversity and his campaigning work as the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity has been influential throughout British entertainment circles. Yesterday, he was named CEO of the Film and TV Charity. Like our recent guest columnist John Ridley, Ryder harbors concerns companies are turning their backs on anti-racism and diversity pledges made since the death of George Floyd but here he argues the issues date back much further than that.

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Earlier this month, it was revealed the BBC’s Head of Creative Diversity, Joanna Abeyie, was leaving the corporation, although for many people working in the area of media diversity her departure had been an open secret for a few weeks prior.

The news followed the announcements just weeks earlier that four high level diversity and inclusion executives at major US media companies — Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney, Netflix and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — would be leaving their respective positions.

I am reminded of Noel Coward’s famous words on parental loss: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” It is a bold man who tries to improve on a Noel Coward quote but in this case I would add, “…to lose your aunts and uncles at the same time would suggest a murderer in the family.”

So what is happening in the world of media diversity? Is it just an ‘unfortunate’ coincidence, have media companies been ‘careless’ in their approach to diversity and inclusion, or is there a ‘serial killer’ stalking these diversity executives?

The headlines following the high profile departures in the US would suggest that many people are worried that it is the third option, with companies not only killing off these positions but reneging on diversity and anti-racism initiatives that were launched in the wake on the murder of George Floyd.

The Financial Times led with ‘Exits of diversity executives shake faith in US companies’ commitments,’ whilethe LA Times went with the headline ‘High-profile exits spark fears that Hollywood diversity pledges are just ‘PR’.’

However, when it comes to the UK, and the BBC in particular, I would suggest that there is a fourth option that is taking place, which requires us to look back further than just the past few weeks and even before the global Black Lives Matter protests.

To extend the Noel Coward quote to possible breaking point, “Other families look more appealing.”

Since 2019 the BBC has seen the departure of at least seven senior diversity and inclusion executives including; Tunde Ogungbesan (Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Succession), Anne Foster (Head of Workforce Diversity), Miranda Wayland (Deputy Head of Diversity), June Sarpong (Director of Creative Diversity), Jackie Christie (Race Lead on BBC Human Resources), Nina Goswami (Creative Diversity Lead) and, most recently, Abeyie. Interestingly, the vast majority of them have either left the large broadcasters or gone to work for non-media organisations ranging from Clifford Chance to Saudi Aramco.

On top of that, the BBC’s diversity department has been restructured at least three times since 2016, with nearly all the current key positions being external appointments with little or no previous media experience.

“Less Than Amazing” Results

Unsurprisingly with such a high staff turnover, constant restructuring, and a lack of industry knowledge and institutional memory, the results have been underwhelming.

If one looks at the UK national census for England and Wales ethnic diversity in the general population from 2011-2021, it has increased 4.9% (from 14.1% to 19%). At the same time, the BBC has increased the ethnic diversity of its workforce by 4.1% percentage points (from 12.3% to 16.6%). Despite all the money that the BBC has put into various diversity initiatives and policies, its non-white workforce diversity has grown at a slower rate than the population as a whole. 

Or in other words: In relative terms, ethnic diversity at the BBC has gone backwards and, all things being equal, there is a strong argument that it would have been better not to have even had a diversity department. And while I have focused on the BBC — primarily because is is incredibly open about its data and job positions — anecdotally other UK broadcasters suffer from similarly high turnovers and “less than amazing” results. 

Now, I am not advocating that the BBC, or any other British broadcaster, should get rid of their diversity departments. What this points to is a failure in how UK media approaches diversity.

The BBC, and other British broadcasters, must acknowledge that their approach to diversity is not working. The first step in achieving that is retaining the people who have first-hand experience of dealing with the problem. Joanna is simply the latest in a long line of diversity departures. 

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