Race Matters

The challenge of diversity and (in)visibility in Public Service Broadcasting

By Dr Myria Georgiou

The misrepresentation and under-representation of UK’s cultural diversity in the media has hit the headlines again. As Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) is currently undergoing the most substantial review for a generation, cultural diversity debates now take on a new and urgent relevance. 

BBC especially is in the eye of the storm: critiqued for its past record and debated for its future direction. Ofcom reminds us in a recent report that:

“One of the main aims of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) is to represent diversity and alternative viewpoints, through programmes that reflect the lives of diverse groups of people and communities both within the UK and elsewhere, to make its audiences aware of the different cultures and viewpoints”.

But evidence does not agree.

Ofcom’s Public Service Broadcasting review revealed that more than half of black ethnic audiences feel under-represented and unfairly portrayed in mainstream broadcast media. The percentage of black ethnic audiences who felt that they were portrayed negatively is at 51% compared to 2% of all PSB viewers.
Dr Myria Georgiou
Dr Myria Georgiou

While the percentages are somehow lower among other ethnic groups, there is still a sense of misrepresentation or under-representation among them. For example, 34% of Asian PSB viewers felt that there was not enough representation of Asian minority people on Public Service Broadcasting.

These revelations follow other recent research on the negative trends in representation of BAME and other minority professionals in the media sector. More Black, Asian and minority ethnic media professionals resigned from the BBC last year since at least 2009.

Arguably, there is a connection between the limited inclusion of minority professional in the media and the findings of research commissioned by The Runnymede Trust. This study found that 78% of those asked felt that the way media portray ethnic minorities promotes racism; this opinion is also held among 76% of White respondents. 

What’s going on with the media? The evidence above is striking; it reveals negative trends rather than progress in terms of fair representation of minorities on, and behind, the screen. Such evidence is also critical at the present time and as Public Service Broadcasting is facing a great challenge for its future.

The BBC’s mission, values, scale and funding are currently under scrutiny. The government has already called for a ‘more precise’ BBC that doesn’t try to do everything. What would a ‘leaner BBC’ mean for diversity representation in the screen and behind the screen?

In the build-up to BBC’s Charter review, campaigners had already highlighted the worrying trends in the media. Lenny Henry became the frontman of this campaign. In what is now known as the 'Henry paper', he argues that, instead of dealing with the problem of under-representation and misrepresentation of black and ethnic minorities in British media, a startling number of so-called initiatives over the past have resulted in worsening diversity statistics.

So, what are the main reasons behind grim diversity statistics?

Unrepresentative media workforce – According to a report published by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), UK journalism is still dominated by middle class, white professionals. The Journalists at Work report, previously conducted in 2002, showed little change in these factors, with 94 per cent of journalists in the country of a white ethnic background, a drop of only two per cent between 2002 and 2012.

This is despite the fact that more than half of all journalists work in London and the South-East, the most diverse areas of the country. A number of initiatives hope to reverse this trend. TV Collective organises training, workshops and networking events online and offline, while Creative Access provides opportunities for paid internships in the creative industries for young people of graduate (or equivalent standard) from underrepresented black, Asian and other non-white minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME). Their aim is to improve their chances of securing full-time jobs and, in the longer term, increase diversity and address the imbalance in the media sector.  

Reproduction of (un)conscious biases – Media organisations, including the BBC, have come to recognise biases in decision-making when it comes to employment and programme production. Biases in professional practice can have direct consequences for audiences who pull away from PSB and for professionals who struggle for sustained employment in the media.

MEDIANE BOX, a tool for journalists, media managers and journalism trainers, sponsored by the Council of Europe and the European Commission aims to engage media professions in reflexive thinking about their everyday practices and decision-making and the impact of such practices on diversity inclusiveness. As emphasised in this project, diversity is not an add-on to professional practice – it is a reflection of the society we live in.

Lack of investment in diversity – The BBC’s diversity adviser Lady Grey-Thompson recently argued that the BBC needs to spend around £100 million if it wants to achieve true diversity. Currently the BBC has a BAME fund of £2.1m a year.

Further reductions to BBC’s income – especially through the changes to the licence fee – are not going to help. Furthermore, if BBC is to shrink in light of its review, disinvestment from niche programming addressing minority groups is likely to take place. Similarly, there is little investment in minority talent, training and retainment. Most black and minority ethnic staff at the BBC are concentrated in the lower pay grades, while there is a constant problem with retainment. BAME staff account for only 6.3 per cent of staff at senior manager level but 12.2 per cent of the lowest pay level

What is to be done?

While this is a complex problem, the BBC needs to plan for specific and targeted action as it undergoes its review and as it defends its values and public remit. These actions spread across the areas of production, representation, and consumption of its programmes.


    • Recruitment strategies to expand across different domains, including ethnic media and diverse educational institutions across all parts of the country.

    • Regular review of BAME staff retainment and career progression, followed by targeted actions and managerial accountability for not meeting targets.

    • Support for talented producers, actors and presenters of different backgrounds and encouragement of innovative programming ideas; commissioning editors to represent the diversity of the country in terms of ethnicity, class and origin.

Media representation:

    • Monitoring of programmes within PBS and provisions for independent periodical reviews in collaboration with research institutions; monitoring’s aim to be developmental in regards to furthering fair representation of British society’s diversity.

    • Investment in diverse, including niche, productions to meet the inevitably diverse needs of the country’s population.

    • Investment in providing access to programmes in a range of platforms – different members of the audience are more likely to engage with different kinds of media and technologies.


    • Periodical audience research to monitor who is represented and who is underrepresented among the audiences and users of BBC services; to develop an understanding of where minorities go to get access to programmes in terms of platforms and niche interests.

    • Employment of qualitative research methods in engaging with diverse audiences and understanding the range of their concerns, interests and needs.

    • Research on patterns of participation in PSB’s interactive services and action taken to enhance diverse participation in these services among all sections of the population.

Myria Georgiou is Associate Professor in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has developed the Council of Europe/EU-sponsored self-monitoring tool for diversity inclusiveness in the media MEDIANE BOX with Mediane Manager, Reynald Blion.  
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