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02 January 2012

Diversions on Diversity

Every broadcast employer in the country believes in diversity.

It's normally enshrined in the mission statement. At the BBC they run training courses on it. Sky made it very clear to BJTC colleges that they expect us to work harder to train a diverse range of individuals in multi-platform news skills. Bauer, Global, GMG ... all champions of diversity.

Actually defining diversity is a bit more difficult. Everyone is now just about agreed that diversity should go beyond simplistic definitions of race and physical ability; a few black faces in the newsroom, and maybe a wheelchair user or two, isn't enough.

Social background is also now routinely accepted as a measure of diversity, as (to some degree) is a candidate's home postcode. The Beeb once memorably summed up the aim as being to have newsrooms full of people who 'look and sound like the people who watch and listen to the BBC'.

If only it was so straightforward.

The starting point of agreement has to be that too many applicants for newsroom roles come from privileged backgrounds.

Just getting to the point where one can apply for a broadcast journalist position generally requires a good honours degree (Cost, from next September: £27K in fees plus 3 years of living costs and no earnings) plus, for many, a postgrad qualification (another £5K or thereabouts, plus living costs and loss of earnings) and then, for just about everyone, there's an indeterminate period of anything from a few months to a couple of years spent breaking in; a period of unpaid work experience, erratic freelance shifts, and no security.

Old timers on a salary and a pension tend to romanticise that bit, but for those without personal resources that uncertainty can be (along with the recent tripling of student loans) a daunting obstacle to entering their chosen profession.

There are other, more insidious and seldom publicised hurdles to overcome. Try, just try, getting a first freelance shift as a broadcast journalist without a driving licence and (for many stations) personal transport to get to the studio at 5am. (Cost: £ substantial).

Is it any wonder that the majority of applicants for newsroom roles, therefore, tend to be white, middle class and disproportionately from the economically prosperous south east?

Brave decisions such as the BBC's investment in Salford certainly help shift the balance but much, much more industry diversification away from London is essential; at least it is if employers really believe in diversity.

The group who, in my experience, suffer most in any downturn are those who can be loosely categorised as 'midde aged career changers', with 'middle aged' in this context meaning anything from about thirty upwards.

Such candidates, whether for an HE course or a newsroom position, bring a wealth of experience from whatever role they undertook before their news training. Experience that the various 'interchangeable Emmas' lack. Experience that makes them, to coin a phrase, 'look and sound like the people who watch and listen to the BBC' (or any other broadcaster for that matter).

If one's only life experience prior to starting work on a newsdesk is school, sixth form, school newspaper, uni, campus radio station, accredited course and work ex, with maybe a bit of waiting tables during the summer break before your trip to Caracas, no wonder it's sometimes difficult to reach West Yorkshire listeners in their forties and fifties with relevant, original stories.

I've had mixed experience with 'mature career changers'.

They come from all walks of life; I've trained a former office manager, a BT engineer, social workers, teachers, ex-military types from the Navy and the RAF, former club DJs and receptionists. Some have done exceptionally well, winning awards. setting up independent production companies and, ultimately, achieving the dream. A couple have gone into politics, on different sides of the party divide. Some have found it harder to make the transition to news. A few, sadly, have been exploited; put in real effort only to crash in flames. Especially when times are hard.

And that's the rub.

When times are this tough, employers are less likely to take a risk. They want a candidate who's oven ready; training on the job went out years ago, wannabe journos now have to learn their craft at their own expense prior to seeking a newsroom role. But in austerity Britain, editors are much more likely to go with the candidate who is most like them, or more often like they were ten years ago. Those who are genuinely diverse lose out. Even more so, it's the listeners and viewers who lose out from the insights such journalists could bring.

I feel an affinity with many of the 'diverse' candidates who end up on my blue office sofa telling me why they should be a journalist.

Back in the 'Life On Mars' years of the 70s I was the first in our family to get a place in grammar school (remember them?). The first to do A Levels (remember when they meant something?). The first to get a University degree (but no honours; that would have meant a fourth year of study). We lived in what today would be called 'social housing'; then it was just a council house. Dad was a motor mechanic, mum was a clerical assistant.

I remember what the BBC felt like then, and how impossible a job seemed to be. Commercial radio felt a bit more egalitarian, so I found a niche in Bradford, surely one of the most diverse cities in Britain, and I stayed there for 22 years.

I like to think I can empathise with what it's like to be confronted by a glass ceiling, and I've been as careful as I know how to nurture and make allowance for candidates from non-typical backgrounds.

It's a two way street.

It's simply not good enough (as one very major employer tried a few years back) to pass the buck, attempting to make diversity the Colleges' collective problem.  This employer wrote to course directors threatening to withhold newsroom placements unless we [the trainers] did more to provide a steady stream of palpably diverse candidates to populate their newsrooms and thereby achieve the corporate goal. A pretty blunt stick with which to attempt such a delicate operation.

If newsrooms want true diversity they must also accept attitudes and behaviour from trainees which challenge the norms they are used to.

Of course candidates must be able to do the job; if they have an accredited qualification they have already shown they have the technical, legal, note-taking and writing skills required to satisfy the BJTC or the NCTJ.

That doesn't mean they will share the tastes, lifestyle choices or social outlook of the editor. They may well be less confident than those for whom good manners and deportment were on the 3rd year school curriculum.

Diversity requires effort on both sides, not just from the applicant. Candidates must adapt to what employers require, but employers must also adapt to deal with individuals who may be more challenging to integrate into an homogeneous team.

A diverse newsroom isn't bland. It's more difficult to manage. It may need (for example) more accommodation of carers, not just of careers and egos. The style guide may need revision to allow expressions outside the mainstream.

Listeners and viewers might even be shocked, occasionally, by the differences that emerge.

But in the longer term they'll be better served by such an operation. Are the employers of austerity Britain 2012 up to that challenge?

Let me know what you think, and about your experiences (good or bad).

2 comments:

  1. Try, just try, getting a first freelance shift as a broadcast journalist without a driving licence and (for many stations) personal transport to get to the studio at 5am. (Cost: £ substantial).

    This is so true. It takes me back to 2004, when I was attempting to get work for the first time. I was taking lessons, but had no car of my own, and managed to get a few shifts at one notable Bolton based radio station. It all ended in flames because the Ed at the time was concerned about me having to take a coach to Manchester Victoria, wait an hour, then take another coach to Bolton, then walk another half-hour to the station to start my shift. After my shift I would then head back to Manchester to start a traffic and travel reporting shift that started at 2pm and finished at 8pm, before heading back home on the train.

    Predictably, exhaustion set in, and after a particularly fraught shift, I was given the call that "you have made too many mistakes" and let go. However, I rather suspect that the issue of transport was also too big an issue to let lie.

    Fast-forward to 2008 and having passed my test, and invested in a car, it was most 'amusing' to drive to a shift and be paid £35 for the shift, but have to spend the same in petrol. Ironically this time around stations that I hadn't ever worked for started to call me because of a developed positive reputation, but transport costs and other work commitments let me down.

    On the positive side, I gained plenty of hands-on experience, but on the other hand it is hardly a way to make a living.

    The BBC pays slightly more (and I can take a train to get there for 9am in most places) but the issue of flexibility still raises its ugly head at times.

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  2. Hi and thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Your story sounds very familiar; my postgraduate trainees at Leeds Trinity can experience similar issues if they try to enter the industry with no licence.

    On the other hand I'd be very reluctant to make possession of a licence an entry condition for the course; that's only a step away from requiring potential trainees to actually own a car, and both conditions fly in the face of any serious commitment to diversity.

    I just try to make it very clear to applicants the issues they will face competing for work.

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