Channel 4 can have it both ways

I have always wondered about the logic of those who worship at the altar of political correctness who witter on relentlessly about discrimination being bad, but then somehow think it is acceptable do discriminate in the name of political correctness – in fact they positively encourage it. Last week, Philip Davies MP, Parliamentary Spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness, decided to take Channel 4 to task over their boastfully discriminatory “equality and diversity” practices during the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s review of the station’s Annual Report. Present to answer questions on this particular outing were the Chairman of Channel 4, Lord Burns, the Chief Executive, David Abraham and the Chief Operating Officer, Anne Bulford.

It turns out that Channel 4 employs more ethnic minority staff than the official percentage taken from the whole UK population but still offer special programmes to ethnic minority applicants to encourage them to join Channel 4. This way of legally discriminating on the basis of race is meant to be used to offer opportunities to “under-represented” sections of communities within workforces but, quite clearly, using Channel 4’s own figures it is evident that the whole section of the community they are targeting is actually over-represented.

The exchange went something like this:

Philip Davies: 55% of your employees are women and 12% are from ethnic minorities, which compares with 8% of the public at large. Do you have a target for how many women and ethnic minorities you think should be working for Channel 4?

Ms Bulford: We do not have a target in relation to women because the gender balance across the channel is in balance and that works well. In terms of ethnicity, because we are based in Central London we would expect to see our ethnicity at a higher level than the general population at large. In particular at higher, more senior levels of staff across the channel we want to see the proportion of people from BME background in particular increase and have been working hard on that.

Philip Davies: Increase to what?

Ms Bulford: I would have to look for that. I have that.

Mr Abraham: This is a process. We have recently established a monitoring system for recruitment. Representation of ethnic minorities amongst the permanent staff is currently 12% and in 2008 it was 11%, so it has gone up very slightly. The skill set figure for the AB sector as a whole is 6.7% on the 2009 census. Representation of those with disabilities amongst permanent staff is currently around 1%, so that is obviously low, and we will be addressing that both on and off the screen with our major initiative around the Paralympics. In the last three years we have trained over 120 people from BME or disabled backgrounds.

Philip Davies: I have read all that in the report. What I am getting at is that you are a national broadcaster, you are not a London broadcaster. Your proportion of staff from ethnic minorities is 12% against the national figure of around 8%, so nobody could criticise Channel 4, it seems to me, for being under-represented amongst ethnic minorities, yet in your report you talk about Channel 4 offering bursaries to African, Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students on a City University diploma. Was that open only to people who were African, Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani? Are those bursaries available to nobody else?

Mr Abraham: I would need to check the detail on that and come back to you.

Philip Davies: If you could let me know. Do you think it is appropriate for a national broadcaster with the figures that I have just quoted? If they were open only to those people do you think that would be appropriate? Do you not think that these things should be open to everybody based on merit and ability and inclination?

Mr Abraham: I am quite certain that those criteria were used. We would certainly want to see society represented in its diversity across our screens and in our content. Indeed, that is written into our remit. The details of this particular programme we will indeed come back to you on.

Philip Davies: 65% of participants on Channel 4’s work-related learning programme were from a diverse ethnic background. 65% against a population of 8%. Does that strike you as being a broadly representative level?

Mr Abraham: We are part of an industry initiative at a leadership level in seeking to address the general level of under-representation that exists in terms of minority interests across the whole industry and in certain instances one obviously needs to make focused efforts and focused initiatives in these areas. It is part of an overall effort to make sure that we are accountable to the make-up of society overall.

Philip Davies: There are mentoring opportunities for six individuals partnering with Operation Black Vote, presumably they were available for ethnic minority people only. It seems to me that if you look at your figures the people who are under-represented in Channel 4 are white people, not people from ethnic minorities. It seems a bit bizarre that an organisation that is over-represented amongst ethnic minorities is trying to do more of these things. What about white people? Are you not interested in employing white people at Channel 4?

Ms Bulford: There are two separate tasks. There are the people we employ in Horseferry Road and there is also the representation of society at large in terms of the overall industry and the production base that we draw from. There is widespread under-representation of those groups in terms of the production community and part of our job in terms of bringing on those bursaries and those training programmes is to help with access to those people who might otherwise not have that opportunity.

Philip Davies: On the same page as all of this stuff, it says here: ‘Channel 4 is an equal opportunities employer and does not discriminate on grounds of sex, sexual orientation, marital status, race, colour, ethnic origin, disability, age or political or religious belief’. We can all sign up to that, that is what I am sure we all wholeheartedly agree with, but on the same page as that you have got all these schemes which it seems to me do discriminate on the grounds of race and ethnicity. How do you marry those two things up?

Lord Burns: I understand the point you are making, but in almost every activity that I have been involved in when it comes to more creative work, senior work, those issues which are more highly skilled and those things which are more senior, it is actually a problem of under-representation that one gets. By and large programmes are put in place generally industry-wide to try to nudge things along not in terms of discrimination but to try to give people a better opportunity. I think the same goes in terms of some other characteristics as well. This is not a heavy activity. I have only been there a relatively short time but this is not something which dominates our life. We do feel, along with other industries, we have got to try to unblock, in a sense, what are some of those invisible blocks that do exist in terms of people getting entry to this type of world. I think the media world is one where there is great opportunity for people from a whole variety of backgrounds to engage. I do not think it is surprising that we are sharing that attempt with the rest of the industry. You are giving the impression by your line of questioning that somehow or other we are obsessed with this issue and dominated by this.

Philip Davies: I was quoting what is in your Annual Report.

Lord Burns: It is not the case.

Philip Davies: Do you not think there is something slightly unnerving or not right about the fact that one way or another you seem to be potentially depriving white males or whoever it is who are not entitled to go on these programmes of an opportunity that they may be particularly well suited to in order to flex your diversity muscles and enhance your credentials? I have not noticed you or the chief executive offering to resign your positions to allow somebody from an ethnic minority to take your places. You are quite happy to deny white people the opportunity to get on the first rung on the ladder but it appears you are also quite happy for you to keep your positions and not hand them over to somebody from an ethnic minority. If you are so committed to this why do you not commit to having the Chairman of the company from an ethnic minority?

Lord Burns: Come on, that is not the process that is happening at all. It is not a question of displacing people for others. This process, and most of the things you have mentioned, is where one is trying to develop avenues and tracks to enable people to have access who are coming from a background situation where historically access has been very difficult.

Now, all this is very interesting and there are several issues which arise. It’s all very well for Lord Burns to say that Channel 4 is not displacing people using these approaches but it is quite clear that if someone gets a job or opportunity simply because of their race then they are displacing someone else who might have got the job on merit alone. There is a human price to pay in all of this.

If the “London” argument was to hold true, organisations up and down the country in areas of low ethnic minority populations should only have to match the local percentage to “reflect the community” – yet we know this is not the case. This was, in fact, one of the reasons why the police in Gloucestershire fell foul of the law back in 2006 by going too far in their drive for more ethnic minority recruits and effectively removing the majority of white men from the selection process. This was the only way they thought they could meet the targets that had been set because the ethnic minority population locally was much lower than the national average and yet the only figure used for the purpose of target-setting was that national average. A similar thing occurred in Avon and Somerset and it has undoubtedly happened in other, as yet, unpublicised cases. I am tempted to say that those pushing political correctness can’t have it both ways, but, it seems, they can, and they do.

The argument that Channel 4 needs to employ more ethnic minority candidates because they have been historically under-represented in the media industry is in itself worrying too. Even four year olds know that two wrongs don’t make a right. This public corporation also claims that it is their duty to do something “industry-wide” because elsewhere females and ethnic minority candidates are under-represented. Maybe I missed something but I did not realise that Channel 4’s remit involved social engineering. Employment opportunities should be given on the basis of a level playing field yet being a white candidate applying for certain positions at Channel 4 today seems to be rather like being on a see saw which is actively balanced against you. How unfair is that? Oh I forgot – it is great to discriminate against white men – after all, white males look so politically incorrect don’t they?

The “Gobbledegook Of The Week Award” must go to Chief Executive, David Abraham, for saying, ‘it is part of an overall effort to make sure that we are accountable to the make-up of society overall’. Even after this gushing pro-PC proclamation, Lord Burns goes on to say that Channel 4 is not obsessed with these issues. Apparently, when translated from fluent (Treasury) Mandarin, this means, “yes, we are doing exactly what you said we’re doing and we say we shouldn’t be doing, but No, we couldn’t possibly be doing anything wrong, even if we are doing what we ourselves have said would be wrong”.

We always hear about the need for workplaces (including Parliament) to “reflect the community”. I have always pointed out that this is nigh on impossible and that, in any case, staffing decisions should be based on merit and not some current trendy utopian PC project. Philip Davies’ exchange with Channel 4 shows that the aim of “reflecting the community” appears to have been lost amongst the deluge of so-called “equality and diversity” schemes which have taken on a life of their own. If the aim really is to “reflect the community” then the question Channel 4 should be addressing is how they are going to reduce – rather than increase – the number of ethnic minority staff. In other words, if the goal was “fairness”, or even the marginally less metaphysical concept of “balance”, it’s long since been met, and new sets of unfairness and “lack” of balance have been created. Yet again we see here the Progressive mind at work: whatever they do must be right, even if it’s not doing what they said it would, and nor are they themselves doing it for the reasons they claimed we and they should. Progressive minded people just aren’t wrong, regardless of facts, logic or outcomes.

Surely what will make Channel 4 the best they can be has more to do with the quality of their staff rather than their diversity, or relationship to abstruse notions of (London weighted) “balance”? Has there ever been a single Channel 4 viewer who has turned off a programme and muttered to herself, “you know, I begin to wonder whether the production staff/commissioning team/diversity enhancement managers were sufficiently balanced, and hence maybe could the total and unutterable pantsiness of this episode of Hollyoaks Later have been avoided?” Or perhaps the point of commercial advertising-attracting government television companies isn’t to make watchable programmes, which might appeal to the viewers (you know, the people who notionally own Channel 4)? Or even to make programmes which are themselves diverse and high quality. No, in Britain today the point of Channel 4 is to make Lord Burns feel good about himself. We hardly pay him enough. And dearie me, no wonder the Coalition can’t possibly privatise this great national institution. Where would our balance be without it? (Obviously markedly less imbalanced, but shush!)

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