Updated: Nov 3, 2020
What the media group teaches us about the dangers of misunderstanding diversity
Once again, the BBC made the front page about its harmful attitude to diversity. In an embarrassing statement, the media corporation announced that its news staff “should not be seen to be taking a stand on any “politicised or contested issues” in an effort to be impartial”. This is not the first time that the BBC makes the front page for its narrow-minded approach to diversity. As we dive into what is fundamentally wrong with this approach, let’s explore what is broken with this approach, how the BBC is just one of many organisations who completely misunderstands diversity and what a good approach to diversity is.
What is so wrong with the BBC’s approach to diversity?
BBC’S director general, Tim Davie, introduced new guidelines meant to improve the public perception of the impartiality of its news staff. They included telling news staff to avoid any online “virtue signalling” that could indicate a political view, and an explicit ban on attending most protest marches, even in a personal capacity. Journalists in newsrooms across the UK were told by managers that, while Pride marches were not explicitly mentioned in the guidelines, they were likely to be covered by the new rules.
After an outcry from politicians and LGBT campaigners, Tim Davie, clarified the rules and blamed “inaccurate commentary” for spreading concern. He then told staff they would still be allowed to attend LGBT Pride marches, providing they remained celebratory and individuals were not seen to be taking a stand on any “politicised or contested issues”. He said: “Attending Pride parades is possible within the guidelines, but due care needs to be given to the guidance, and staff need to ensure that they are not seen to be taking a stand on politicised or contested issues.”
In this approach, the director general assumes that when an individual attends an event that might be linked with any form of political statement, this will influence their perception and therefore make them partial and biased in their judgement. This is assuming that news staff and individuals are impartial and don’t have bias in the first place. In this approach, Tim Davie believes that news staff are completely impartial journalists, who are neither left-wing nor right wing, neither pro-LGBT+ nor against LGBT+, neither racist nor anti-racist, neither pro-Black Lives Matter nor against Black lives Matter, in other words: robots or aliens.
As human beings, we are the result of our unique experiences as male or female, or non-binary, as white or non-white, as from a wealthy background or from a poorer background, as a straight individual or an LGBT+ individual, as a British national or as someone from another country, as a 30 year old or as a 65 year old, as a parent or as a non-parent, as a neurotypical individual or as a neurodivergent individual, as an able-bodied individual or as a disabled individual. As individuals, we are the result of our unique experiences and therefore we all have unconscious bias, we all have blind spots, we all have preferences. As much as we would like to think that we are perfectly impartial, especially as journalists who report on the news of the world, that we just report on the news. If journalists were impartial, we would not need journalists, we could replace them with robots who would simply report the exact same news on all news outlets.
The problem with the BBC’s approach to diversity is that most leaders are so afraid of being criticised for taking a political stand, that they would do anything to avoid being perceived as political, to the point of actually damaging the company culture and asking for something that is entirely counterproductive and harmful: asking news staff to remain ‘neutral’. When individuals attend events held by minorities with a strong message, they open up their minds to new perspectives which reduces unconscious bias. When a BBC news staff participates in an LGBT+ march, they improve their understanding of LGBT+ individuals and therefore mitigate their own unconscious bias, which makes them more impartial. At the same time, this will allow them to become journalists with less unconscious bias and actually even more impartiality because the more they attend events that are perceived as political (Black Lives Matter protests, LGBT+ marches, Metoo protests, etc...) the more they will mitigate their own unconscious bias and become more impartial journalists, rather than the other way around, like the approach suggested by Tim Davie.
This ‘remain impartial by being apolitical’ approach to diversity is actually the most extreme form of being partial and being political: the more journalists stay away from protests, movements, groups, minorities, the more they become biased and naturally prefer people who look like them. The more the BBC asks news staff to distance themselves from political movements, the more the BBC will write articles that are partial and detached from the real world we live in, which in turns, reinforces a very narrow view of the world.
How the BBC is just one of many organisations that gets diversity wrong
B2B brands and traditional organisations like the BBC have historically stayed away from any form of political statement. Banks, insurance companies, legal firms, educational institutions and governments have historically not taken a stance on any issue perceived as political, most likely out of fear of a backlash from their clients, members and stakeholders. 2020 was the year where ‘silence is not an option’ for organisations, especially on the topic of Black Lives Matters. However, many organisations are still getting diversity wrong:
Diversity advocate Aaisha Joseph called out how office environments perpetuate racist inequity in a Linkedin post. It was viewed just 102 times and had only 15 comments despite Joseph having nearly 20,000 followers. Her LinkedIn feed is littered with these instances. Recently, Joseph urged LinkedIn to stop “wrongfully removing posts around issues affecting the black community” after her own posts were removed from her feed without knowledge.
According to a recent UC Santa Cruz survey, 71% of Uber and Lyft’s app workers work 30 hours a week, and more than half work over 40 hours. Despite this, as much as 20% may earn zero dollars after expenses, and 15% are forced to rely on public assistance to get by. Zero dollars? The last workforce that was predominantly people of color that worked this hard for zero dollars wasn’t a great moment in our history.
More than 18,000 people complained to the BBC over a broadcast on July 29, in which social affairs correspondent Fiona Lamdin repeated a racial slur allegedly used during an attack in Bristol. The day after Mr Whitely announced he was leaving the corporation over the incident, the then director-general Tony Hall apologised over the language used in the news report which ran on BBC News Channel and local news programme Points West.
The U.S. Government has suspended all training programs for employees related to diversity and inclusion after President Donald Trump directed federal agencies to end programs deemed divisive by the White House.
What a good approach to diversity would be
Diversity and inclusion is more than a moral imperative or the right thing to do, it is a real business advantage that can make or break a business. Yet few organisations approach diversity and inclusion from a business perspective, focusing on how business leaders can increase sales, drive growth and productivity by building a diverse and inclusive team. The right approach is to focus on the benefits including productivity, engagement, attraction and retention of talent, innovation and growth.
Organisations should start by articulating how diversity and inclusion ties into their mission. They should clearly articulate it and share the new mission statement with all employees and externally on a regular basis. Institutions should then set diversity goals and tie them to monetary compensation. They should also appoint a diversity taskforce sponsored by an executive; that new diversity taskforce should meet on a regular basis, have written goals and clearly articulate how they will work with the leadership team. Organisations should assess how diverse and inclusive they really are, looking at their own workforce diversity, including at the leadership level, as well as looking at employee engagement. Leaders should become a change agents and take accountability by setting individual goals and share them with the wider organisation on a regular basis. Organisations should also focus on building a diverse board of directors and not be complacent about the diversity of their board of directors. Finally, organisations should focus on debiasing their teams, by build a long-term plan with regular checkpoints.
We live in a world that is rapidly changing, from the way we work, to how we live, to individuals and consumers expectations of what is acceptable behaviour. With access to information available to most, and with the Millennial generation and generation Z more socially conscious than any generation previously, bigotry, unfairness, narrow-mindedness are no longer tolerated by today’s society. Organisations and leaders who adopt a narrow-minded, obsolete approach to diversity can expect backlash, boycotts and brand reputation damage. The recent BBC move seeking a so-called ‘impartiality’ from its news staff is a very real illustration of how so many organisations misunderstand what is needed to lead an organisation in today’s society. Leaders should seek to learn and educate themselves to do the right thing for their organisation, for their customers and for the society we live in.