"If your newsroom is not diverse, you will get the news wrong"

Dorothy Byrne on why a diverse newsroom is always better
Employees work in the Reuters newsroom in London. REUTERS/Simon Newman

Employees work in the Reuters newsroom in London. REUTERS/Simon Newman

Dorothy Byrne

The Head of News and Current Affairs of Channel Four spoke at one of our weekly seminars on October 30, 2019 at Green Templeton College. Here's a transcript of a lecture you can watch here.  

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me to speak to such an illustrious and diverse group. You are senior people in your organisations from countries across the world. My key message to you today is that if you want a successful newsroom, it has to be representative of the diversity of your population in terms of gender, sexuality, disability and ethnicity. If you yourselves are not representative of your audience or your readers, then you cannot understand and represent their interests. As society changes, if you don’t change with it, you will lose viewers, listeners and readers.

Let me first tell you a little about myself and about Channel Four Television. After University I taught in a boys’ secondary school in Northern Nigeria. I began my journalistic career on local papers before going to work at ITV, working for quite a number of years on investigative TV programmes before moving to Channel Four, where I was first the commissioning editor of our investigative strand Dispatches and am now Head of News and Current Affairs. I have overall responsibility for Channel Four News, Unreported World, Dispatches and a number of series and single programmes like Leaving Neverland, the investigation into the serial paedophile Michael Jackson.

Channel Four is a public service corporation ultimately owned by the British people via a government department. It was set up in 1982 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. However, unlike the BBC, we are funded by adverts so many British people don’t realise they own us. One reason people are forever complaining to and about the BBC is that they have to pay a licence fee for it every year. So they feel that gives them the right to complain. We don’t cost people anything so they don’t resent us so much.

We have a programme budget of around £550 million for our main channel and around another £100 million for digital channels. 

We are not permitted, according to the terms under which we were set up, to make any programmes ourselves. All our programmes, even Channel Four News, are made by independent production companies. When we were set up, the UK had two BBC channels and also the commercial independent television channel ITV. Those broadcasters made all their programmes in-house. So the arrival of Channel Four had a dramatic effect. Quite a number of people working for those broadcasters left and set up independent companies and other people came into the market.

The arrival of Channel Four created a massive new industry in the UK –independent television production– an industry now worth billions. Those independent companies sold to Channel Four but also sold the formats for the programmes they created to many other countries. Now both ITV and the BBC also buy a large percentage of their programmes from these independent companies. This is one of the most vibrant sectors in our economy –all kickstarted by Channel Four.

How Channel Four started

We were set up with a special remit to provide programmes for minority groups. As you will know, the UK is a class-ridden country. The broadcasting industry, like British politics, is and was dominated by white middle class men, especially those who went to two universities –Oxford and Cambridge, which were and are overwhelmingly white institutions. Channel Four was supposed to break that mould. When the channel began, its current affairs strand was produced by an all-female company. There was a special programme for black people, a programme for Asian people and a programme for women.

To represent people from minority ethnic groups in our programmes, Channel Four has worked hard to make that its 850 staff making those programmes are representative of the UK population. The two go together.

BAME staff now represent 19% of our workforce. That is a good figure but it’s important that we increase the number of BAME staff in senior roles –currently 15% of leaders are BAME and the target is that this should be 20% within the next few years. 11.5% of our staff are disabled –somewhat below the national figure. And 7.3% are LGBT which is above the LGBT representation in the population. 56% are women –again above the representation in the population. The aim is that there should be a 50:50 gender balance in the top hundred earners by 2023. 16% of staff are from working class backgrounds and that is something which needs to improve across the industry.

It may seem boring that I list all those figures but I am doing so because it is so vital if you are going to produce good news and current affairs to have a representative workforce. You have to monitor your workforce to know how representative you are, you need to set targets to ensure you are representative, and at senior levels too, and, where there are problems, you need to devise strategies to improve representation.

The UK has some specific issues which make it hard for women and people from minority groups to get on in television. As I said, a small number of universities have tended to dominate the best jobs. In the past, and even now in many production companies, jobs are advertised by word-of-mouth, not open advertising. So inevitably, it is more likely that white middle-class people find out about them. Independent companies often employ people on short-term contracts in London where rents are high.

A huge percentage of the UK economy is based in and around London. If you are well-off from London, and trying to get your career going, you can stay with your parents or they can afford to help you with rent or even buying a property. It’s much harder for someone from Wolverhampton or Glasgow to take up a three-month contract in a London company. So we need to move more production outside London. Channel 4 is committed to spending half its original production budget outside London by 2023.

If you want a successful newsroom, it has to be representative of the diversity of your population in terms of gender, sexuality, disability and ethnicity

UK broadcasters and newspapers have failed to sufficiently reflect the changes in our society. As our country changed, with millions of women entering the workforce, migrants coming to live here from all parts of the world and gay men and women coming out to declare their right to a place in society, British newsrooms remained overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual and middle class for too long. They are now changing, but too slowly.

In some specific regards, newsrooms tend to be out of touch with large groups in our population. For example, while many leading journalists eschew religion, large numbers of people of faith came to live here or have been born here – Indian Hindus, Pakistani Muslims, African Christians, Polish Catholics and many more. The majority of people in newsrooms are fit and healthy but a huge percentage of the population have disabilities, as do I.

For much of my life, people from ethnic minorities have been represented as problems, too often as criminals. Not only is this wrong, it is also commercially short-sighted as they are also consumers with money to spend buying the products in the adverts surrounding this disgraceful journalism so why alienate them?

For much of my life, people from ethnic minorities have been represented as problems, too often as criminals. Not only is this wrong, it is also commercially short-sighted

Even when a beautiful princess came onto the scene, viewed by many people of African heritage as a symbol of their acceptance in society, she was criticised constantly. She may have brought some of this criticism on herself but many people from British African and African Caribbean communities perceive this as racist. It is interesting to me that many more columns are devoted to criticising her than to criticising Prince Andrew for his friendship with a convicted paedophile.

For far too long, gay men were treated as sources of disease rather than as the much-loved sons, friends, fathers, brothers, and uncles of the vast majority of the population. Think of the madness of it –to attack the very people who buy your papers and buy the products you advertise.

And how many articles have I read over decades which portray working women as so unnatural that they are a danger to their own health and the well-being of their husbands and children? Working women like me resent the assertions in these columns deeply – yet the publications which print the articles want us to buy them and buy the products they advertise.

Of course, the overwhelming reason we should represent the UK properly to itself is that that is the job of journalism; to tell the truth about society. But I stress the commercial point too. Don’t alienate the people who you want to buy your product – or all their friends and relatives. When a newspaper has just carried out some particularly egregious attack on some minority group, who wants to be the person in the pub being seen to read it?

I have to read all papers in my job, and there are days on the tube when I see people glaring at me for reading some tabloid that has just written something ghastly. I want to shout out, ‘It’s my job! Just as doctors have to treat evil patients, I have to read bad journalism!’

How to be more representative

The BBC is funded by the licence fee so it doesn’t have the same commercial imperative but the fact that the vast majority of the population pays for it means that it should represent the vast majority of the population. You may have seen that last week a review of BBC news and current affairs was published by the UK media regulator OFCOM. It found that BBC news is seen by some from minority ethnic groups as representing a white, middle class and London-centric point of view that is not relevant to their lives.

Some described the BBC as too focused on Westminster politics and speaking for and to a small section of society. The perceived lack of diversity in BBC reporters and presenters, or the lack of different viewpoints, was also raised by people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The report said that the BBC should better represent the whole of the UK. Audiences said they wanted more news about their communities reported by people with a deeper understanding of their areas. People outside London thought the BBC should improve how it reflected and reported on their lives.

To quote OFCOM, ‘People from minority ethnic groups told us they want to feel their voice is represented.’ Another OFCOM report last year, Review of Representation and Portrayal, noted that the people who work for the BBC are not wholly representative of the UK population. OFCOM has stated that 'for the BBC to produce authentic content which resonates with all audiences, the people who work on programmes must represent the diversity of the UK.’ The BBC has set targets for improving the diversity of employees both on and off screen.

Channel Four commissioned a very interesting piece of work this year by the organisation Versiti on the viewing preferences of minority ethnic audiences and the results may surprise you. This was in-depth research carried out with 60 people –so qualitative rather than quantitative. The five largest minority ethnic groups in the UK are Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis , Black Caribbean and Black African.

It is difficult to summarise this sort of research. But there were interesting findings. It was found that a number of these audiences were drawn to programming about entrepreneurship and aspiration . A number of people  were not interested in programmes about property, decorating, gardening, pets, rural life and white British history, including period drama and shows about antiques. People tended not to define themselves as being driven by their ethnicity in their viewing but by their personal preferences. Quite a number said culture was more important than ethnicity. They definitely wanted better representation and more accurate portrayal of minority groups.

One interesting point was that viewers from Asian backgrounds were more likely to watch as a family, across generations, so programmes which are sexually explicit are a problem. The research is nuanced and I can’t do it justice here but I cite some of it just to make the point that even when you are trying to make programmes which appeal to minority ethnic audiences, you can’t make assumptions about their interests.   

To retain women in the workplace, specific policies are needed. While there are more women now in broadcasting, women often drop out of the workplace when they have children, as you will know yourselves. Until relatively recently, many companies didn’t make part time working available or other family friendly policies. TV is famously full of ambitious pushy people and even if a woman did get offered part-time working, she wasn’t taken as seriously as her male full-time counterparts.

People in TV were often expected to work all hours. I have probably worked 60 hours a week during the majority of my time in TV. I was a single parent so I couldn’t afford to give up or go part-time. A lot of women just gave up and left the industry. We know that still few men agree to give up work or work part-time when couples have children. So not only do women drop out of the workplace, they fail to rise to more influential positions. Later in their careers, at a time when men may be at the very pinnacle of their careers, women encounter more issues.

A policy on the menopause

About a quarter of women suffer significant medical problems during the menopause. And the same proportion –a quarter of women– also say in surveys that they have seriously considered giving up work because of these problems. Channel Four has just become the first broadcaster in the UK to have a formal policy on the menopause. The menopause tends to occur at the same time as children are going through important government exams and ageing parents start to fail in health. Again, in our society, it is usually the women who bear the brunt of the problem.

Those are the problems women face. People from ethnic minority groups and working class backgrounds, as I have said, can find it harder to get into TV because they are not in the know, not part of the charmed circle that runs our country, and may have less good experience and qualifications. I myself think too much emphasis is put on qualifications and too little on ability.

Some employers now make applicants remove the names of their universities to try to prevent prejudice against people who went to less prestigious universities but I would question why we should say it was relevant for many jobs that someone had been to university at all. I can see that if you are applying for a job as a lawyer, it’s good that you have a degree in law. But most people applying for jobs as journalists have degrees in subjects irrelevant to journalism. Could our industry work together to come up with fairer –and more accurate– ways of working out which candidates are best?

But people from ethnic minorities and working class backgrounds suffer other challenges. Channel Four recently commissioned a major study to find out why people from minority groups are not always flourishing in our workplace. They published it too –I congratulate them on doing that when it was not altogether complimentary. More companies should publish findings of internal surveys so we can all learn from them. That study found there was an unwritten code of behaviour at Channel Four.

There is allegedly no dress code but the white middle class people know there is a hidden dress code - a studied casual look which they wore effortlessly. Conversation was full of cultural references which the white middle class people were comfortable with. So if you were different, you felt uncomfortable because you didn’t know these hidden rules so you didn’t do so well as someone who felt at home. Those are subtler issues to deal with than outright prejudice but we must do so. The ultimate answer is to employ a properly representative sample of the population and to change the culture of the organisation.

New people, new coverage

Why am I talking so much about the difficulties people who are not white middle class men face? It’s not just because the current situation is morally wrong. It’s because if you change who makes programmes, you change the programmes. If you change you who defines the news agenda, you change the agenda.

When I started on one of ITV’s main programme of investigative journalism, I was the only woman. I really didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t mean the men were horrible. I just didn’t feel at home. There was a man who sometimes used to use prostitutes when he was working abroad. Imagine how comfortable I felt working with him. Imagine whether he would ever have come up with a story about the awful lives of sex workers.

The men knew what an ‘important’ story was. We did cover major social issues. But in the hierarchy of importance, a story about the CIA, or nuclear power accidents, or political or company scandals were the big ones.

The first film I wanted to make when I was promoted to being a producer/ director (I was only the second woman ever to have been promoted on the programme) was about rape in marriage. The executive producer told me that was a story more suitable for morning television chat shows, which was rubbish as our regulations wouldn’t permit us to discuss the horrible detail of violent rape before 9pm at night. We have strict rules about that watershed, as we call it. One journalist said that rape in marriage wasn’t a story. In that he was right, it wasn’t a story. It was a major national scandal as, at that time, rape in marriage was not a crime; a man had the right to have sex with his wife when he wanted.

Guess which man it was who said that this wasn’t a story. Yes, it was the man who used prostitutes. You see, who you are really does reflect the choice of stories. He thought a man had a right to use women’s bodies for sex.

When I worked on that programme there were 1,500 people working for the company and 1,494 of them were white. So how could we tapped into the best stories about the lives of the huge numbers of non-white people in our country? There were no non-white people on that programme. In regional programmes, including regional news, there was a handful of non-white people. One British African woman has since told me she was regularly informed by colleagues she had only got the job because she was black. She was told not to be seen talking to any other black people as people would think the black people were ganging up on white people. I must say it’s pretty hard for six people to gang up against 1,494 people. A British African man was sent a photo of a lynching in the internal post. His own face had been stuck onto the man hanging from the tree.

So what you have there is a two-fold problem. Too few people from an ethnically diverse background so the company is not across the reality of life for all sections of the population. But even if those two people knew good stories about black people in Britain, would they be likely to step forward and tell the news editor or would they want to play down the fact they were different so they were not attacked and criticised?

A very diverse country

I would like to say everything has changed completely since my early days in TV. But at the time of 9/11 a story a colleague told me really shocked me. When it became clear that the terrorists were Muslims, someone turned to him in the newsroom and said, ‘So what’s all this about then? ‘ He replied, ‘I’m a Hindu so I wouldn’t know.' 

To the questioner, presumably all people from Asia look the same. But also think if he had been a Muslim, how insulting the question was. Nobody says to me, when a paedophile priest is jailed, ‘you were brought up a Catholic, what’s all that about.’ So, while we need to employ people from a wide range of backgrounds as they will widen our understanding and produce better journalism, we really need to avoid implying people from minority groups have some incredible understanding of criminals and terrorists who happen to come from the same ethnic group.

An issue currently in the UK is that all the people who are of African descent can be treated as if they are identical. They are lumped together as a group although we would never say, ‘White people think x or y.’ We now have more British Africans than British African Caribbean people living in the UK. But Africans, even if separated out, are then treated as if everyone from an entire continent has similar interests and concerns. We can’t reach these minority audiences if we don’t work out in our heads that they are different from each other.

Earlier I mentioned that when Channel Four began, it had some special programmes which were made by and for minority groups. Channel Four also had a special department staffed by people from ethnic minority groups which had ring-fenced money to make programmes about minority groups. Both the programmes and the department were done away with.

The view was taken that this concept was divisive and counterproductive. It was part of a change in thinking which stressed that the UK, while respecting all cultures, should be bringing people together, not keeping them in separate boxes. We should be inclusive. The idea was that every department should make programmes about minority groups. I think the principle there is the right one but in practice what happened was that the number of programmes about people from minority groups fell over several years. That trend is now being reversed but it has taken a long time. So my view would be that we need to build in some sort of formal system to ensure we are representing all groups both in employment and programming.

We now insist as a channel that every programme has to have ethnic minority groups represented on and off screen. This is necessary, for example, because across UK broadcasting, a fairly recent survey say under two per cent of directors came from ethnic minorities and only 25% were women. Now major broadcasters are monitoring representation in their workforce and setting targets.  

What happened with Brexit

If your newsroom is dominated by people with a particular mindset and background, you will also literally get the news wrong. That’s what happened with Brexit. Most newsrooms were taken by surprise by the fact that there was a narrow vote in favour of us leaving the EU. Why didn’t journalists see that coming? Well in the UK, far too many of our institutions are in London, and that includes major broadcasters and newspapers. London was pro-Remain so it was easy for journalists living in London to be misled by their interactions with the people around them.

Channel Four has recently begun moving its headquarters to Leeds in Yorkshire in the North of England. I’m really glad that Channel Four is moving hundreds of its staff out of England’s capital. Some newsrooms are dominated by educated liberals. Statistically they are overwhelming pro-Remain. When some journalists went out to interview pro-Leave voters in the North, they thought they were wrong and even, I regret to say, a bit stupid. This lack of diversity in newsrooms is a key reason why so many called the Brexit result wrong in 2016. And that is the ultimate problem with your newsroom all coming from too narrow a cross-section of the population. You end up being wrong.

The second point I want to make today is that running an ethical newsroom also makes commercial sense, besides, obviously, being the right thing to do. At the Ethical Journalism Network, a small charity I chair which supports journalists trying to raise ethical standards, we favour the idea of each newsroom having a code of conduct for how staff will be treated, including women and minority groups.

We know that in some countries that will be difficult and that journalists in each country face different challenges. But I would say that a newsroom which has a code of conduct will have a commercial advantage too. You will attract and maintain staff from a wide diversity of backgrounds and they will create a product which appeals to a greater percentage of your audience, listeners or readers. The public will feel good about reading or watching your product.

It is very interesting to me that The Guardian in the UK appealed for money because it needed cash desperately, but the people who gave it then felt good about themselves and loyal to the paper. The appeal was not only commercially successful. It defined The Guardian to its readers as a paper with principles. Of course, not all members of the British public would support those principles.

However, in general, good conduct wins over the public. Increasingly, across the globe, people are realising that if we are all selfish, the planet is doomed. I am interested in the way that tabloid newspapers are launching campaigns related to climate change. I note that the Daily Mail, a newspaper many liberals hate, has had a very successful campaign against plastic. In the last few weeks, The Daily Mail has also launched a brilliant campaign in favour of the MMR vaccine; a campaign we should all commend which will save lives.  Readers feel that campaigns like these demonstrate their newspapers care about

People in the UK really respect television and perceive it, on the whole, as a public good. Of course, it is not universally loved every moment of the day; that is right and healthy. In the UK, our television is strongly regulated. Viewers don’t know precisely how that regulation works but they know that they can make complaints and we get into trouble if we make a mistake. We have to broadcast any finding against us, we can be fined large sums and occasionally a TV channel is shut down completely. What is the result of that?

Television news is trusted by 71% of the British population. That makes them more likely to watch. But it also means advertisers want to advertise round our programming. It makes commercial sense. Do you remember when many advertisers withdrew adverts from YouTube because they discovered their products were promoted next to extremist videos? You will be aware of the Reuters Institute survey which showed the public in Europe have very low trust in online and social news.

Ultimately, consumers across the world want products they can trust and to be offered products useful and relevant to their lives. And journalism is no different. Our readers, listeners, viewers and users want to know that they can trust us. And they want news and current affairs which is relevant to their lives and which is presented to them by people like them and not by some patronising elite.

I’ve told you about some of the challenges in my country – or should I say countries? I am really interested to know the challenges you face in your countries trying to make your newsroom and your news truly representative of the interests of your population.