Is Radio 4 too middle class?

The station's voices are most likely to be drawn from selective and private schools, white, middle aged and male. Does that matter, though?

Here’s a story for the hand-wringers at the BBC to think about: according to a survey by OurBeeb, Radio 4’s voices are most likely to be middle class, drawn from selective and private schools, white, middle aged and male. At least, that’s what they found when they spoke to 42 presenters and guests on Radio 4 on 4 June this year. The findings are not a shock to anyone, I’d imagine. But should Radio 4, the leading speech radio broadcaster in the land, be something other than a home for the establishment?

A similar diversity audit of any media outlet or publication might arrive at similar numbers. The route from fee-paying school to what we refer to as "the media", via Oxbridge and a stint as an unpaid intern, is fairly well-paved; and if you didn’t have to worry terribly about money, you’d want to do something fun and glamorous. (Which working in the media seems, I suppose, for a lot of us, until we got there.) As far as the Oxbridge aspect is concerned, you could see it as evidence that candidates from the "best" universities are rightly scooped up by the BBC. Another way of looking at it, of course, would be to suppose that not everyone reaches the peak of their abilities at 17 years of age, nor continues that upward trajectory throughout their lives, and that where you went to university shouldn’t matter as much as what skills and abilities you have. Call me a graduate of a former polytechnic with a chip on his shoulder if you like, I don’t mind.

Is this something that’s limited to Auntie? I doubt it. Even the less glamorous quarters of the media in which I’ve worked have been overwhelmingly white and middle class, and mainly managed by men, as are many other industries, I’m sure. Highly desirable jobs will attract highly motivated, highly qualified candidates. There are probably socio-economic factors behind some of the lack of diversity – who can actually afford to intern for free, for example, unless they’ve got some kind of family support? But there’s still a whiff of suspicion that "non-U" types are calibrated to fail the recruitment process.

I’ll always remember that the only ever job application form I completed which asked for the name of the school I attended - just the name - on the front page was for a national newspaper. Look, maybe they saw that as being a really, really important piece of information for some reason, and was therefore worth putting ahead of qualifications or experience. I’m sure there are plenty of sensible reasons for it. There’s no point getting worked up about these things, because you can never prove anything, and you end up looking rather bitter and jaded.

Regardless, there is a suspicion among some folk that the BBC, like the dustier quarters of the civil service, retains a "nod and a wink" policy for the old-school tie; and that the usual Tristrams will get waved through without having to be terribly bright. I don’t know if I share that particular paranoia, even though I’ve applied for BBC jobs a handful of times and never made the interview stage. Was that because I went to a state school, or because I just wasn’t good enough? (I suspect it’s the latter.)

What’s the answer then? Well, first we have to see if there’s a problem, which would require a more extensive survey than this, with many more participants. Secondly, we have to ask if it really is a problem of bias or a problem of lack of opportunity. Finally, if there is a problem, and if it is because of some kind of selection bias, employers could do worse than look at the principle of the "Rooney rule". That states that if you select from a diverse slate of candidates, and you end up through affirmative action seeing more candidates from different backgrounds reach the final phase of selection, you end up hiring a wider range of people, while still retaining quality. That is, if there’s a problem.

Maybe the Radio 4 audience is happy with the voices it has, and wouldn’t want anything to change. But maybe the country’s leading broadcaster has more to consider than that.

 

BBC Radio 4: too middle class?
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA