What can be done about the BBC’s raw deal for migrants?

Welsh and Scottish Gaelic have their own language broadcasts as well as the English output, but communities like British Somalis receive nothing, despite paying the same license fee.


Khadija Shireh is as upset as she is angry. “What does the BBC give our community?” she asks. The early Spring sunshine filters through the blinds in a modest office in the backstreets of Camden. Khadija Shireh is director of the British Somali Community. “The BBC is very restricted in what it offers us,” she complains. “But everyone must pay the fines if they are found without a television license.”

No-one knows exactly how many Somalis there are in the UK. In the 2001 census, a figure of 43,515 was recorded.  Since then the crisis in Somalia has forced many thousands to flee from their homeland, and the total has almost doubled. The comparable figure for the 2011 census is not yet out, but first indications suggest that that there are 86,000 Somali speakers in England and Wales alone.

“Most came to Britain since the 1990s” says Mrs Shireh. “Perhaps 70 per cent of our people speak little or no English.”

“They don’t expect to be exempted from the BBC license, but what do they offer us,” she asks.

This is a problem across the many languages now spoken in Britain. The census shows (pdf) that 138,000 people living here speak no English at all.  

Yet the BBC takes its £145.50 a year from them all, even if they cannot understand a word the BBC broadcasts.

Compare their situation with the indigenous population of Britain that speaks languages other than English.  The Scottish Gaelic speakers, of whom there were 31,000 in 2001 (no figures for 2011 have yet been released) have their own dedicated radio station, Radio nan Gaidheal. This received £6 million in 2012, according to the BBC’s accounts (pdf).

The 2011 census showed that 475,000 people speak Welsh (pdf). The BBC provides them with Radio Cymru and the television services of S4C. Together these cost £48.1m. 

So the Scottish Gaelic speaking community receives a subsidy from the BBC of £194 per person. The figure for each Welsh speaker is just over £100 a year. Very few of the Welsh or Gaelic speakers will not understand English, so perhaps it is legitimate to describe them as being ‘super-served’ by the BBC. They have their own language broadcasts as well as the English output to watch, listen to and enjoy. Compare their provision with the non-existent offer for Britain’s immigrant community, many of whom cannot even understand the standard BBC English radio and television broadcasts.

Replying to the New Statesman’s queries about this disparity, the BBC issued a statement suggesting that British Somalis should depend on the internet. “The BBC Somali website is accessible to audiences around the world, and includes audio and video content…The Somali service's wealth of discussion and phone-in programmes involves callers and participants from everywhere, certainly including the UK.  BBC World Service's multi-lingual, multiplatform international news content is accessible and enjoyed by UK-based audiences, including, of course, Somali-speakers.”

An internet based service, aimed at Somalia and not at the British Somali experience seems a paltry return for the £145.50 license fee. The reply contains no suggestion that the BBC is prepared to assist British Somalis, many of whom are among the poorest people in the UK, with broadband provision or any other means of accessing the internet.

How can this chasm be narrowed? Mrs Shireh would like the BBC to establish a Somali radio station to serve her community. “It would really help, particularly with the young people to improve their chances of getting jobs,” she says. But with over 300 languages currently spoken in London alone, providing for all of their needs would be a tall order.

So what are the alternatives? One would be to broadcast the World Service’s 27 languages available on local radio in the areas in which the communities are most densely situated. But even this would leave the vast majority of immigrant groups without a service.

Another would be to help cut the cost of the range of satellite television programmes they listen to. For the Somalis these include Royal TV, Somali TV and Universal. It costs around £200 to buy the equipment needed to listen to the output, says Mrs Shireh.  The BBC might use its commercial muscle to negotiate a better deal for its Somali license fee payers, by buying the equipment in bulk. 

A similar offer could be made to the other major communities now resident in the UK – like the Poles, who now number 546,000 or the Panjabi speakers, who are 273, 000 strong.

The BBC argues – correctly – that the position of Scottish Gaelic and Welsh is unique. “We have particular responsibilities around the indigenous languages of the UK, for which there is no provision internationally.” Cutting their services, expensive as they are, would be a devastating blow to their communities. But their special status cannot be used as a reason for the BBC to turn its back on the much larger, more vulnerable immigrant populations that now make Britain their home.

BBC Broadcasting House. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.