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?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.