Lisa Hammond, who has just been cast in Eastenders. Photo: BBC
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The BBC’s plans to show more disabled people on TV are good – but they should be better

The UK is ready to see far more people on TV who do not conform to the able-bodied ideal of what people on TV should look like.

There aren’t enough disabled people on TV. To address this, the BBC has announced plans to quadruple the number of people with disabilities it puts on television by 2017. To me, as a disabled person, this is the most welcome initiative in broadcasting history. I punched the air when I heard the announcement, and the BBC should be celebrated for making it.

But it is vital to note that the BBC’s plans sound more impressive than they are. Just 1.2 per cent of the people on BBC television are disabled. Quadrupling that figure will only take it to 5 per cent.

But disabled people are 18 per cent of the population, so even 5 per cent is 13 per cent too few. (According to government figures, 11.6 million people in a population of 64.1 million are disabled.) For BBC television to fairly represent the disabled community, and accurately reflect British society, the percentage of disabled people it shows doesn’t need to be multiplied by four: it needs to be multiplied by 15.

I know that the disabled community makes up 18 per cent of Britain’s population because I’ve researched the relevant figures. But I would never have known it from watching British TV. Nor would any young person growing up with a disability or any able-bodied person who has never considered the substantial role disabled people play in British life.

On television, disabled people are a tiny and insignificant minority. In reality we are a large and important section of society. We are a cross-section of society, too. There are disabled people of every age, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and political inclination. It should sadden and anger us that there are people to whom these simple and obvious facts are unknown, and that those people don’t have their perceptions challenged whenever they turn on their TVs.

People with disabilities are frequently robbed of our right to self-representation. In film, disabled characters are too often portrayed by able-bodied actors.

And in politics and journalism, many supposed voices for the disabled – including the Minister for Disabled People – are able-bodied. This is an absurdity that TV should lead the way in exposing, by demonstrating how capably people with disabilities can speak for ourselves.

That’s why it is so heartening that the BBC have created the position of disability correspondent and chosen to appoint Nikki Fox, a disabled person, to it. But for disabled people to be properly integrated into television, we also need to constantly appear in programming that is not expressly about disability.

A fine way for the BBC to meet its targets for increasing the number of people with disabilities in scripted entertainment would be to ensure that more disabled characters are created and more disabled actors are employed to play them. But an equally excellent, and equally important, strategy would be to ensure that more disabled actors are cast in roles in which it is immaterial whether the character is disabled or not, following the thrilling example set by the recent casting of Lisa Hammond in EastEnders.

A similar principle should apply in factual programming. Currently, when you see a disabled person being interviewed on TV, they are almost always being interviewed about being disabled, as if that is the only subject on which one of us could possibly be an expert. But earlier this year I was overjoyed to see Dame Sarah Storey appear as a pundit on BBC coverage of able-bodied cycling.

She was not talking about being disabled, or about being a disabled athlete, but simply giving her expert opinion on how to achieve success in elite-level cycling, a subject about which she knows as much as anyone in the world. One day, I hope not to be surprised when I see a disabled person on television and hear them talk about something other than their disability.

The UK is ready to see far more people on TV who do not conform to the able-bodied ideal of what people on TV should look like. In the results of a recent public poll to determine Britain’s greatest heroes, the top three were Simon Weston, Stephen Hawking and Ellie Simmonds.

Simmonds even stars in an aspirational advertising campaign for Land Rover. And sometimes TV now even allows disabled people to look cool. This is largely thanks to Channel 4’s comprehensive coverage of the Summer and Winter Paralympics, its disability-centric chat show The Last Leg, and the BBC’s recent coverage of the first Commonwealth Games at which disabled and able-bodied athletes appeared together.

The BBC’s new initiative is an admirable first step on a long journey. At present, just over one in every 100 people on BBC television is disabled. For our national broadcaster to reflect our nation, that number needs to be just over one in six.

No one could expect the percentage of disabled people on BBC TV to leap from 1.2 per cent to 18 per cent immediately or even soon but, if the BBC is serious about a long-term commitment to equality for people with disabilities, it should publicly set the figure as its long-term target.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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