Lisa Hammond, who has just been cast in Eastenders. Photo: BBC
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.