The BBC's political programming, like the Tory party, is pompous, exclusive and self-regarding

Open letter to Greg Dyke

Dear Greg,
Delighted to hear that your six-month review of the BBC's "worthy but dull" (your words not mine) political programming has come to an end, which will no doubt also be the fate of some of your shows. And not before time.

The impressive Sian Kevill, the former editor of Newsnight, has had the unenviable job of finding out what is wrong with On the Record, Question Time, Breakfast with Frost, Despatch Box, Newsnight, etc.

Now, I know you're not in the business of dumbing down the Beeb's political output. This review is about trying to make political shows that are popular but not populist - a polite way of saying you need to increase your audience. I also know you like straight talking, so here it is.

The problem with your current political programmes is that they are almost all male and grey. The problem with entertainment shows is that they're almost all male and gay.

Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are grey - and male and middle-aged and angry and humourless. But these are not the people with whom I choose to spend my Sunday mornings in bed, nor my late nights. The unremitting diet of angry, middle-aged, male politicians being interviewed by angry, middle-aged, male presenters is about as appetising as a bowl of soggy Coco Pops. Like family, you can't choose your politicians, but you can choose the people who front the shows.

And it's not just the presenters who are to blame, it's the formats. I know for a fact, for instance, that John Humphrys is one of the most sardonic, sexy, amusing men alive. So why do we never get a glimpse of that during On the Record? I have been told, but never seen any evidence of it (on or off the screen), that Jeremy Paxman has a sense of humour. Let's see it.

BBC executives have a very narrow and so far inflexible concept of what constitutes serious political programming - like the Tory party, it is pompous, old-fashioned, self-regarding, exclusive and excluding. Where are the women presenters, where is the humour, where are the regional accents, where is the wit? The tone is all wrong, as is the attitude to the guests, which is all too often angry and contemptuous. If I want a shouting match, I'll call my ex-husband.

The truth, Greg, is that there is too much politics and not enough current affairs. The shows worth studying are Have I Got News For You and Radio 5's Sunday Service. Both blend pure politics with a healthy dose of current affairs, wit and an endearing ability not to take themselves too seriously. Consequently, they do not allow their guests to, either. They are both produced by independent television companies, too - Griff Rhys Jones's Talkback Productions and Bob Geldof's Ten Alps, respectively. The commercial reality is that they either produce successful programmes or they don't survive, unlike the BBC, which is an unaccountable, tax-funded, self-perpetuating oligarchy.

But then, there's not a lot you can do about that, Greg.

Yours, Amanda

As Ann Widdecombe might say, there is something of the day about Richard and Judy, who have just launched their new show at 5pm on Channel 4.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I mainly did the former, but in all the wrong places.

Clearly, the king and queen of daytime chat now want to be taken seriously. They kicked off the week with a fearless investigation into an evil man who is currently terrorising housewives across the nation - Bin Raidem. And he is not alone. The Raidems are a cell operating throughout Middle England, sneaking around in the dead of morning, stealing garbage from people's wheelie bins and then inspecting it. They claim to be government workers conducting a survey into the junk mail people throw away. Housewives from Oldham were having none of it - invasion of privacy, they cried, a breach of our fundamental human rights. We feel defiled, dirty! Where is Cherie Booth when we need her?

Richard and Judy felt their pain. They felt dirty, too, or had done when they had suffered at the hands of their very own Bin Raidem - but he was working for a Sunday redtop.

They also felt Amanda Holden and Les Dennis's pain as they talked frankly about the affair that almost wrecked their marriage. So frankly, indeed, that no one even mentioned that the cad who briefly stole the fair Amanda's knickers - sorry, heart - was Neil Morrissey.

"We feel as though we've got a second chance," simpered Amanda, reaching for Les's hand. You were left with the distinct impression that their marriage had about as much chance of longevity as Richard and Judy's new show. I hope I'm wrong in both cases.

Chivalry is no more dead than the sex drive of ageing rockers. When Paul McCartney's record company tried to insist that the person doing the interview with Sir Paul on GMTV be "twentysomething with edge" to fit in with his image (stop sniggering), the TV bosses dumped the interview. Paul "almost sixtysomething with no edge left" McCartney was appalled. EMI grovelled; GMTV reconsidered, then sent its oldest woman reporter, the rather scrumptious Penny Smith, 42, to do the deed. Sir Paul looked old enough to be her father, his pallid skin not complemented by a rather nasty plum rinse in his hair.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.