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BBC Correspondents Abroad 'Too White'
Rob Sharp, arts and media correspondent
London, UK, August 13, 2006 – The BBC's team of foreign correspondents should come from the same ethnic background as the country they are reporting from, according to the corporation's new diversity tsar.
Speaking in her first interview in the newly-created role, BBC 'editorial executive of diversity', Mary Fitzpatrick, who is consulted on all decisions about television content at the BBC, said the 'cultural accuracy' among reporting staff was on her hitlist. She said there were too many white reporters reporting from non-white nations, particularly in Africa.
Her comments are in line with those of Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, who said last May: 'Newsrooms which are monocultural are in danger of being like comedy that isn't funny ... Without cultural knowledge, you don't ask the right questions.'
Fitzpatrick's comments will reignite the debate about the make-up of the BBC, which has been criticized for failing to reflect multicultural Britain, either in front of or behind the camera. In 2001 the former director general, Greg Dyke, famously labeled the corporation 'hideously white' and incapable of retaining staff from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Fitzpatrick said: 'I think what's really important is that BBC News reflects the audience that it's serving. You need valid and culturally accurate voices speaking.
'I get tired of repeatedly seeing programmes where [the situation is] "here we are in Africa and here's a white person, saying well, look at these people".
'I would prefer to see somebody who understands that culture, understands what's going on and can say "look with me, because I am a part of this". It feels more authoritative and more involved.'
Two of the BBC's leading reporters who regularly report from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are John Simpson and Fergal Keane, both white. Rageh Omaar, the Somali-born reporter, has recently left the corporation to work for al-Jazeera.
Fitzpatrick said that the same rule on ethnicity and reporting should be applied in the corporation's domestic coverage, and that the broadcaster should recruit more reporters who could 'confidently speak' to non-white Britons.
'If there's a situation where the Muslim community is unhappy, you need to feel that the person that is reporting from whatever that event is, actually has some understanding,' she said.
She was poached last June from Channel 4, where she carried out a similar role, and worked for a period with Mark Thompson, the current BBC director general. Fitzgerald, who is mixed-race, said her own career had been affected by conservative BBC attitudes. She recounted how, as a junior researcher arriving for a meeting at the BBC in the Nineties, a senior executive asked her if she was there 'to clean the carpets'.
'In a way it was a very good thing to happen. It made me understand how some people can simply not get beyond the color of your skin. They see you're a black woman and therefore a cleaner. He's still in the industry and probably doesn't remember it, but I remember it.'
Of the length of time it has taken for the BBC to address diversity issues, she concluded: 'Sometimes it's just the same old, same old, and you just need to crack that.'
Source: The Observer, Aug 13, 2006