At least 15 women of color have left the BBC in the last year saying they are “exhausted” from fighting a system that “is not systemically built to support anyone who is different,” a Variety investigation has uncovered.
“There has been an exodus,” says Simone Byrne, a Black Scottish journalist who spent 16 years at the BBC, first in news and then in diversity and inclusion (D&I), a unit that recruits diverse talent and ensures compliance with in-house D&I policies.
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Byrne left in November 2021 after being told by her managers that she needed to be “sensitive about how I speak about race to white people.” She had pointed out that after two years of lockdown, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, no one at the organization had asked “how I’m feeling or about being Black in the BBC or in this media space.”
“I said, this should really have been addressed,” says Byrne. In response, she was told “people felt uncomfortable [with] me saying that.”
In a statement, a BBC spokesperson told Variety: “As an employer we are committed to being welcoming and inclusive, where people can thrive regardless of background, but if some individuals have had a negative experience we always want to hear about that and learn from it. We have long established processes in place for people to raise any concerns internally.”
The statement continues: “More broadly, the BBC is committed to reflecting and representing the diverse audiences we serve both on and off air, and we are delivering on industry-leading plans to make this a reality, which is why we have grown our Diversity & Inclusion team in recent years.”
Despite the BBC’s attempts to reform, however, multiple sources — many of whom have refused to speak on the record for fear of being penalized professionally and socially at the BBC — point to a culture that favors white, middle-class and privately educated staff, and has all but “abandoned” a generation of older, female, Black, Asian and other minority employees.
As of March 2021, Black, Asian and minority staff accounted for 15.9% of all BBC workers, and 12.6% of leadership. The target, according to management, for these groups is 20%. Just 12.3% of news and current affairs staff in leadership identified as Black, Asian or a minority, while 79.5% identified as white-British.
BBC staff from Black and brown backgrounds describe a “culture of survival” that stems from not seeing themselves reflected in their workplace. “When you know that nobody around you thinks like you, understands your weekend and your social life, they don’t understand anything about you,” says one source.
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The majority of those who have left hail from two departments: news and D&I. “The newsroom within the BBC has a significant issue [with women of color],” says one former BBC journalist, a woman of color who spoke on condition of anonymity.
After over a decade with the corporation, she left in 2021 feeling like she “just mentally couldn’t go on.” She is now seeing a psychotherapist “to help me move on from my experiences.”
In the last year, at least eight women of color have left BBC’s news department, including Byrne. The corporation’s most senior Black news executive, Debbie Ramsay, left in February 2021 to move to Channel 4, followed by reporter and editor Helier Cheung, who took up a London-based position at the Washington Post in August 2021. Similarly, Rozina Breen left to join the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last month as chief executive and BBC News presenter Sangita Myska also recently exited.
Preceding the current exodus were the departures of BBC London’s arts and culture correspondent Brenda Emmanus, who left in October 2020, and BBC News broadcaster Nina Robinson, who left in December 2020.
Crucially, industry sources stress that many of those leaving aren’t executives in the public eye but rather “the experienced, unshowy people who are actually really good at their jobs, and who spend their entire career driven by public service,” according to one source working in news. Most of the women leaving the department have been with the corporation for almost a decade, if not more. Ramsay had been with the BBC for 15 years; Cheung for 9.5 years; Breen for 13 years; Myska for 16 years and Emmanus for 18 years.
“I am super grateful for my experience, but at the same time, I am disappointed how alienated I was made to feel in the run-up to leaving,” says the journalist who is now seeing a psychotherapist. At one point, while recounting her experiences to Variety, she broke down in tears.
Among the experiences she recounted are having to ask a white male colleague to send emails on her behalf because hers were often ignored; being repeatedly confused with other women of color in her department; being patted on the head and spoken to condescendingly by a white male colleague; being left off the nominations list when a project she had initiated and worked on was put forward for an award; and repeatedly being denied opportunities to move from a junior to senior journalist position over 10 years of being at the BBC.
In one case, she was told a role she was working in was junior level and could not be upgraded to senior despite her experience and extensive responsibilities. However, after she moved to another department, the role was taken over by a white journalist who was given a senior title.
“They have no problem with entry-level hires,” one 15-year BBC veteran who recently left tells Variety. “You can get a job at the BBC if you’re from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, no problem. But you will get to a certain level, and then you’re not going any further.”
The D&I department — which was first formed in 2016 when workplace diversity was written into the renewal of the BBC charter — has seen a similar exodus, with at least eight women leaving and another senior female executive believed to have handed in her resignation. Of the eight, six were women of color, including Jackie Christie, a race lead for a key BBC human resources program, and the BBC’s de-facto deputy head of diversity, Miranda Wayland, who resigned last month.
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Sources from the D&I department report an atmosphere of frustration with a sense, both internally and externally, that the department was unable to effect any systemic change throughout the corporation.
“I think everything with the BBC starts off with a great intention,” says one woman of color who worked for D&I until last year. “And then the caution kicks in and exaggerated bureaucracy kicks in, and then it becomes a wall.”
“A tougher D&I gig it would be hard to find,” Christie wrote in a public LinkedIn post in early March. “[I] leave the BBC grateful and positive but absolutely certain ‘the masters [sic] tools will never dismantle the masters [sic] house.’ Time to make my own tools.”
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Current and former BBC staffers tell Variety the latest exodus can be attributed to a number of factors, chief among them a culture that has struggled to tackle racism and sexism. “As a Black person or a person of color, they cannot see you as being part of the target audience,” Byrne says. “I think that is where a lot of the issues kind of come from.”
Figures for the ethnic distribution of all staff by length of service, broken down in the 2020-2021 BBC Annual Report, reveal that Black, Asian or other minority staff have fewer years of service than their White-British colleagues. As of March 2021, 23.9% of Black, Asian or minority staff worked at the BBC for less than a year, and 20.9% for anywhere between 1-3 years. Only 12.4% worked for stints of 10 years or more.
In comparison, 66.5% of White-British staff worked at the BBC for less than a year and 69.2% for 1-3 years, while 78.1% stayed for longer than a decade.
In the background, the BBC’s fear of losing its license fee — an annual fee charged to anyone in the U.K. who uses the BBC, which constitutes the broadcaster’s main source of funding — as well as its newfound commitment to impartiality under director-general Tim Davie have also contributed to a years-long build-up of hurt, frustration and neglect that was finally acknowledged during the pandemic, when staff had an opportunity to get some distance from the workplace and reflect.
In particular, Davies’ determination to ensure that employees’ political views are “left at the door” — so as to prevent any impugnment of the broadcaster’s neutrality — has led to confusion says Philippa Childs, head of crew union BECTU.
“There is now confusion among our members about what they can and can’t do and what they can and can’t say, because of controversy around attending anti-racism events like Black Lives Matters protests, or LGBT+ events like Pride parades,” Childs tells Variety. “I think they feel a bit uncertain, and a bit cowed, which does not make for a healthy work environment.”
Byrne gives one example, when she was forbidden from using a Black History Month hashtag on a BBC social media post because her editors thought it wasn’t impartial. “It’s a celebration of culture, it’s not [political],” Byrne points out. “But there’s a mix-up because at the top of the business it is all essentially white; they are unsure of what diversity is and where that tips over into impartiality, and it’s just causing more damage.”
One male BBC journalist echoed Byrne’s comments. “So, you’re telling me that it’s impossible for me to attend an event in remembrance of Black people and people of color who’ve lost their lives in custody?” he tells Variety. “You have deliberately confused the Black Lives Matter, the political organization, with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter as a social movement.”
Crucially, these issues have festered as the BBC has implemented three consecutive years of voluntary redundancies in an attempt to restructure the newsroom and recover from funding deficits that have accumulated, first due to the license fee deal in 2015, and more recently the government’s decision to freeze the license fee for two years. A BBC modernizing round announced in January 2020 hit the news division particularly hard with 520 job cuts, including senior management posts.
“A lot of people have taken that opportunity [of voluntary redundancy] to leave,” confirms another former BBC journalist, a woman of color, who left in 2021 after over a decade with the corporation.
Conversely, in the D&I department many of the losses have been down to competitors poaching BBC employees because the corporation is viewed as a leader in the field. “Nobody left without a better opportunity,” a former D&I employee tells Variety.
Miranda Wayland is set to move over to Prime Video/Amazon Studios Europe later this year where she will take up the position of head of Europe’s diversity, equity and inclusion for Amazon Studios and Prime Video, while Anne Foster, who was the head of Workforce Diversity & Inclusion, left last August to move to the House of Commons, where she is director of diversity and inclusion.
Last September, diversity specialist Serena Lloyd Smith left the BBC to take up a position as head of diversity and inclusion at Global radio.
“The BBC nurtures world class talent and people move on for a variety of reasons, including to take up excellent jobs elsewhere, which we have seen happen recently,” said a spokesperson as part of the BBC’s statement to Variety.
Many former staffers have been reluctant to discuss how they feel about finally leaving the BBC. They say they stayed for so long because, in their estimation, it’s the only place for sound journalism. But the experience has become personal for so many people that being without it feels like “a weight has been lifted.”
While the corporation is trying to improve its landscape with waves of young, diverse entrants, “the forgotten lot are us — we’ve been left behind,” says one BBC World Service journalist of more than 10 years who is planning her departure. “It feels like you’re going into not just a workplace but like you’re in a battle. You’ve got to put on your armor—and that’s the bit that’s exhausting.”
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