Disability broadcasting and the silver bullet

Disability broadcasting and the silver bullet

Following the announcement of a BBC initiative to increase the number of disabled people on screen, Ian Macrae argues that in not targeting production, Tony Hall has missed a trick.

In setting out to write this blog post I’m conscious that there are some who will see a big axe in my hand and will say they hear the unmistakable screech of it being ground. Because when talking about disabled people and broadcasters’ involvement with us and treatment and representation of us, it is difficult for me not to be regretful, slightly dewy-eyed and perhaps even a little bitter. That’s because my own association with and career in broadcasting has been largely happy and fulfilled and has also coincided with what many of us would regard as a golden age. It really was, to borrow the Dickensian phrase, the best of times. But also – and here I borrow from another skilled and powerful wordsmith, Enoch Powell – ultimately it could be said to have ended in failure.

In the early 1990s, I was hired as one of the presenters on Channel 4’s disability strand Same Difference. While this wasn’t the first disability show on British TV – ITV’s Link (on which I’d also worked) had been running for some time – it stood there out and proud in prime time showing the channel’s commitment not only to the public service part of its remit and licence but also to disabled people. Here was output aimed clearly at disabled viewers.

A little later and throughout the remainder of that decade I worked with and then ran a team of disabled programme makers operating in BBC Television as The Disability Programmes Unit.

As well as providing the then two channels with shows in a variety of formats which came directly from our own community, reflecting it back to itself and to wider society, we also represented a critical and consolidated mass of disabled production and presentation talent which was clearly visible within the corporation. We had direct and regular access to channel controllers who had money to spend on commissioning output from us. We also sent disabled trainees out to programme areas around BBC radio and television who brought their disabled points of view to programmes as diverse as Blue Peter and Radio 4’s Analysis. Some of them have gone on to have rewarding careers in programme making.

During all of this time and beyond I had a long-running association with that blind bastion of Radio 4, In Touch, itself a part of the radio landscape for more than 50 years.

So that is where I’m coming from. Now to where I’m going with this piece.

The BBC recently announced an initiative which aimed, among other things, to quadruple the number of disabled people on screen and to increase the number of us employed – not just in production or content creation but elsewhere in areas such as HR. The initiative is owned (as the modern management-speak has it) by the Director General, Lord [Tony] Hall.

It would be a churl indeed who did not welcome such an initiative. But my own welcome of it can only be cautious. That’s because increasing the number of disabled people on screen is not really that much of an end in itself. Getting more disabled contestants on game shows should really be a given and is also a comparative doddle to do. Ditto characters in soaps. Even creating disabled celebrity presenters simply means going out looking for people with the talent and the personality because they certainly exist.

In my view, what’s needed is a much more structural and clearly defined approach. The danger is that Lord Hall and his advisors under-estimate the depth and extent of prejudice and ignorance among those who become BBC journalists and producers and the barriers to entry this creates. We aren’t many years away from the time when a weighty, well-connected political BBC staff journalist was regarded as unsuitable to appear on a main news bulletin simply on the basis that they happened to be blind.

The truth is that the only way to ensure that disabled people are better represented in programmes is to employ more of us in production and journalism. Programme making is where the real power to bring changes in attitudes lies. And there’s nothing more likely to keep disabled people, our lives, views, opinions and concerns at the front of the minds of commissioners than having disabled programme makers sitting with them pitching ideas for shows.

History shows us that we are not yet in a place where improved representation can be achieved by osmosis. The consequences of the closure of the Disability Programmes Unit were several.

First, programmes went back to being of the voyeuristic freak show type which were satirically characterised in the made up title The Boy with an Arse as a Face.

Second, significant numbers of talented ambitious disabled programme makers streamed out of the door of an organisation which no longer knew what to do with them.

But most importantly that high visible critical mass presence of disabled people I mentioned earlier disappeared and disability fell almost totally off the agenda.

If the BBC is really serious about being more inclusive of disabled people – and we have to hope it is – then it needs a more directly targeted initiative than the one being proposed seems to be. In short, it is axiomatic that more disabled people making shows and other content means more disabled people in shows and content.

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