The BBC is under fire for Director General Tim Davie’s alleged involvement in blocking the appointment of prominent diversity champion Marcus Ryder, with a growing chorus of industry voices declaring that campaigning for racial equality shouldn’t be viewed as an impartiality issue.
In an open letter to BBC chairman Richard Sharp, published on Wednesday, a body of journalists, producers and freelancers of color have asked for reassurance that “advocating for our industry to be more diverse will not disadvantage or block people from being employed by the BBC” and will instead be seen as a positive attribute that’s in line with the corporation’s values.
The letter was spearheaded by Angela Ferreira, managing director of Douglas Road Productions, a Banijay-backed production company helmed by actor Lenny Henry, who is a close collaborator of Ryder’s. It has so far been signed by Henry, journalists Afua Hirsch and Gary Younge, ITV Studios executive Pat Younge, media scholar Dr. Clive James Nwonka and presenter Marverine Cole, among others.
“The reports over the last few days have had a chilling effect amongst all journalists and production staff of colour – that talking about diversity will disadvantage us, and be used against us if we ever want to work at BBC News or indeed anywhere at the BBC,” reads the letter.
The BBC hiring row erupted after Ryder — a former head of current affairs at BBC Scotland who is now a visiting professor at the Lenny Henry Centre For Media Diversity and chair of prestigious drama school RADA — was invited to apply for the role of executive editor overseeing radio news program Newsbeat and radio station Asian Network.
However, following the BBC’s appointment of an internal candidate, journalist Danielle Dwyer, for the role, reports emerged that the decision had come from the top of the corporation after Davie allegedly “blocked” Ryder’s appointment, fearing it would be controversial. (The BBC received criticism earlier this year for the appointment of a Huffington Post editor who had previously aired political views on Twitter.)
Ryder is a well-respected industry campaigner for equality and anti-racism. In December 2020, he authored a special report for trade union Bectu calling for an independent body in broadcasting to help tackle reports of racism. The idea has served as a blueprint for a broader independent body, spearheaded by Time’s Up, that also plans to tackle bullying and harassment.
As previously reported, a source has told Variety that Ryder and Davie will formally meet in November.
The letter calls for “specific written reassurance that there is nothing that [Ryder] has said or done in regards to work in diversity that brings into question his journalistic impartiality.” If there is evidence counter to this point, the group calls for examples of his work to be cited.
The corporation is also being asked for the specifics of Davie’s involvement in the selection process, and whether it’s expected for a BBC Director General to be involved at that level of appointment.
The document, which was published Wednesday afternoon via Google Docs and is slowly amassing signatures, had collected 25 signatories at time of publication.
Commenting previously on the hiring row, a BBC spokesperson told Variety: “We are committed to being an inclusive and welcoming organization which reflects the diversity of the U.K. both on and off screen, and we have targets to boost representation at the centre of our Diversity and Inclusion Plan which launched earlier this year.”
Read the full letter below:
Dear Richard Sharp,
As journalists, producers and freelancers of colour we are dismayed and concerned to read recent allegations that Marcus Ryder was blocked from being appointed to a senior position at the BBC due to his work in the UK media industry to increase diversity and inclusion – the inference being that this impacts on his ability to be an impartial and objective journalist.
Marcus Ryder is rightly viewed as a leading figure in attempts to increase diversity and inclusion in the UK media. We do not believe championing diversity and inclusion, fighting racism and making our profession a more equitable place for people to work should ever be viewed as an impartiality issue.
The reports over the last few days have had a chilling effect amongst all journalists and production staff of colour – that talking about diversity will disadvantage us, and be used against us if we ever want to work at BBC News or indeed anywhere at the BBC.
We are seeking reassurances that advocating for our industry to be more diverse will not disadvantage or block people from being employed by the BBC but will be seen as a positive in line with the BBC’s stated aims and values.
In reference to Marcus Ryder, we want specific written reassurance that there is nothing that he has said or done in regards to work in diversity that brings into question his journalistic impartiality.
Further, if that is not the case, for examples of his work to be cited.
Finally, while we do not wish to reopen the job selection process for this particular post, we note that the BBC has denied that its Director General Tim Davie “vetoed” the appointment.
We would like to know what involvement, if any, Mr. Davie had in the selection process and whether it is normal for a DG to be involved at this level of appointment?
We believe that this issue is far larger than Marcus Ryder or any one appointment. It raises serious issues of journalists and potentially anyone being effectively barred from working at Britain’s largest news organisation due to perceptions of bias over any public statements they make or work they do around diversity and inclusion.
We cannot be impartial on issues of racism and diversity, and standing up for core values must never be seen as impacting on journalists’ ability to be objective in their work.