BBC defends BAME-only internship as ‘right thing to do’

Diversity experts suggest positive discrimination can be temporary fix for ‘cultural problem’

A BBC internship opportunity advertised as open only to candidates from a black, Asian or non-white ethnic minority background (BAME) has been described as a “technical fix to a cultural problem” by one of the UK’s leading workplace diversity experts.

The advertisement for a 12-month trainee broadcast journalist, described it as an opportunity for “budding news junkies to gain hands on experience at a national and international level” at the BBC, and offered London’s living wage of £10.20 per hour. But it has drawn fire from MPs and sections of the media for excluding white candidates.

The BBC’s move is legal under the Equality Act 2010 as positive action, allowing employers to promote opportunities to candidates from disadvantaged and under-represented groups in the recruitment process, according to the organisation.

Guidance from regulator Ofcom last year stated that organisations will not break the law if they take steps “aimed at addressing disadvantage or under-representation experienced by people sharing particular protected characteristics.”

The advert’s emphasis on BAME candidates appears to be part of the broadcaster’s efforts to diversify its workforce, after its pay report in June found that no one with BAME backgrounds featured in its top 10 earners.

It has fuelled debate, however, on how employers can improve workplace equality and has been criticised by Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, who told the Daily Mail: “It's disappointing because all the figures now indicate that those most in need of a leg up and most struggling in our education system are white boys from deprived backgrounds… It's positive discrimination – and I thought that discrimination on the grounds of race, sexuality, or gender was illegal.”

Diversity and equality experts took issue with the wording of the advert, but said the BBC’s actions could be justified given the broader cultural issues it was facing.

Consultant Stephen Frost, former head of diversity at the London 2012 Olympics, said the advert was “very badly framed” and that despite the BBC’s positive intentions to find a “technical fix to a cultural problem”, its execution was poor. 

Frost told People Management that although “minorities are under-represented” in many industries, “diversity must be allowed to blossom as part of organisational culture. It is not the responsibility of newer recruits to ‘fix’ inequality; it’s up to leaders to lead by example.”

He added that candidates should be “selected for roles based on merit,” and that “polarisation should not be fuelled” if possible.

Dr Jill Miller, CIPD diversity and inclusion adviser, said that although the advertisement illustrated the BBC’s recognition of the “need to increase BAME representation” internally, it represented a “short term fix that is not the solution to address diversity in the long term.”

Miller added: “To create inclusive workplaces, organisations must understand the underlying reasons behind a lack of diversity. That means looking more widely at why minority groups either don’t apply for roles in the first place, or aren’t successful in the recruitment process.”

The BBC defended the advert, saying the training scheme on offer was designed to “address an identified under-representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in certain roles” and was the “right thing to do”.

A BBC spokesperson said: “This is not a job, but simply a training and development opportunity. This training scheme is designed as a positive action scheme to address an identified under-representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in certain roles. Such schemes are as allowed under the Equality Act and we're proud to be taking part."

The BBC previously attracted criticism for its approach to workplace diversity for a similar initiative. In June 2016, it advertised two junior scriptwriting  traineeships, offered for 12 months, that were only open to black, Asian and other ethnic minority candidates.

Discrimination and lack of equality in workplaces is becoming an increasingly politicised issue. In March, the government urged employers and businesses to do more to improve BAME diversity voluntarily within their organisations – or face the prospect of mandatory diversity requirements.

In a letter to FTSE 350 companies, business minister Margot James urged employers to act on the recommendations set out in the McGregor-Smith review into career opportunities for black and ethnic minority groups, published in February.

Close to one in five (18 per cent) ethnic minority leaders revealed they have personally experienced workplace discrimination in the last two years, according to research from diversity consultancy Green Park. Its study also found that 82 per cent of ethnic minority leaders did not trust the organisations they worked for, believing there was institutional prejudice against minorities.