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How News UK pursued an ambitious diversity strategy in the face of social media abuse

25 Feb 2021 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The media giant refused to be cowed as it revamped recruitment, refreshed its content and improved its data gathering

Journalist Carole Cadwalladr once described listening to talkSport, the world’s most popular sports radio station, as “a crash course in blokeology”. But while the station has historically been aural fodder for white van men the country over, this is 2021 – and appealing to just one demographic is so last decade.

That’s where News UK, talkSport’s parent company, is already in the throes of making some big changes. “Sport has always been a very male environment, and the people who are commentating and presenting tend to be more white,” says Briony Hughes, News UK’s HR director and diversity lead. The station has had a “loyal following” for many years, she explains, but the company is acutely aware it could open up to more people. As such, talkSport has undergone a major shake-up of its line-up in recent years and introduced female and ethnic minority presenters, all spearheaded by station head Lee Clayton, who “didn’t wait for permission” before pressing ahead with the changes, according to Hughes. “Women who love sport, for example, may not have listened to talkSport before because they might not have felt welcome, whereas now there are plenty of women in our line-up,” she says. “If your staff don’t represent the population, you can’t expect to appeal to that population.”

But rather than use this as a PR opportunity, the station has taken a more understated approach, instead making relatively little fuss about its new faces and their demographics. “We’ve not gone out to every newspaper and radio station and said ‘come and look at us’,” Hughes explains – the proof, she says, is in the listening figures, and although official RAJAR reporting has been paused because of Covid, she’s confident a similar number of people, if not more, are tuning in. 

The response from both staff and listeners has been mostly positive, but by far the biggest problem has been racist and sexist abuse on social media directed at the station’s new presenters. “It’s really hard for anyone to get that kind of abuse, particularly when it’s consistent,” says Hughes. “But we’re conscious that we have to do more to protect our people, and we’re still working through that.”

Although the changes at talkSport were what Hughes describes as the “flagship” of wider diversity work across News UK – which comprises The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times, as well as radio arm Wireless – there has also been progress elsewhere across the company. A big wake-up call came, Hughes explains, when the topic was raised by staff at an internal meeting in 2018 and the senior leadership team couldn’t say what the firm was doing to improve its diversity. By the time the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests hit the headlines in mid-2020, developments in this area were well underway.

But rather than use BLM as an opportunity to push out diversity work prematurely, the company chose to hold off and delay responding until it was ready. “A few organisations rushed into it, and were criticised,” Hughes says. “We resisted that – it would’ve felt a bit empty.” Instead, the firm’s CEO wrote to the whole business and asked people to share their thoughts and experiences. “She was inundated,” says Hughes. “And from every ethnicity, not just black staff.” This process, says Hughes, forced the realisation that there were a lot of experiences among the workforce that hadn’t been shared, and meant that when the firm’s diversity strategy did launch in 2020 it had been far more thoroughly considered. “We’re a meritocracy, and someone might be the best person for the job, but we had never considered how hard they might have had to fight to get to that point,” she says.

As well as looking specifically at recruitment – a new head of early talent will focus on offering work experience and apprenticeships – and setting targets for 50 per cent of the workforce to be female and 20 per cent from ethnic minorities (currently at 38 per cent and 8 per cent respectively), the organisation’s diversity strategy, backed by a new, dedicated team, also sets its sights on making sure the content produced by all its brands – on the airwaves, online and in print – factors in better diversity. A newly created head of creative diversity role, reporting to both HR and communications, ensures this happens. The idea, says Hughes, is to challenge News UK’s content: “We don’t tell people what to write and say,” she explains. “But the media has a huge role to play in making society a fairer place, and we want to make sure we have style guides that are fit for purpose and journalists who are trained in appropriate use of language – for example, The Sun no longer uses the term ‘BAME’.”

Another significant investment in the firm’s diversity work has been its data gathering. The company previously only collected information on employees’ gender and nationality, but it’s now expanded that to include sexual orientation, religion, caring responsibilities, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic elements including highest level of education, type of school attended and area grown up in, although Hughes admits that encouraging people to complete it has sometimes been difficult. “We thought – and were right to – that our workforce was very London-centric,” she explains. “If that’s the case, we’re not going to appeal to readers in Wales, or the north as much.”

Hughes was concerned that diversity would be forced to take a back seat when Covid hit, but she needn’t have worried. “Initially I thought it would fall off the agenda,” she says. “But it didn’t stop any of our output – stations are still running and papers go out every day, and this is the same.” The data has so far been promising; in a year, the number of staff who agree that the company values diversity has increased nine percentage points to 65 per cent. But, as Hughes points out, the proof is in the results: “It’s not a wonderful score, but it’s going in the right direction. We’ve made a great start, but our people want to see more.”

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