What civil society can learn from the BBC

Recent events such as BBC pay levels and gendered and racialised pay disparities brings to mind one phrase that might be repurposed in the name of justice. 

If you see something, say something.

The slogan is used to questionable effect by the US Department of Homeland Security. But in the pursuit of social, racial, class and gender equality vigilance is important. 

There are many things that could be said in relation to BBC pay and its pay audit. For example what gets counted as ‘valuable’ work and the potential benefits of unionised collective bargaining to combat group-based pay disparities. 

Perhaps most importantly it makes one wonder why people in the corporation did not say or do more. For example BBC senior staff must have known about the state of elite pay and will know about patterns of pay lower down the corporate ladder.

Decades after establishment of the idea of equal pay for equal work the reality is that for too many people in the BBC and beyond it is accepted as normal that women/BME/working class people occupy less senior positions and earn less than white middle class male counterparts. Day to day such discrepancies hardly seem noteworthy. They have become the naturalised order of things justified and held in place by a series of logics such as there being a shortage of ‘well-qualified’ BME people or women.

Whilst the BBC is currently in the line of fire all institutions need to be watchful for their own group-based disparities and the processes that deliver and keep them in place them. 

Certainly in civil society we should aim higher.

This is true across the whole of civil society but perhaps especially in the ‘commanding heights’ of the sector, including ‘blue chip’ charities and representational bodies; funders; and in projects with sector-wide implications.

Where practice falls short we need leaders with sharp vision who can see where injustices lie and are prepared to say something. 

If civil society is interested in seeing, saying and doing something about disparities here are some opening audit-type measures against which institutions could self-scrutinise.

·        The percentage of institutional salaries that go to women, non-university/first-in-family university graduates/BME people;

·        The range of experiences and backgrounds amongst senior management and trustees;

·        The practical measures taken in the last 12 months by an organisation/initiative to put groups such as women/BME/working class people in positions of power and influence. 

These measures are crude but so too is discrimination and such prompts can help to generate momentum for change. Though the results maymake for uncomfortable reading the point is that shortfalls are not inevitable and progress is possible.

The spirit of seeing and saying something is ultimately driven not by the fear of being caught out but about staying true to values – the place where civil society should be at its strongest. Neither is this ethos of seeing and saying confined to set piece audits but should be part of everyday activity.

Perhaps next time you are at that consultation event/Roundtable/senior management/board meeting look for who is present and absent and in what relationship to power. Consider too whether the content generated at such events is likely to perpetuate or leave intact existing disparities. And if you see something – even if it does not negatively affect you – please say something and then work with others so that we can do something.

Sanjiv Lingayah

August 2017

Dr Sanjiv Lingayah is a Voice4Change England Associate and researcher and writer on racial justice.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Voice4Change England.