Actor and comedian Lenny Henry has criticised Ofcom for failing to instruct the BBC to improve its behind-the-camera diversity. For now, the regulator will monitor only how the broadcaster handles representation onscreen.

In a powerful column for the Guardian, Henry argues that on-set diversity would serve as a wellspring for improvements in the resulting content – and besides, it is also fairer.

Henry writes: “Back in 2014 more than 50 leading industry figures, including Idris Elba, Stephen Poliakoff, Meera Syal and Emma Thompson, wrote an open letter to all broadcasters asking them to set money aside for diverse production teams.

“Nearly all the relevant unions and trade bodies – including the National Union of Journalists, Bectu and Directors UK – have all recently said that the regulator Ofcom needs to do more to ensure the BBC increases the diversity of those who make the programmes. When I gave a speech in parliament in July in front of a cross-party panel, all agreed that targets for off-screen diversity are essential.”

However, he added: “There is just one problem. Ofcom, the body that would be responsible for setting targets for the broadcasters, doesn’t agree with me. Or with the leading industry figures. Or with the unions. Or with the cross-party politicians.”

In one example of how inadequate diversity can blight lives and careers, Henry notes that a minority TV executive he’d met had experienced “a nervous breakdown because of prejudice and lack of trust in her abilities at work”. To what extent should this issue be the preserve of regulators such as Ofcom?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There is one significant factor that Lenny Henry is missing here by calling on Ofcom to regulate the diversity in the production companies that supply the BBC. It is the production companies themselves that must grasp and acknowledge the strong and robust business case for having diverse teams. As we say of any organisation, if you have a workforce that reflects the customers you are trying to serve, then you’ll do a better job of understanding their needs and providing customer service.”

Cooper adds: “In an industry such as television, which wields an enormous influence and commands avid interest from vast swathes of the population, one would naturally assume that the more diverse or representative of the viewers the production teams are, the better the programmes will be. So rather than making a plea for diversity in terms of the greater good – and of course I’m not saying that there isn’t a moral case – I think that the business case is more persuasive. Not just in terms of innovation and customer service, but for widening your talent pool.

“If you’re recruiting only from the same demographic of white, middle-class people, then your content will emerge from a very narrow place.”

For further thoughts on the need for social sensitivity in the workplace, check out this learning item from the Institute

Image of Lenny Henry courtesy of Featureflash Photo Agency, via Shutterstock