Time for Wales’ creative sector to ‘open up’

Rhodri Talfan Davies says the creative industries in Wales have to work harder to disprove perceptions that they’re a ‘closed shop’

Rhodri Talfan Davies is Director of BBC Wales. This speech was made to the All Wales Annual Race Equality Conference on 16th March in Cardiff.

Good morning and many thanks for the invitation. I’m delighted to be here. I want to take a moment today to talk about inclusion issues within Wales’ creative industries, and to set out some of our thinking about how we might tackle some of the more deep-seated challenges we face.

Editorial Diversity

Last week we marked International Women’s Day – and there were a number of notable contributions from BBC Wales. One was a hugely popular twitter post from Doctor Who highlighting the contribution that women make to the production.  Another was a rather brilliant orchestral concert for Radio 3 from this very centre celebrating female French composers.

There was plenty of debate on Twitter and elsewhere about the merits or otherwise of a Women’s Day – answers on a postcard – but it got me thinking about the BBC’s own record on diversity and representation, and the challenges we face.

Three years ago, we set ourselves a very clear goal to improve the way we reflect the real diversity of Wales on-air.  Our goal was simple: to capture Wales as it is. That is, not a romanticised, picture-postcard, heritage-centre image of Wales, but the contested, vibrant, messy, socially-diverse reality of a modern nation. It was never intended as a tick-box exercise and I’m delighted it hasn’t turned out to be one.

Many of our programme-emaking teams have been working with our Editorial Diversity lead, Catrin Griffith, to see how they can raise the bar. Catrin, who is taking part in the panel discussions later today, is an experienced programme producer who, twelve months ago, took on a brand new job to raise the bar on diversity across our output.

As Catrin will tell you, there’s a lot of work to do to get it right – but when we do get it right it can really cut through.

You may have seen a captivating documentary we aired recently about the Welsh Olympic athlete Jamie Baulch searching for his birth mother. This deeply personal story moved many to tears, because it was an extraordinary human journey.

But what made this a real example of getting it right was that the story allowed us to surface Jamie’s thoughts on his ethnic origins as part of the narrative. It wasn’t a film focused on ethnicity, yet it explored issues around race in a way that felt absolutely real and authentic.

Jamie, who is mixed race, had been adopted by white parents as a baby and decided he needed to know more about his genetic roots. During the programme he discovered detail about his Jamaican birth father.

This meant the producers could give us a glimpse of what it was like to grow up as a mixed race child in the 1970s, and some of the issues of identity which that gave rise to for Jamie.  In one memorable scene, Colin Jackson, the former gold medallist, welcomed him into the Jamaican “family” of athletes – the best in the world.

The programme inspired audiences right across the UK – and attracted one of BBC Wales’ biggest audiences of the year. So we invited Jamie and the production team to come to talk to us about how they made that documentary, and to share their experience with fellow programme-makers as they search for new and original ways of telling these kinds of stories.

There are other examples too. Across sport, news and radio, I think there’s been real progress on-air – and major series like Poet on the Estate, Country Midwives, Live Longer Wales and this month’s Real Valleys television season are providing an insight into communities and lifestyles that for too long lay out of sight and perhaps out of mind.

And of course, in Doctor Who and Casualty, we have two UK programmes that have led the way in portraying diversity in all its forms over many years.

So, yes, there is more – much more – to do, but I believe we are building real momentum.

Now it’s worth saying that our ambition to reflect Wales ‘as it is’ doesn’t please everybody. One viewer wrote to me after the documentary series The Call Centre, produced by BBC Wales, was first broadcast on BBC Three. The letter was short and to the point: ‘Why the hell would you want to show such an unseemly side of Welsh life on TV screens all over the UK? You’re going to make Wales a laughing stock’.

Now, I usually write pretty polite letters in reply but this note made me angry. Because, for me, Call Centre rather brilliantly captured a slice of Welsh life that, if we’re honest, BBC Wales hadn’t traditionally shown very much interest in.

More than that, it explored a swathe of personal and social issues affecting young people across Wales – including self-image, diet, relationships and job insecurity – that, again, had not been front and centre in BBC Wales’ output up to that point.

And I guess that’s the point we shouldn’t lose sight of when we talk about diversity and representation. Yes, of course there’s an important and undeniable moral dimension – a national broadcaster has a duty to serve and represent everybody – but the creative prize is very real too. Because what we are really talking about is a determination to search out new voices, new perspectives and new experiences.

Workforce Diversity

Alongside the efforts being made in programming, we’re also developing our plans to open up opportunities at BBC Wales to people from a broader range of backgrounds.

This really matters. The creative and artistic sectors of Wales can inspire us like little else. They help tell us who we are and what our values are.

But it’s a sector that must be for everyone. I don’t just mean in terms of consumption: watching a drama or listening to a concert. I mean in terms of their production too. I firmly believe that getting more people and different people involved in the creative industries in Wales is critical to the long-term success of those industries.

And if we’re going to make headway on this, we’re going to have to be pretty clear and candid about the scale of the challenge right now. The hard truth is that too many young people – particularly those without a degree – don’t think the sector is interested in them.

Sometimes I hear them say ‘people like me don’t work in television or at the BBC’ – well they do, and they can! Others believe they have to speak Welsh to work at the BBC – well they don’t! In fact, while our Welsh language services are vitally important only about 1 in 5 posts at BBC Wales requires Welsh-speaking skills.

But it would be a little bit too easy and convenient to say that it’s just about changing perceptions. I’m worried – and I know many of you are too – that if you have the right contacts, or perhaps you can afford to work for free for a while, you have a better chance of breaking into the creative sector. It can feel like a closed shop. That’s not right. And it’s got to change.

What does the data tell us? Well, let’s take a look at ethnicity as one clear example. In the last workforce survey by the industry body Creative Skillset, it found that fewer than 1% of those working in the creative industries in Wales came from a Black, Asian or other Minority Ethnic background (BAME). Just 1% – compared to a BAME population of about 4% across Wales.  And before you ask, the figure for BBC Wales is 3%.

These figures would be troubling on a pan-Wales basis. But for a sector so focused in and around Cardiff – where the BAME population is closer to 16% – these are deeply concerning findings.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are a number of individual and rather brilliant examples of where the creative sector in Wales has worked really hard to address a range of inclusion issues. But the data tells us rather starkly that the overall impact of these efforts has just been too limited and too fragmented – certainly as far as ethnicity is concerned.

Of course, in pointing this out, I also need to recognise that I am one of the very lucky ones – born into a family of broadcasters. Not so much a silver spoon in my mouth, perhaps, as a remote control. The chances I was given at a young age made a real difference to my life.  It’s partly what drives me now – to ensure the opportunities that I know shaped my own life are opened up to people from every walk of life.

But I don’t ask you to judge me today on my warm words. Instead, I want to ask you to support the changes that we’re making, and to be critical friends as we seek to make real, concrete progress. 

What are we doing about it?

So what are we doing to address the challenge?

First, we are providing more work opportunities than ever before and tackling head-on the fact that too many aspects of broadcasting have become the near exclusive preserve of graduates.

When I became Director at BBC Wales there were just two or three traineeships or apprenticeships openings available to non-graduates each year.  By the end of this year we will have increased that number ten-fold to 25 – that will be about 2% of our workforce. We haven’t achieved this on our own: we’ve been working hard with partners across the BBC and with vital industry bodies such as Creative Skillset Wales.

Already we are seeing the real benefit of this new influx of talent working across our output at our Roath Lock drama studios, in Llandaff and with a range of industry partners. And I’m delighted that we were recently named ‘Employer of the Year’ at Wales’ National Apprenticeship Awards.

These new openings are being focused on providing opportunities to individuals from communities and backgrounds that have traditionally felt locked out of the creative industries. They include placements across drama production, engineering and technology, radio and news production.  Later this year, working with the Welsh Government, we’re also developing plans to provide more than 100 special digital traineeship opportunities for unemployed people keen to develop programming and coding skills.

Second, we are expanding our formal work experience opportunities at BBC Wales – and, again, focusing these openings at under-represented groups. We’re also ensuring there is support in place for those facing the greatest hardship so that nobody rules themselves out of these sorts of opportunities.

Third, we have appointed a full time specialist to drive our recruitment of talent from under-represented groups in Wales. Debbie Topping, who joined us just a fortnight ago, has spent a number of years working with schools right across Cardiff to ensure they meet the needs of students from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Debbie’s job is to open our doors to anyone with the right talent and a passion for what we do.  We want to spot, encourage and develop the broadest range of candidates for future opportunities.

Fourth, we are asking all our sectoral development partners to review their own programmes and schemes in order to place a greater emphasis on broadening opportunity. While I know our partners share a real determination to address these challenges, we have also been clear that future funding commitments will depend on seeing real, measurable progress.

Fifth, we’re reviewing the way we recruit. We want to see a greater focus on creativity, attitude and ideas – rather than background, education or formal experience. We’ve talked to lots of young people who feel our traditional, one-size-fits-all recruitment is off-putting – and can mean we don’t get the best people applying for wider opportunities with us.  In a creative organisation, we should be much more creative in how we spot, and promote, talent.

Sixth, as many of you will know, we are busy finalising plans to relocate our main HQ from Llandaff into an area just outside Cardiff Central station. By leaving the leafy suburbs of north Cardiff, and putting ourselves slap-bang in the heart of city life, I believe this a unique opportunity to strengthen our relationship with many of the capital’s growing communities.

I want us to work closely with partners here today, and those in the HE and FE sector, to ensure our new centre is a dynamic, open hub where people from all backgrounds can aspire to work and where we can demystify the work of our national broadcaster for tens of thousands of visitors.

Finally, I want us to be crystal clear about the progress we make along the way. So BBC Wales will publish a summary of the actions we’re taking on inclusion, the targets we’ve set and the progress each every year so you can judge for yourselves whether we’re on track.

Conclusion

This isn’t just about doing the right thing – it is also vital for our creative future. Creativity and innovation thrive on difference, challenge, radical thinking and non-conformism. If we are to perform at our best, we need to look harder for the talents that will help break new ground and overthrow the old orthodoxies.

For that to happen, we need to prise open the creative sector and provide opportunities for all of our nation’s brightest talents. And I believe the BBC in Wales can lead the way in helping to make that possible.

The opportunity to work for the BBC and in Wales’ creative industries must never again be about where you went to school or where you grew up. Instead, it has to be about talent and about creativity, about taking the seeds of promise and giving them the support and sustenance they need to take root and flourish.

I know that we are going to have to go the extra mile to get this right. It’s precisely what we’re going to do.

While you’re here, we’ve got something to ask you: will you join us?

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