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TX: 12.06.03 - BROADCASTERS SAY THEY ARE IMPROVING THEIR PORTRAYAL OF DISABILITY - BUT ARE THEY RIGHT?


PRESENTER: WINIFRED ROBINSON


ROBINSON
This morning British broadcasters declared that they had made a good start in improving the portrayal of disabled people on television. The promise to improve the way that people with disabilities are portrayed on screen was part of a wide-ranging manifesto agreed a year ago. But the good progress report coincided with the publication of research by the television watchdog - the Independent Television Commission - other others which suggested that broadcasters are too cautious in their use of disabled actors and presenters. Jane Sancho, their research manager, says that viewers are much more positive about the idea than the broadcasters think.

SANCHO
The research showed that television viewers have a high degree of acceptance of disabled people on screen, 79 per cent of our sample said they would not mind if a disabled person read the main evening news. And the majority of viewers - 6 in 10 - say that there should be more portrayals of disabled people in a wide variety of roles, including as presenters. But what we also found talking to broadcasting professionals is that their views tend to lag behind the audience, they tend to believe that viewers aren't ready to accept more disabled people on screen but what this research shows is that viewers are very accepting of the principles of diversity and inclusion for all groups in society including disabled people.

ROBINSON
That was Jane Sancho from the ITC. Well I'm joined now by Alex Holmes, he's a BBC executive producer, he was heavily involved with BBC 2's disability season last autumn - What's Your Problem - and by Richard Rieser, who's former coordinator of the One in Eight group, which campaigned for fair representation of disabled people in the media. Alex Holmes do you think you are being too cautious?

HOLMES
Well I think it's a risk. I think we're getting better but I don't think we've really quite gone far enough in reviewing the way in which we portray disability on television.

ROBINSON
When you say you think it's a risk, what do you mean?

HOLMES
I think there's - I think there's a risk sorry that we are complacent and that we don't push ourselves and don't interrogate whether people are being portrayed as fully as they might be.

ROBINSON
It reminds me, this debate, about the debate about black fashion models 20 years ago when we used to be told that women wouldn't buy magazines, for example, with black models in and then Elle came along and exploded the myth. Do you think that there is this similar unnecessary caution in the use of disabled actors and presenters?

HOLMES
I think there is too much caution, I think there's a degree of self-censorship really amongst television producers and I think the research that the BBC and the ITC have done here will help us address that. I think we need to give producers confidence that their brave decisions to use disabled actors and disabled presenters will actually bring them a broader appeal and a broader audience.

ROBINSON
Richard Rieser do you think that much progress has been made in the last year since this disability representation manifesto was agreed in the industry?

RIESER
No I'd have to say we've been campaigning on these issues for a long time now and I think there was a bit more progress in the mid '90s than there has been in the last three or four years and I think that's partly to do with the sort of more marketisation of broadcasting, putting everything out on to a commercial footing and therefore people being more cautious in many ways in what they think the public will actually put up with. But I think my - I'm glad that these reports are out and I'm glad that there's more of a focus on it particularly as this is European Year of Disabled People. And in fact there's a conference tomorrow and on Saturday in Athens on this very issue for the whole of Europe so I'm hoping that that will feed in. But why people like Alex have got to take this more seriously and top marks for the autumn strand that he was involved with, it was very good, but it was only one little strand and what we need is we need to have it across all programming and all broadcasting. But the reason is I mainly now work trying to change attitudes in the education system and there I come across disabled children who just have no role models of themselves as adults at all because they just never see them. And I think broadcasters have a responsibility to fairly represent the society that they're actually broadcasting to.

ROBINSON
Alex Holmes if I could just pick up one point there that Richard has made, this drive for higher ratings among all the broadcasters and the BBC in particular, do you think that that has made programme makers more conservative?

HOLMES
I think we're feeling our way. I think that as this research shows it shouldn't make broadcasters more conservative in their coverage of issues about disability and their use of disabled people on screen because clearly the public is ready to have those people on their television sets and in their living rooms. So it shouldn't make people more conservative. Does it? Well perhaps it might but I think that this is all about a balance and I think it's important that we try and reach as broad an audience as possible. And I think that one of the things that we have perhaps moved away from, and I see this as a positive move, away from the high degree of niche programming, that actually what we ought to be moving towards is the raising of disability issues and the use of disabled actors and performers across the broad spectrum of our output rather than just in the odd magazine show. So that would be my aspiration.

ROBINSON
Richard Rieser you say things haven't changed in the last year, what about in the last decade or so?

RIESER
I think in the last decade there is definitely a change of opinion coming from the public. But you know some of the best actors, disabled actors, that we've got are still not getting parts in mainstream dramas, who've come out of the disability arts movement and are as good as any other actors around but they're just not getting cast as much as they should be. So I think that's an issue that it's not just about portrayal, it's also about representation - making sure that as many of the presenter and acting parts are actually going to disabled people. And I think also the BBC has been good at developing a strand of producers and film-makers but many of them are now not working for the BBC, they're working elsewhere and producing small little programmes which very often don't get on to television. And so I think there is a real need to set some sort of target, if we're going to not have niche programming, which I agree is probably not a good idea, but at least it guaranteed there was some output whereas in some weeks now there are no output at all. I'll give one example: you take something like EastEnders, we when the One in Eight was functioning went and saw the executive producer several times and argued why we should have it and she's on record, on film, it's now someone else, but of saying well of course you've got a point but we don't want to make it into a freak show. And I think as long as that sort of attitude is around, and hopefully going more, but it's still there - that disabled people are not sexy, that we're not like everybody else - and that's part of the problem is with the image maker and not with disabled people. And I think the audience is ahead of the image makers.

ROBINSON
Richard Rieser, Alex Holmes we have to leave it there, many thanks.






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