White faces on screen
Jim-UK was in no doubt what he thought about the colour of faces we show on screen. In a comment posted on an earlier entry on this blog, he wrote: "If Newsround is anything to go by, then there's not one white child in the country."
I promised a reply; but I also promised to give it some time to monitor our output. What seems to be happening certainly throws up some production challenges.
Jim's comments refer largely to the interviews we show with children - "voxes". We film voxes when we want children to give us their opinions on a news story, or if we've gone to report on an event where children are taking part and we ask them what they've been doing. Quite often, this involves going into a school or going on the streets with a camera and microphone.
The challenge is that, while the UK is ethnically diverse, it is diverse in disproportionate quantities. Let's say that we want children to comment on our lead story today -
Louis and Kate leaving X Factor . Our normal production process will be to ring up a school, go in and film the interviews and get them on air in time for our first afternoon bulletin at 4.25pm on the CBBC Channel.
But let's also consider that Britain has an ethnic minority population of 7.9% . The BBC's main production offices are based in urban areas, and we could well end up filming at a school in, say, west London. Chances are that 80% of the children could be from ethnic minorities. So if we were to choose three voxes, you could have two black children and one Asian child.
To counteract this, we very often send a crew to a school in a completely different area of the UK. But then the converse often happens, and we could well film at a primary school with exclusively white faces. It's a poor use of money to send two crews on one story (a camera operator + a someone to ask the questions can cost up to £650 a day). Finding the ideal ethnic balance on each and every story, particularly at short notice, continues to be a challenge.
But should we be aiming for an ideal ethnic balance in any case? Yes and no. To me, the key is that, over time, we have a fair reflection of UK society. I haven't actually counted (maybe I should?), but over the past two months the vast majority of children we have interviewed have been white. Perhaps not as high as 92%, but certainly a majority.
And there is another point to be made. What we are actually interested in is children's views and stories. Does it matter what colour they are? If we have three black kids out of three, what's the difference from having three white kids, especially on a story such as X Factor? It might be different if the story somehow related to ethnicity or their background. On our recent high-profile Unicef story into childhood happiness, for instance, all four voxes were from ethnic minorities, and in retrospect it would have been preferable if we'd found some white children to talk to.
This is a very sensitive issue and I've read and re-read this entry while writing it. To me, the most important thing is that, at any point, a child should be able to watch our output and identify with what they see on screen. Reflecting ethnicity is part of the way of achieving that. But we probably need to work harder to make sure that our day-to-day production requirements don't end up setting the on-screen agenda.
I'm sure you'll have views...