The BBC’s UK election night was a blow for diversity

by Emmanuel Akinwotu

There was an irony in the brilliant BBC coverage of the most dramatic UK election in memory. It focused on a spectacular and momentous change in British politics. But it was mostly covered by white males. In the upheaval of the election results, UK politics has shifted almost in a flash whilst the feel and character of those who report it remain stuck in time.

BBC election night

There is nothing to relish in criticising identity over performance. David Dimbleby in his last year of BBC coverage was typically light and definitive. Andrew Marr was a constant reel of colourful and perfectly summarising soundbites that you wished you’d thought of yourself. Jeremy Vine was in his element in his virtual world illustrating the results, almost to the point of concern for how he would cope with reality after it ended.

Andrew Neil, Huw Edwards, and particularly Nick Robinson (just after his recovery from a brain tumour) matched the speed of the drama of the night with real perspective.

The real apprehension with critiquing the lack of diversity of sex and race in the election coverage is that the coverage itself was good. No one is saying that a black, Asian or minority ethnic presenter would offer something different in particular. No identity has a monopoly on election analysis or any favourable or unfavourable attributes.

But news broadcasting is as much about the ability to analyse Modern Britain as it is about reflecting it. The news industry is inherently outward looking, and it should look like the world that is its focus. It is inexcusable that journalism which relies on built trust and credibility should be drawn from such a shallow pool.

Both the broadcasters and the guests were predominantly white males. Emily Maitlis and Laura Kuennsbeurg were the main female voices on the night, but on race and sex, it was not a mixed picture.

Inevitably, the lack of diversity in the coverage of one of the most important elections ever is low on the list of issues that have been mulled over in the aftermath of the result. The news coverage of the news coverage has reported on Jeremy Paxman’s performance for Channel 4, said to be a reason for why ITV’s Election Night ratings suffered markedly on 2010.

It has also reported on Dimbleby’s final BBC election night and on Paddy Ashdown’s ‘if that exit poll is right I will eat my hat’ moment.

The overlooked aspect is that unsurprisingly, in the central news coverage of the political season, the majority of the small number of BAME figures were not visible. When it mattered most, they were surplus to the figures probably deemed as more talented and more experienced.

In any straight choice, of course, merit should be a major factor. But merit of ability is too often synonymous with a preconceived appearance. And this appearance is too often white and male.

The 2015 general election night was an unforgettable episode of British political drama. The BBC’s 10pm exit poll exposed as false the dominant story of the last year of politics. We were told by pollsters and experts not to expect a majority. Now we have one. In the post result flux, diversity of media is not the most newsworthy subject, especially now.

But it is unavoidable and sad. It is a silent status quo, like the preconceptions before Thursday night’s exit poll, that needs exposure and shattering.


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Emmanuel Akinwotu is a History and History of Ideas student at Goldsmiths, University of London, with a special focus on the Arab Uprisings of 2011. He has written for the Guardian in Lagos, covering Politics and Education. He has been a commentator on Nigerian politics on Ben TV and has also written for student publications and online news forums. He tweets at @ea_akin and blogs at britiko.
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