The BBC 5050 Project: from asking one simple question, to impacting media diversity around the world

The BBC 5050 Project began in 2017 with one simple – but significant – question: could one news team, working on one show, achieve 50 per cent female representation in its content output over a one month period? So successful was this initial idea, that it has now grown to encompass 650 teams across the company, as well as 85+ partner organisations working in 26 countries around the world. In October 2020, the project was expanded further still, to include disability and ethnicity monitoring. We caught up with BBC Creative Diversity Lead, Nina Goswami, to find out how asking one straightforward question has led the BBC to have such a significant impact on representation monitoring across the media world. 

As the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead for News and the 5050 Project, Nina Goswami works with the company’s first ever Director of Creative Diversity, June Sarpong, and emphasises the importance of accurate representation throughout BBC content: “Across the board, what we’re looking at is how can the BBC – in terms of its content – be reflective of society? How can we ensure that what we’re doing on TV, radio, and online is actually what the audience is looking for? We want to ensure that we have different perspectives and different voices in our content.”

Perhaps ironically for an initiative that was founded on the idea of achieving equal representation of women, it was Ros Atkins, Presenter of programme Outside Source and a man, who first began to question if diversity in the company’s newsroom could be improved.

“Back in Christmas 2016, Ros was taking a car journey for a couple of hours and listening to a BBC radio station,” Goswami tells us. “He didn’t hear a single female voice for a really long time and began wondering to himself, how can that be in this day and age? That it’s Christmas 2016 and we don’t hear a single female voice on a BBC product… And so when he returned to the newsroom after Christmas he said to his team at Outside Source, Ok I think we need to work out what’s going on with our programming. Can we do something really simple and just count the number of women, and men, in our content, and see if we can reach 50 per cent female representation over a month-long period?”

“Outside Source is a daily programme, which is why this kind of time period worked well. You can consider the ebb and flow of a news cycle. For example, you have International Women’s Day, where we might have a lot of women on. You might have another day where it’s male heavy. So to do that monitoring over a set period of time means that we can adjust for that.”

“The other thing [Ros] did was to say let’s just count what we can control, and that’s a really important thing. Because we can’t control everything that happens. We can’t control that Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister at the moment, and we couldn’t control that it was Theresa May before him. We therefore removed those kinds of characters from the count and we count the people that we can control: the commentators, the experts that we have the opportunity to choose. That’s what we’re monitoring with 5050.”

The beauty of the project lies in its simplicity, and pragmatic monitoring of a tangible set of results. As UK Talent Agent, Niki Winterson, who works with the BBC in providing talent largely for non-factual programming and is a vocal supporter of the Equal Representation for Actresses programme (ERA), has previously said: “50 per cent of the people on this planet are women. If you ever want to achieve true equality, you had better start there.”

That’s certainly what the BBC did in launching the 5050 Project, which in October 2020 was expanded to include disability and ethnicity monitoring in addition to gender.

All of it is about improving diversity of voice, of thought. And the idea finally is to enrich our storytelling.

“We started looking at other metrics as you say,” says Goswami, “as relates disability and ethnicity. There, we’re using the three core principles of 5050, which is:

  1. Data to effect change
  2. Never compromise on quality
  3. Measure what you control

It’s those three core principles we are using now, to see if we can create increased representation for disability and ethnicity.”

“We have different targets of course, because the world is not made up of 50 per cent everything. So when we look at the UK for example, we’re looking at 20 per cent for ethnicity representation, and we’ve mirrored what we’re doing in BBC Workforce of 12 per cent for disabled representation. All of it is about improving representation. All of it is about improving diversity of voice, of thought. And the idea finally is to enrich our storytelling, so that we’re telling stories that our audiences should be hearing or want to be hearing.” 

Of course, we live in an age of individualism and identity politics, in-part fuelled by the divisive algorithms of social media, which we know are at least beginning to be looked at within the wider considerations around media tech regulation that are going on today. For a company like the BBC, which prides itself on a non-partisan approach to reporting, though nonetheless often finds itself under scrutiny from all ends of the political spectrum, it is imperative that it avoids engaging in such matters of opinion.

It’s a grassroots project, it’s not about identity politics. It’s about telling the best stories because they deserve to be told.

But of course equality is not about opinion, or identity politics. In fact, it’s arguably the establishment of the opposite. It is about facts, and providing an accurate representation of the society on which you are reporting.

“The 5050 Project was started by us as journalists. And we started it because we wanted to make a change to our content and wanted to be telling the stories that our audiences should be hearing. It’s a grassroots project, it’s not about identity politics. It’s about telling the best stories because they deserve to be told. We as journalists have a responsibility to be reflecting the world around us as it is and we can’t do that if we’re not representing half the world’s population, we can’t do that if we’re not having equality in terms of ethnicity and disability on our content.”

“So for me, that’s not about politics, that’s about making sure that we’re doing what we should be doing. And the BBC has a charter and public purpose, which is to make sure that we are reflective of our audiences, and that we’re educating our audiences, and we can only do that through diversity of voice and opinion. Because if we don’t hear those voices, we don’t hear those opinions, then how do our audiences get educated? This is not about making a political point, it’s about truly showing the world as it is.”

Looking forward, the BBC 5050 Project seems set to expand its range and influence further. In March, the initiative launched its third challenge month, having achieved significant success in previous outings.

“This time, we’ve asked BBC teams to see if they can also sign up to disability and ethnicity representation as well. Additionally across the whole network, this is the first time that we’re going to be publishing our gender data together. This is going to be a quite exciting – although also slightly frightening – moment, because I have no control over how our partners do (but I have full faith in them!) So this is a really big moment for us, and that’s why you would have seen that real flurry of activity you mention around International Women’s Day last month, because it’s not just the BBC on its own for the first time, it’s all of us together.”

When you see that the leadership has noticed what you’re doing, and then they buy in – and it was through that buy in that everything kind of exploded and escalated – that was again a real kind of moment for 5050.

“For me, that shows 5050 has moved from just a mini grassroots project to now a global grassroots project, and that is quite a moment. It started because we as journalists, we as content makers, wanted to make the change. But then when you see that the leadership has noticed what you’re doing, and then they buy in – and it was through that buy in that everything kind of exploded and escalated – that was again a real kind of moment for 5050. Because if we didn’t have that backing from the then Director General, Tony Hall, we wouldn’t have seen the project expand in the way that it did.”

Nina’s passion for the project is easy to see (and I’d encourage everyone to watch the full 25-minute interview). So finally I had to know, as somebody who started out in journalism reporting on the truth, and now finds herself directly impacting that truth in terms of helping to create greater diversity within the industry, how has she found that transition? And does she miss the former!?

“Yeah that’s a good question, I can’t keep my hands off journalism, I’m sorry! It’s still part and parcel of my life. I still write, and actually during the coronavirus lockdown I’ve been going back into the newsroom and editing the six and ten o’clock news, as and when they’ve needed me. And that’s also quite useful for me to do, because it means I still know what’s going on, on the ground – that influences what I do in the day job. Because as creative diversity lead, I want to make sure we are putting things in place that means that our content creators can reveal their truth and tell their stories in a way that is representative of the world and society. So having that hands on knowledge is really important for me to be able to do my job better.”


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