Census form – filled yours in yet? by Marcus Ryder

Census form – filled yours in yet? by Marcus Ryder

by April 8, 2011

Back in 1991 as a student I had a part time job of a census enumerator. The job involved going door to door, handing out the national census form, helping people to fill it out and then collecting them all back. I was responsible for eight streets in Kilburn and a tower block. It was one of the hardest jobs I ever had. 1991 was also the time of the dreaded poll tax and so a lot of people thought I was trying to do the work of the tax-man collecting information on them. I had a lot of doors slammed in my face, heard a lot of words that I don’t think are appropriate to commit to a blog post and was even threatened with a dog.

It turned out I wasn’t the only enumerator that had problems getting people to fill out their census that year because of the poll tax. 1991 is now viewed as one of the least reliable British census ever with an estimated million people just not accounted for. If my experience was representative of census takers up and down the country I would guess it was predominantly poorer people who fell off the census radar that year fearing that the poll tax would catch up with them. The census is used to decide how public finances should be allocated, which groups the government should focuses its services towards and how to form public policy. The irony was the very people who needed to be counted by the census the most were running away from it.

20 years later I have hung up my census enumerator clip board but now as a BBC television producer interested in diversity I find myself grappling with the same issues? Only this time I am not directly worried about government policy but the policy of broadcasters. And it is the census figures that once again that are all important.

The diversity targets that the BBC (and other broadcasters set) for staffing are based on the percentage of BME or disabled people in the general population for example. And where do these statistics usually come from? You’ve guessed it – the census. It is very hard to argue for more diversity in front of or behind the camera if the figures don’t back you up. Conversely when the figures are on your side the argument literally makes itself.

A number of Scottish politicians have consistently used the census to argue that the amount of the BBC’s licence fee spent in Scotland should directly correspond to the percentage of the UK’s population that live in Scotland (roughly just under a tenth). It’s an argument that the BBC seem to be listening to more and more as the BBC increasingly moves productions out of London.

As I filled out the census last week I started thinking which census figures will be useful for The TVCollective. Should we be arguing, like Scottish politicians, that there should be a direct correlation between licence fee spend and productions staffed by diverse talent? If the census shows that the there is an increase in disability should TheCollective argue for bringing back the Disability Programme Unit? And if the middleclass black population has grown how should broadcasters reflect this? (The popularity of Colourful Radio seems to indicate that the black middleclass are an underserviced audience).

So now I have posted back my completed census form I realise my census work has only just started. The raw data will determine how I focus my energies around the subject of diversity and which arguments I might be able to win and which I won’t even bother having. My days as a census enumerator may now be a distant memory and I haven’t been chased by a dog since but it’s only now that I realise just how important that little form really is.

Marcus Ryder
Editor Current Affairs BBC Scotland