We all know that the ‘n’ word is off-limits in polite company, but what about the ‘q’ word? In discussions about diversity in the media nothing can split a room quicker than mentioning the word “quota” .
To quota or not to quota? That is the question.
Here is a list of diversity words in order of acceptability: “Ambitions” “Goals”, “Targets”, “Ring-fenced”, “affirmative action” and then at the very bottom “quotas”.
For this very reason for the last five years or more, when I’ve been writing about diversity in the media, I have never mentioned “quotas”. I normally find it counter-productive and whether you support them or not they dominate the rest of the discussion.
The arguments against quotas are normally variations along the three themes:
1. That they are “reverse racism” or when talking about another kind of minority group some kind of generic “prejudice in reverse”.
2. If you implement quotas you don’t appoint the best person but just someone because of their specific “diverse quality”.
3. And finally the person from the diverse background doesn’t like quotas as they find them condescending and will never know if they were appointed because of their abilities or to tick a box.
These are all strong arguments against quotas and I can see merit in all of them.
The arguments for quotas are simple and are normally twofold:
1. There are more than enough qualified people from diverse backgrounds that finding someone competent to do the job will be easy.
2. Nothing much has changed in media diversity in the last ten years and despite “targets” and lip-service according to recent statistics things seem to getting worse. Quotas are the only way.
Again I can see a lot of merit in the quota side of the debate as well.
But I think the real problem of the pro and anti-quota brigades might just be the word. Drop the word “quota” and we might all be a lot closer than we think.
In the Observer paper on Sunday 9th February Danny Cohen, the BBC Director of Television announced; “TV panel shows without women are unacceptable…We’re not going to have any more panel shows with no women on them. It’s not acceptable”. –
From now on the BBC will not film any new all-male comedy panel shows: it is that simple. This comes after a recommendation by the BBC Trust last year. The BBC wants increased gender diversity in their comedy output and it will now happen.
What is interesting for me is that everyone has fallen in line. I have not heard people moaning about it, and 90% of the people I have spoken to think it’s a good idea.
What’s even more interesting to me is the complete absence of the word “quota” in the debate or in the announcement of the decision.
Specifying that there will be a woman on every panel show could be viewed as a relatively crude quota. But even the people who are normally dyed-in-the-wool anti-quota advocates seem to have embraced Danny Cohen’s announcement. And the normal left leaning quota heroes just seem to be simply accepting it and not seeing it as a victory for quotas.
I think increasing diversity on the BBC’s panel shows is a tremendous move and I hope other channels follow the broadcaster’s example.
But what I think is even more important is the lesson that if you can take some of the rhetoric out of the debate and dial down the ideology it is surprising how many of us actually want the same thing: – a more diverse television that reflects the real world we live in.
Editor Current Affairs BBC Scotland