INTERVIEW: Calling on creative diversity in the media with the BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity, June Sarpong

For decades, disabled people have been left underrepresented on and off screen – until now. The BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity, June Sarpong is trailblazing diversity in the media, she spoke to Lorne Gillies about the attitudes she is hardwiring.

Credit: BBC

How did you initially get involved in the BBC’s Creative Diversity department, ensuring the BBC was leading the way on diversity?

This is an area I have been passionate about most of my working life, one because much of it impacts me personally, and because I believe it is bettering the industry. 

We are making better storytelling, which makes for better output and, in a way, our industry has a really important role to play in terms of educating audiences, particularly around disability where there is so much ignorance. 

We know the data suggests over 60 per cent of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person, these are all the things we have to try and undo. I believe one of the best ways to do that is through creativity.

What more do you think needs to be done to end that feeling of discomfort to encourage discussion?

Awareness. Before we even get to that, there is so much ignorance around what is considered offensive to begin with.

Considering how big a chunk of the population the disabled community is, there seems to be a lack of integration in terms of how fully embedded disabled people are into everyday society. 

The release of the Creative Diversity plan in December 2020 showed a clear path for representation in the BBC. In what way are you focusing on disability representation?

Our reframing disability work is what we are doing around representing disability and really galvanizing the industry and educating where needed. We announced in our report that we’re launching our Disability Content Panel. This will comprise of internal and external stakeholders to really help guide and educate our commissioners on the area of disability portrayal.

Credit: CripTales, BBC Pictures

We’re really excited about that; we’re looking to convene the first grouping in the next couple of months. Additionally, we have the Elevate team and the Disability Passport; the passport is, at first, just for us, but the real goal is to be able to make it industry wide so when disabled talent begin work with a broadcaster, they’re not having to ask time and time again for their reasonable adjustments it is just clear what their needs are. 

I think, wouldn’t it be lovely to lose that conversation so you can just get onto the conversation about the work itself. 

There is also an increased budget to help the BBC put plans into practice, how will this be distributed?

Obviously, we have our £112million budget; £100million for content and £12million for radio, often people thought that money was BAME focused, it is not. 

The areas we are using that money to represent includes socio-economic, BAME and of course, disability. 

What we hope will happen is that the type of companies we work with, we will see talent from under represented backgrounds in leadership positions, portrayal in terms of the kinds of stories and stories being told – and the story tellers – and then crew and production. 

That is an area that is greatly underrepresented when it comes to disability, we really want to focus on that. Were also looking at ways for indies to know how to source talent.

Why is hearing lived experience from disabled people in the Disability Content Panel so integral?

We have programmes like our Content Commissioning Scheme which has been focused on bringing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and disabled creatives into commissioning teams, and helping to upskill them to become commissioners, not just for the BBC but the industry as well. But, we still have a long way to go in terms of the actual members that are on teams. 

It’s something we can do to help in terms of portrayal. These panels are so important for doing that, because there is nothing like hearing from someone with lived experience. 

I know myself there are many areas where it comes to disability that I am still learning and I have to be humble enough to ask people that know, and that is the purpose of the panel to support our commissioning team. We’re really excited about it.

The BBC had a big disability awareness campaign during 25th celebrations of the Disability Discrimination Act with dramas, documentaries, discussions and news packages: what was the response from audiences?

I’ll tell you thing that I am most proud of: from the disability programming we had late last year, the audience response in terms of the amount of people who said that they learned something new about disability, their opinions changed, and they felt they had a greater understanding. 

THE NUMBERS

In fact, during the BBC’s celebrations, 11.4 million people consumed content that was curated and aired from the disability specific season; this was the highest ever rated BBC season to date. Furthermore, over a third of people who watched content from the disability awareness campaign stated they learnt something new pertinent to disability from watching, hearing or reading the material aired.

The season saw almost of fifth of viewers change how they thought or perceived disability. These figures further highlight the importance to have positive and accurate representation of disability in the media. June continues:

The reach and ratings of those programmes was wonderful, for me, that is a really good example and it needs to become the norm. What that whole spate of programming has done is it has demonstrated that there is an audience, mainstream, broad audience that also want to see these stories relating to disability. 

The work that we are announcing and the report at the end of the year (2020) is really ensuring that our characterizations are not stereotyped, but rather a multi-dimensional archetype and connecting with audiences about a part of their story that they don’t see. 

Simple things that, if you are from that group, you will know when a production ‘gets it’ and they understand that some aspects shown are part of your daily routine. Sometimes it is just as simple as that. Ruth Madeley’s character in Years and Years is a great example. 

This is what we want to focus on going forward and this comes from, I believe, proximity as you just get to know people with different lived experiences of course that will impact how you commission and producers and creators in shaping characters.

There is no denying the positive steps being taken in the media, but where would you like to see representation in the next five years?

I would like to see more disabled leadership; that requires going out and finding the talent and giving them the support they need so people are hired based on talent and anything else is secondary, because the system is in place to provide that.

I would like to see more disabled writers and directors behind the camera, too, because they will create stories and leading stories for disabled talent.

Similarly, our Creative Allies campaign, features a whole group of creative companies who have signed up – with more joining. 

With a lot of this, everyone is frightened about getting it wrong and making mistakes; I’m no different, I’ve already made some but you learn from them. 

The project is a first step in terms of giving people the real practical tools to be respective allies for the underrepresented group they want to support. Sometimes that is what you need to start the processes.

For any disabled creatives looking to get into the industry, what advice do you have for them?

Develop your craft and become part of the community, because sometimes it is strength in numbers and it won’t seem as isolating. Find the first place to get your project green lit if you are a writer, for directors there are now programmes in place to provide an entry route, find these because they do work!

Alot of our disabled and BAME talent have come from an entry route, and they deliver results. We do have a long way to go before we get the results we want, but this is at least part of the solution. 

You can read the full BBC Creative Diversity report and how £100m will be spent commissioning diverse and inclusive content here.