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Disability and Gender Inclusivity in the Media

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2022

I will call Dr Lisa Cameron to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to make a winding-up speech.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered disability and gender inclusivity in the media.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, in a debate on disability and gender inclusivity in the media, which is such an important issue. In this short debate, I plan first to look back at where we have come from. Then I shall look forward and refer to some of the progress that has been highlighted to me since I secured the debate. That progress comes from a number of media companies that are trying their best to strive and go forward.

To start, it is important to remind ourselves that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have empowered women around the world to speak out against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. That has given hope to a new generation who are marching on a path towards equality. However, we must be cognisant of the fact that the report “Gender Inequality and Screenwriters”, supported by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, has revealed an alarming set of statistics, such as the fact that only 16% of film writers in the UK are female. It has also been uncovered that only 14% of prime-time TV is female written. That consistent imbalance was observed over 10 years, and the evidence indeed demonstrated that those figures had flatlined during that period, with no signs of recent improvement in gender representation. We can see from the figures presented in the report that the glass ceiling is still firmly in place and the problem remains locked for so many women—so many talented people who should be contributing to industry.

For an example, we can look way back to the roots of patriarchal society and the ’50s and ’60s, when Sylvia Anderson was a female pioneer in television. As most of us will know, she co-created many groundbreaking children’s shows and characters, from “Fireball XL5” and “Stingray” to “Thunderbirds” and the iconic Lady Penelope. Sylvia Anderson was described in the publicity material of their own production company, AP Films, as the driving force behind the puppet kingdom, and she devised the characters, co-wrote the scripts and the storylines, and often directed the filming herself at a time when there were so few women in such pivotal roles.

During Sylvia’s lifetime, as a result of a patriarchal system, she found herself often omitted from the work and creations that she produced alongside her husband. To this day, those productions are still often referred to with no mention of co-creator Sylvia.

Gender inequality is not limited to writers, as many main creative roles in film production are held predominantly by men. Worldwide, women are still being denied their voice and their due recognition, so why, in 2022, are we still having this debate? Why should this argument exist at all? It seems that, like Sylvia, women are still suffering the effects of gender inequality in respect of which intolerance of women’s place is still a huge factor.

We are pleased to have Dee Anderson, Sylvia’s daughter, with us here today. Dee is supporting the Time’s Up campaign in order to promote gender inclusivity in the media and take forward a more inclusive and gender-balanced industry for the future. I congratulate her on all the work she is doing in that regard.

I want to look briefly at some progress that is being made. I have heard from a number of organisations, such as the BBC, which contacted me to let me know that it is driving forward a campaign called 50:20:12, which has as its targets 50% women, at least 20% people from an ethnic minority background and 12% disabled employees. The BBC is using the campaign to drive a senior leader index for each of its departments. This is so important. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I have heard from so many people who have told me that they have no role models within the industries who are from their area and background, and have their characteristics. That can be extremely disheartening.

To see industry trying to drive forward inclusion and equality on our screens is like osmosis. We take this in every day of our lives, when we are watching television, live-streaming or looking at media. Those are the images we see, the people we hear from, the presenters who face the world on our behalf. It is so important that young people from every background and sector of society have those role models to aspire to and know that they can achieve their full potential.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing this debate. Does she agree that public service broadcasters have an important role to play when it comes to inclusivity, whether disability or gender? Will she join me in applauding the work of Channel 4, particularly ensuring that the Paralympics coverage in 2012 not only gave opportunities for people to reappraise or rethink their views on disability in front of the camera, but gave many people behind the camera the opportunity to establish careers, when they might have found that difficult before because of their disability?

Absolutely. I entirely commend the fantastic work that the right hon. Lady does on equality, right across Parliament. It is second to none; she is a force for good in showing leadership in those roles. She is absolutely right. I spoke to Channel 4 a number of years ago in my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability. They told me that, at the start, it was seen as a big risk to have so many hours of livestreaming of the Paralympic games. They were not sure how that would go with regard to audience participation and numbers. It has actually been overwhelmingly positive. People are so engaged and inspired by the Paralympians. They see first hand on their screens the achievements of so many people who have overcome adversity and challenged their disabilities, turning them to ability and potential. I congratulate Channel 4, who sent me information about the work they are doing, which I can mention alongside that which the right hon. Lady highlighted. That was a pivotal moment in disability representation.

Disability Rights UK contacted me with the following information:

“Disabled people make up a fifth of the population. There are disabled professionals in all walks of life—politicians, lawyers, academics, sports people, doctors, business owners—and disabled people working in every part of public life. But when we watch the news or read the media—social, print or digital—it is rare to see disabled people, and when we do, we are almost always speaking about individual disabilities or personal horror stories. A huge lack of representation means our stories are going unreported, talent is unrecognised…and negative attitudes towards disability are going unchallenged. We do not have enough of a percentage of a voice. A fifth of us are disabled but we are not a fifth of the news. Media often represents us as heroes or scroungers.”

Even when representation does happen, it can be stereotypical and quite depressing for the audience. It is important that people are engaged in employment in every sector, particularly in the media. We have to change the mindset, the attitudes, the representation, behind the scenes as well as in front, in order to make a long-term difference. Newsrooms rarely include disabled staff. Newspapers have columnists, but how many are disabled? How many programmes currently harness that talent? Those issues need to be collectively worked on and taken forward by Government policy, agencies, organisations and the whole sector in order to make sure that we can turn the situation around for those who feel unrepresented at the current time.

I understand that the Daily Mirror ran a week of features called “Disabled Britain: Doing It For Ourselves”, which was the first time that Disability Rights UK recalled a national paper allowing disabled people to tell their own stories in their own way. Most importantly, rather than focusing on individual impairments, it spoke strongly about a social model of disability, which posits that people are impaired by the lack of access in society and the inability to engage, rather than by their impairments alone, and that the public do not understand the social model of disability. There is still an “us and them” mindset when it comes to disability, but the truth is that—we can be quite candid about this—with our populations living much longer, many people who have not previously had disabilities will develop them in the future. Having a normalised representation in the media supports everybody, takes us all forward together, and reflects the society in which we live.

I will speak a bit about the work that the BBC is doing on the workforce, because one of the issues is the disability employment gap, which was mentioned specifically by Disability Rights UK. I know that the BBC has been very committed, and I have met its representatives to discuss the projects that it is working on and the launch of its disability passports. The BBC is trying to enable the movement of disabled talent right across the industry, alongside being a Disability Confident employer at leader level 3. Throughout my time in Parliament, I have been encouraging MPs to walk the talk in this regard and to make sure that we are signed up to being Disability Confident employers, in line with the Government’s programme. The BBC is really trying to change things behind the scenes and on screen, and it has formed a partnership with Netflix to develop and fund new, ambitious dramas featuring disabled creatives, with two productions already in development. We are keen to see them in the near future.

I turn now to Channel 4. As has been mentioned, it is the home of the Paralympics, “Born to Be Different”, “The Undateables” and “The Last Leg”, and it champions talent such as Rosie Jones, Billy Monger, Briony Williams, Ed Jackson and Ruben Reuter. The station has also cast people with disabilities in major formats, including “Big Brother”, “First Dates” and “The Great British Bake Off”, which we all love to watch, but which I could never emulate, because my cakes are always total flops—I have no chance of ever participating.

Channel 4 also makes “Hollyoaks” and “Googlebox”, and it is driving change. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) mentioned, the 2020 Paralympic games reached 20 million viewers—a third of the UK population. The “Super. Human” marketing campaign reached 81% of the population. I have to say that I am not the most up to date with technology, but there was also a bespoke Paralympics hub on TikTok, which generated 4.1 million views. With the Beijing 2021 winter Paralympics, Channel 4 built further on its work, proudly announcing a 100% disabled line-up of world-class presenters. Progress is definitely being made.

I want to turn briefly to ITV, which was in contact with me, before asking the Minister for an update on how the Government can collectively work with the sector to harness disabled talent and move things forward in a positive way. ITV got in touch and spoke to me about its diversity acceleration plan, which commits to increasing representation of disabled people in senior editorial positions, ensuring that ITV better reflects the lives of disabled people on screen, improving diversity and career progression in TV production and improving opportunities for working on programmes or behind the scenes. ITV has 9.6% of disabled talent on screen to date, which it says is the highest proportion of all broadcasters in the report “The Fifth Cut: Diamond at 5”.

Progress is being made across the board. ITV also spoke to me about improvements it has made. Of course, we have heard some more historical examples, but ITV says it has 49.6% women representation on screen and off screen in production teams, and that, in the workforce, 52.6% of all colleagues and 49.2% of managers are women. It has also launched a menopause policy. It will support colleagues who are going through the menopause, ensure that they have adequate time, reduce stigma and ensure that the menopause does not adversely impact careers. ITV says that 48 women are in its 100 top earning roles, and it is committed to achieving a 50:50 gender balance.

This debate is important because we seek to represent those who have perhaps not had that representation in the past, and we want to make changes. As drivers of change in Parliament, we must work together across parties. Certainly, as chair of the APPG for disability, I am very keen to take this agenda forward with the industry—print, media and more modern types of screening—but also, as parliamentarians, we need to keep the momentum towards equality going.

I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke for coming to the debate and taking time out of her busy schedule. She is a champion in this field. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this important debate, because representation matters. It strengthens the media for it to be more representative of the people that it serves. As a white man who used to be a journalist, I am acutely conscious of the diversity, or lack of it, in some newsrooms. Diversity in the media influences society as well. One of the crucial points that the hon. Lady made is that the incidental presence of people with disabilities not talking solely about their disability on screen normalises something that should be completely normal. There has been progress on that issue, among many others, but it is important that the Government are realistic and say that there is more to do in this area. A huge amount of progress has been made, but there is no room for complacency.

Ofcom’s 2021 report on news consumption showed that TV was the most used platform for news consumption. Nearly 80% of over-16s get their news from TV, which is ahead of the internet, and yet TV has many of the problems that she describes. TV needs to be representative of the country in which we live, and to offer opportunities for people from all backgrounds to contribute and achieve—so too, of course, does the rest of the media. Evidence indicates that there remains a huge number of barriers preventing access to the media sector for under-represented groups. Those from working-class backgrounds, women and disabled people are among the most greatly impacted. Initiatives such as “Time’s Up” are hugely welcome, and it was welcomed by the Secretary of State at the time, but she also said at the time that there remained more for the industry to do to get to those shared goals.

To look first at gender representation and inclusion in the sector, it is a welcome development, of course, that three of our four main public service broadcasters are led by female executives: ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. However, to look at that one metric would lay us open to reasonable charges of tokenism, and that is not enough. There is increased visibility of women on screen in sports media roles—sports commentary and punditry roles—that have traditionally been dominated by men. That is hugely welcome, and I am sure that the hon. Lady also welcomes the increased coverage of women’s sports, which has seen the women’s Euro tournament hosted in England and getting publicity that it would never have received a few years ago. Although that increased visibility is welcome, it does not add up to equality, and it remains the case that women are less well paid and less likely to advance to influential senior positions than their male counterparts. The Government are keen to work with the industry to change that rapidly.

According to Ofcom’s five-year review of diversity in broadcasting, which was published last year, the representation of women in TV and radio workforces was close to or above 47% of the UK labour market, but the representation of women at senior levels falls to 42% for television and 43% for radio, which is close but not sufficient. Data covering the same period also shows that, for TV and radio, the proportion of women leaving the workforce was greater than those joining. Ofcom found that broadcasters were focusing on entry level recruitment at the expense of retaining diverse staff and enabling them to progress.

Whether it is women leaving the workforce or the lack of older people in general on screen or behind the camera, there remains much to do. Those imbalanced pictures perpetuate harmful stereotypes, which is also seen in the online abuse of high-profile female figures, which further exacerbates the problem of retaining talent. I know that the hon. Lady has experienced that and has spoken powerfully about it. We witness it far too often in public life, in the media and elsewhere. The Online Safety Bill seeks to tackle some of that, but nobody in Government is naive enough to pretend that it will be a panacea.

On the representation and inclusion of disability in the media, the evidence presents a more concerning picture. Disabled people are the most under-represented group in television; the industry is significantly failing to meet the targets that it has set itself for representation in the workplace on and off screen. Of course, the setting of those targets is hugely welcome, but meeting them is what matters.

Ofcom’s diversity report shows that the representation of disabled people in the TV and radio workforce in 2020-21 was less than half the UK benchmark of 19%, as the hon. Lady highlighted, and that even the highest-performing employers have a long way to go. At senior levels, disability representation failed to show any progress since Ofcom’s first diversity in broadcasting report was published in 2017; in the case of radio, the situation had actually got worse. Ofcom again found that in television, more disabled people were leaving the industry than joining. Although we should welcome all those initiatives, they are still not sufficient.

As the hon. Lady said, the highlight has to be Channel 4’s incredible coverage of the Paralympic games, and the broadcaster’s brave decision to have the team that it put in place. It was a resounding success and, in many ways, made more progress than anyone predicted in advance.

The Creative Diversity Network, whose members include public service broadcasters and Sky, collects on and off screen diversity data through its project Diamond, which found that only 8.3% of onscreen contributions in general were made by disabled people compared with, as the hon. Lady said, nearly 20% of the population. That lack of representation results in limited visibility and inaccurate and sometimes damaging portrayals of disabilities. In the excellent report from Underlying Health Conditions and Jack Thorne, “Everyone Forgot About the Toilets”, we see a lack of provision for disabled people at almost every level. It is the same in many walks of society, but the media have an ambition to go further and lead the way. As I say, that ambition is welcome but meeting it is what matters.

There are a huge number of challenges to be met if there are to be real improvements in disability representation, whether that be attitude, awareness, knowledge or inclusive and accessible work environments. They all need to be addressed and the Government are keen to work with the industry to do that. The work of the APPG is also an important step that I am sure will make a real contribution.

Barriers to careers in the media and creative industries start early. The Secretary of State has spoken of her desire to see improved access across the sector, recognising that this is a systemic issue that requires sustained collaboration from everybody. We welcome the work being done by the industry: a number of organisations have launched their own individual strategies, some of which have been highlighted today.

Ofcom has an important part to play in holding broadcasters to account through its statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity in relation to employment in the broadcasting sector in particular. It has the power to ask broadcasters to provide information about their equal opportunities policies and the make-up of their workforce. Its work in this area is important for increasing transparency and accountability and ensuring that the industry has the available data to support the case for change and measure progress.

The Government are committed to supporting the sector to achieve those improvements. The national disability strategy sets out our ambition to improve the lives of millions of disabled people, and DCMS is working closely with its seven disability and access ambassadors, including Allan MacKillop—I think he is well known to the hon. Lady—whose work includes introducing confidential access and inclusion passports to support better inclusion of disabled people across all major broadcasters, and delivering the Elevate and Extend programmes, which provide entry and mid-level placements for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people on BBC shows. The forthcoming creative industries sector vision will set out the Government’s vision for addressing those barriers and making careers in the media and creative industries accessible to all.

Once again, I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I genuinely commend her for her work on representing and championing those under-represented groups, particularly in the APPG. A huge amount more can be done, and the Government look forward to working with her and many others to pursue those important efforts.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.