Kurt Barling: Veteran broadcaster speaks out


One of Britain’s most senior broadcast journalists, Kurt Barling has spoken out in the weekend’s Sunday Times for the first time since the BBC dispensed with his services. He talks frankly about his distinguished career, and the very real challenges the BBC now face in matching their rhetoric of diversity whilst in reality Black senior staff remains at levels similar to 20 years ago.

OBV have a particularl debt to Kurt Barling. Back in 1996 it was Barling along with Rhiana Shipiro who gave the fledgling organisation our first significant airing on BBC with their groundbreaking current affairs programme. Since then Barling has covered almost every single major Black event in the last 20 years.

Simon Woolley


Stumbling accidentally into the Broadwater Farm riots nearly 29 years ago, I witnessed some of the worst violence I have seen in Britain.

Like most other local people, I only discovered later that it was Cynthia Jarrett’s death of heart failure, after police had entered her home that triggered outrage in Tottenham.

That tragedy turned me towards journalism. I had competed with many of the teenagers on the Farm as a young athlete and, as a north Londoner, I told myself my university studies gave me a responsibility to make a difference. I thought journalism was a way to bring fresh voices to the fore in public debate. I still feel that way.

I figured, learning my trade at the BBC, I wouldn’t have to be of the left or the right. Impartiality, accuracy, balance, fairness and decency were all objectives I felt I could subscribe to. I would be able to tell stories and interpret them based on my competence in forming editorial judgments. Above all, I could avoid being stereotyped as a journalist who only covered minority stories, even though, out of choice, that has become an important part of my work over the past quarter of a century.

Unsurprisingly, there have been pitfalls, pain and prejudice along the way. Once, as a young assistant producer, a senior manager singled me out, accusing me of falsifying my CV. I was, it seemed, unusually well qualified for a black person. After a week of torment it turned out to be an elaborate joke, although I did not see the funny side of it at the time.

Back in the 1990s the BBC launched a series called Black Britain. It was stuffed with talented people and for a while the award-winning series looked like it might be a good way of nurturing a fresh approach to diversity. It didn’t last. Most of the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) journalists, including myself, have since left the BBC or felt obliged to work more precariously as freelancers.

Down the years I have seen many talented people, black and white, leave the BBC because they weren’t nurtured, respected or valued. Ultimately they moved on, or out, of the industry to get greater fulfilment. The latest statistics show that BAME employees in television have dropped by a third in the past six years. I’m not surprised many are not being replaced. Managers still recruit and promote in their own image.

I’ve spent a long career investigating hundreds of stories others were often reluctant to. From war veterans to terrorism, through politics, business and all walks of London life, my mixed-heritage upbringing — part English, Irish, German and Nigerian — has given me a particular insight into our increasingly diverse country.

It helped me to cover changes in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, deal with Nigerian child traffickers and gave me insight into the Great War narratives that claimed my uncle at the Battle of the Somme. It has often given me privileged access to unconventional settings.

At Finsbury Park mosque in 1999 Abu Hamza, currently on trial in New York, was running a kind of al-Qaeda hostel. While many people saw him as a buffoon, my visits to the mosque told me he was a potential menace. It was a tricky story and Abu Hamza’s lawyers wasted no time in accusing me of anti-Islamic sentiment. It was a story that needed telling and it needed access to a minority community to tell it. It needed someone like me to face down the charge of racism.

We have become a diverse country and in London we have a diverse world city. BBC London has done better than most parts of the BBC at reflecting diversity. But this defence misses a fundamental point: it’s not just about faces on screen but experience and seniority. Where is the critical mass of BAME journalists in senior decision-making, strategic and leadership roles?

In 2011 I won an award for my BBC blog Barling’s London. Within months the blog was axed because of BBC cuts.

I’m heartened that now the most senior levels of management recognise the BBC has a diversity problem. Everyone below them seems to be either defensive and/or in a collective state of denial. There is no point in proclaiming initiatives and schemes — dozens in my time at the BBC — if they don’t deliver meaningful change. That’s indicative of institutional myopia or inertia.

There have also been numerous diversity champions over three decades. Whichever way you cook it, they have so far failed to deliver. Policies don’t protect and nurture people — good managers do.

The transformation of British society since I was a boy in the 1960s has presented rewards but also challenges. We need diversity among our journalists to help deliver insight and sensitivity. The BBC has found itself struggling to reflect the community it serves, including working-class families. I stayed all those years to play my part.

I believed then, as I do now, that we must embrace and trust different voices and not fear them. The alternative narratives that I have explored help us to make sense of who we have become; it weaves a more complex tapestry of modern Britain.

But the BBC remains serviced by an Oxbridge/Russell Group and privately educated elite that is only fractionally more diverse today than when I joined in 1989.

Too many communities still feel locked out of the national conversation. Failing to reflect diversity means the BBC is alienating a large part of its potential audience.

To continue to be fit for purpose it must reinvent its historic mission to inform, educate and entertain. This requires journalists who are plugged in to local, as well as national networks. It requires newsrooms to explore and nurture a different kind of workforce, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and existing institutional biases hindering BAME employees.

Frustrated as I am, the BBC remains an important national institution. For generations it has provided a window on other people’s worlds and provided a kind of social and cultural glue that has created national narratives in an often-divided nation.

Much of my 24 years in television journalism has been as a freelancer, freeing myself from what I saw as the bureaucratic constraints to advancement. Perhaps I was wrong. Now I must rely on my track record to speak for itself. But to be true to my creed I can’t keep my mouth shut if my trade is truly to remain open to all.

The BBC, like other journalistic institutions, faces an uncertain future. A bruising charter renewal debate lies ahead. The broadcaster is seeing its budgets squeezed while it absorbs the cost of the World Service. Competition is increasing and the audience is fragmenting. While the BBC remains the engine room of the creative economy for the moment, others — such as ITN, Sky, Google, YouTube, Facebook, London Live and the like — are proving more innovative, and frankly more fun, programming for an increasingly discerning audience.

Can young journalists from diverse backgrounds, with talent, aspire to be the star reporters and BBC managers of the future if they do not see their likeness on screen, or in senior positions in broadcasting? This is the most powerful argument for ensuring the BBC retains long-serving, experienced BAME role-model journalists.

I fear a public service institution that fails to live up to its promises on issues such as diversity will eventually find itself undone by its own hypocrisy.

A quarter-century association with the BBC and its creative people has left me a great admirer of the depth of talent and industry that resides there. My life has been changed by the work I have undertaken. Yet I cringe at a management culture that can waste talent so wantonly. I am a BBC supporter, probably a masochist too, but my scoop on the trial of Nicky Jacobs on Newsnight last week is a reminder of why I should try to continue to ply my trade there.

Last week I ended my time at BBC London as I began, driven by the tragedy of Broadwater Farm. Bringing different voices to the story, challenging the way we see each other, reminding the audience of the need to search for the truth.

I’ll leave you with a troubling story. Last week outside the Old Bailey, shortly after the not guilty verdict was delivered in the Jacobs case, a television producer from a rival channel approached Winston Silcott and myself who were in conversation. In 1987 Silcott became one of the most vilified men in English criminal history when he was found guilty of the murder of PC Keith Blakelock — a conviction that was later overturned.

Despite covering this story the producer managed to confuse me — a very visible reporter on the BBC — with Silcott. Perhaps it’s an easy mistake to make? It doesn’t say much for her research skills or social awareness and we are nothing alike. No wonder the black community is tuning out of terrestrial broadcasting.

Kurt Barling is a freelance journalist and broadcaster and is professor of journalism practice at Middlesex University London