Decrease and development: Reflections on D Word 3

‘The D Word 3: A Conference on Diversity in the Sports Media’, organised by BCOMS, was held at BT Sport Studios on Monday 8 October. Sports Media LGBT+ network lead Jon Holmes, a panellist on the ‘Finding Solutions’ workshop, looks back on the event and considers what outcomes are needed…

A few days before the D Word 3 conference in London, the actor Riz Ahmed spoke to The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah about why he preferred ‘the R Word’.

“In terms of diversity and representation, I don’t like to talk about diversity,” said Ahmed. “Representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture, and from our politics.

“We all want to feel represented, we want to feel seen and heard and valued. I prefer to talk about representation.”

Ahmed has become a respected voice on this issue – his speech at the House of Commons last year has become a touchpoint across the media industry – and his conversation with Noah attracted huge engagement on social, both in the US and in the UK.

At DWord 3, BCOMS released new figures on representation in sports media. There was tangible disappointment in the room.

In the two years since the previous D Word conference, BAME representation at a measurable, visible level in our industry has actually DECREASED. The sample taken for BCOMS’ analysis was from 338 roles at eight major national newspapers and the leading broadcasting networks who held coverage rights across the following high-profile 2018 events – the FIFA World Cup, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games, and the inaugural European Championships held in Berlin and Glasgow.

The figures demonstrate that people of colour in Britain observing the sports media in this country would be right to feel under-represented, to feel unseen and unheard, to feel undervalued. Although women are becoming more visible in our industry – they occupied nearly three in 10 of the roles examined – the metrics tell us that we need to seriously examine why the 8.7m BAME population in the UK are becoming less visible. Are we too reticent to even talk about representation? On this evidence of a decline, it would appear so.

The opening panel session at D Word 3 proved why setting aside dedicated time to have conversations on diversity with senior leaders is so worthwhile. BT Sport chief Simon Green would not have intended to cause any offence when he referred to the audience contributions he had heard at a previous D Word conference as “emotional noise” – but a delegate later informed Green that the term was more than a little problematic. The Sun‘s head of sport Shaun Custis, on the same panel, also ran into difficulty when attempting to defend his paper’s Raheem Sterling tattoo front page in late May. The panellists were keen to show how their organisations were ‘Leading on Diversity’ (the title of the session) and while some good examples of progress were given, the discussion also highlighted some glaring knowledge gaps. One panellist even used the term ‘wheelchair bound’ when referencing disability; hearing such an outdated term used at a conference on inclusion was particularly jarring.

BCOMS founder Leon Mann recognised afterwards that both the statistics and the line of questioning gave some of the panellists an uncomfortable afternoon. “It’s not easy talking about race and diversity,” he told Journalism.co.uk. “It’s a sensitive issue, we saw emotions run high at times, but I think ultimately that’s not a bad thing because it shows people care and people are really committed to doing something about the situation we are in.”

Leon and his team deserve huge praise for encouraging this dialogue and pushing to find solutions; on Friday, he was named as the recipient of a Points of Light volunteer award from the Prime Minister. Bringing about change will require the buy-in of senior leaders, in an industry where there is a high demand for jobs and a low turnover of staff already in those jobs. Financial investment in the next generation of talent is crucial. All of the learnings I took from D Word 2 in 2016 – the need for more role models and mentors; the importance of instilling self-confidence in young journalists; why our sports coverage should better reflect society; ways we can do recruitment differently; and how the intersecting experiences of every individual truly matter – are still relevant, and were talked about again at D Word 3. For my part, I believe my employer Sky Sports is taking pro-active forward steps on all those learnings, yet we would also acknowledge that there is a long way to go.

I was grateful to Leon for giving visibility and time to the LGBT experience in sports media. As a network, we recognise that our strand of diversity is, for some, not an “easy” thing to talk about, with potential trapdoors lurking around language for the uninitiated or unsure (even the acronym itself can be a tongue twister on occasions). On behalf of Sports Media LGBT+, I shared two statistics taken from our ongoing survey which demonstrated how words poorly or ignorantly chosen in a sports media workplace could have a negative impact. When we asked all respondents if they had heard anti-LGBT language at work in the last two years, we didn’t specify what constituted ‘anti-LGBT’ – it was open to interpretation. It’s revealing, therefore, that more than two in five people have answered ‘yes’ to this question.

I can add that when we look at the responses to the same question from LGBT people only, that ‘yes’ percentage rises to almost 60%.

Following on from those stats, it’s perhaps no surprise that over 20% of LGBT people in sports media who have taken our survey say they aren’t out to anyone at work. While a person’s right to privacy must always be respected, it should be of significant concern to employers that some of their staff members do not feel they are working in an environment where they can be their authentic selves. While we would naturally like to see an increase in visible LGBT representation in sports media – and how great it was to see Sky Sports News‘ Mark McAdam on the closing panel, discussing his experiences – we are only likely to achieve this by encouraging a more inclusive culture in our workplaces.

So are we ready for the ‘R Word’ in our industry? Representation is not only a description of what we want to see; it also needs to be an action, taken on behalf of all those who took the time to attend D Word 3, who stayed behind to network, who followed up with emails and messages, making connections that could prove invaluable. Each of us has influence; we just need to use it. Whether it’s allocating resources into a new programme, or challenging a long-standing recruitment process, or giving up time to mentor a young journalist, or calling out someone’s poor choice of words in the workplace, there are opportunities to bring about change. Credit is due to BCOMS and London Sport for their new project and partnership built around next year’s London Youth Games – it’s exactly the sort of enterprising initiative that will help open doors.

So the ‘D Word’ that really stood out for me this year was ‘decrease’ – that 0.1% drop in BAME representation in the 338 top roles assessed. For D Word 4, will the figure reflect ‘development’ – a sign that sports media talent from all parts of society are breaking through? Let’s make it happen.

Jon Holmes, Network Lead, Sports Media LGBT+

More on D Word 3…

Football Writers’ Association chairman Paddy Barclay’s review of D Word 3

D Word 3 gives sports media industry a wake-up call (The Voice)

Follow the hashtag #DWord3 on Twitter

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