When presenter June Sarpong agreed to take on the most public-facing diversity and inclusion role at the BBC in the fall of 2019, the corporation — and indeed the world — was a different place.
“I joined when the BBC was just coming out the other side of everything that had happened with [breakfast presenter] Naga Munchetty,” Sarpong tells Variety on her last official day at the BBC, capping off three years as head of creative diversity. “Feelings were heightened.”
The U.K. public broadcaster was smarting from a heavy backlash against the attempted censure of Munchetty, who was reprimanded for breaching impartiality guidelines after she criticized, on air, then U.S. President Donald Trump for perceived racism. The decision was overturned by then BBC director general Tony Hall, but only after widespread outcry against the corporation for punishing one of its top hosts for calling out racism, which many felt should be exempt from impartiality rules.
Three years later, feelings around the BBC and issues of race remain tense, though Sarpong says she has tried to cultivate “an environment for honest discussions to take place.”
The executive — who began her career as a DJ and MTV presenter before going on to host Channel 4’s T4 youth strand, and becoming a mainstay on shows such as ITV’s “Loose Women” — initially signed on for a two-year, three-day-a-week contract. However, she struck a year-long extension when it became evident that she needed to see through the first year of the BBC’s Creative Diversity Commitment. Engineered by Sarpong, the landmark $124 million diversity fund was set up shortly after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in the U.S. and the great paradigm shift around diversity and representation that followed in U.K. media.
There was “a lot more scrutiny” around her role following the events of 2020, says Sarpong. “One, because this job was creative, as opposed to just workforce, it was very much focused on our output and the content that our audience engages with. Also, I think the fact that it was me meant that there would be more scrutiny.”
Indeed, Sarpong’s three years at the corporation have not been without their storms. Earlier this year, Variety and The Times of London reported on a disturbing exodus of women of color from the BBC, particularly from the news and D&I division. Many were simply exhausted, they said, from fighting a system that “is not systemically built to support anyone who is different.”
Many blamed systemic failings that made it impossible to speak out without being penalized, but a number of women privately criticized Sarpong for not doing enough to support them. (Sarpong’s departure from the BBC was confirmed within a day of Variety’s investigation breaking.)
Sarpong argues that she had a very clear creative remit at the BBC, which largely kept her out of HR matters that fell under Workforce. “My remit was much more about output,” she says.
There was also a “conflation,” she says, between women who actually progressed and had received better job offers elsewhere — “Some of whom I was very proud to have been a part of their career journey,” says Sarpong — and those who felt they’d been wronged by their employer.
“There’s a level of responsibility — as a Black woman in an industry where I have often been the only one in the room — for the press to report things accurately, because [we want] women of color to feel they can progress within our industry. Let’s show examples of where progress has happened.”
Yet what of the several women in the Variety investigation who left the industry entirely after toxic experiences at the BBC? Sarpong is sympathetic to their “grievances,” but encourages women in those situations to “stick with it” and persevere.
“It’s funny, because a lot of the time, when you’re experiencing what some of the women felt that they’d experienced, that’s not imagined,” says Sarpong. “I have been on the receiving end of some of this stuff throughout my career, and it’s hard to say to somebody, ‘Stick with it, because change is happening.’ And change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. But that is what I would say, because at the end of the day, we have a right to be here. And if we’re going to effectively represent all of our audiences, then we need to make sure that we are in the room, even sometimes when it’s difficult to be in that room.”
Going forward, however, telling changes have been made to the head of creative diversity role — changes that suggest the BBC is trying to make the position more accountable for workforce issues around racism and discrimination.
Sarpong will be succeeded by L’Oreal diversity director Chinny Okolidoh, who will step into a newly expanded role (as director of diversity and inclusion) that effectively combines the creative diversity and workforce remits, meaning Okolidoh will oversee the in-house HR processes as well as leading the on- and off-screen diversity strategy, and working with third-party producers.
It’s a hefty role for just one person, particularly in the U.K. where, Sarpong admits, “it’s a job that somehow gets caught in the middle of some of the culture war discussions.” Much, for instance, has been made about Sarpong’s £267,000 annual salary on a three-day-a-week contract.
She’s not the type of person who has ever “spoken about that sort of stuff,” and didn’t comment publicly when her earnings made headlines. But what did unsettle Sarpong was the racist vitriol hurled her way.
“I started receiving really horrid [messages],” she admits. “I’ve been very lucky actually — a lot of people talk about being trolled and I was never the person that was trolled. But that unleashed a barrage of racist tirades and abuse that I had never experienced before online. It was not an easy time. But I kept my head down and focused on the job.”
A key pillar of Sarpong’s legacy is the Creative Diversity Commitment. In July, the BBC revealed that, following the first year of the £100 million initiative, it has invested £44 million in supporting a total of 67 TV shows across all genres, to increase diversity and inclusion both on and off air. The corporation is now on track to invest by 2023/24 the full £112 million, of which £100 million will go to TV and £12 million will go to radio.
In the fund’s first year, programs were made by 48 different independent production companies, with 73% of those companies having diverse leadership.
While Sarpong lights up when discussion turns to her diversity fund, which she predicts will likely “exceed” targets, she also understands the criticisms that have been waged against it, particularly the diversity criteria required to qualify, which spans ethnicity as well as social class and disability, resulting in what some describe as a “pick and mix” approach that falls short of furthering each specific area.
“I understand what you mean in the sense that the criteria is those three underrepresented groups, and [there] isn’t a mandate on how much of each group you need to have within it,” says Sarpong. “But what I would say is: We have to start somewhere.”
The exec points to the diverse company leadership criteria that was put in place — a directive that led to the BBC increasing its supplier chain by 10% of companies “that we’d never worked with before.”
“Of course you can criticize it and people are well within their rights. But if you’re looking from where we were starting from, I’m very proud,” says Sarpong. “The thing for everybody to remember is: This is a floor, this is not the ceiling — this is the minimum of what we’re going to spend.”
Next up for Sarpong is a month-long transition period in which she helps Okolidoh settle in to the new role, followed by two months off. Then it’s on to a new chapter that’s yet to be revealed.
Looking back on her last three years, Sarpong — who is close with director general Tim Davie — speaks positively of her experience at the BBC. Despite being pulled into the corporation’s various diversity scandals, the high-spirited exec is proud of what was accomplished in her three years. Along with the strides made in restructuring the commissioning process “with a much more inclusive lens,” Sarpong hopes she led with her “point of difference.”
“I hope my legacy will be that I was an example of being your authentic self in the workplace, particularly as a working-class woman of color, in an industry where there aren’t that many. I hope I’ve created or helped to nurture a place that was safe enough to do so.”
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