The Former Youth TV Star on a Mission to Rework the BBC
LONDON – When June Sarpong was 21 years old and was an aspiring presenter on MTV in the UK, she walked past a newsstand and saw a magazine on her shelves. On the cover was a story about successful women at the music station.
She grabbed a copy only to find it wasn’t featured. Sarpong – the black one – hadn’t been asked to go to the cover photo shoot with her white colleagues, despite being the co-host of one of the station’s most successful shows. She was not mentioned in the article.
“It was heartbreaking,” she recalled in a recent interview.
Soon viewers also noticed her absence and called MTV to ask why she had been left out. “It was a really educational moment for the network,” said Sarpong.
The 43-year-old Sarpong is still trying to improve the diversity of British television – only on a much larger and politically tense level. In November 2019, she was named BBC Director of Creative Diversity, a high profile role where she is responsible for making the UK public broadcaster more representative of the country.
In the past few months, she has announced her first guidelines to achieve this. As of April, all new BBC television commissions must meet a target of 20 percent of off-screen jobs being filled by people of color, the disabled or people from lower socio-economic groups.
She has also secured £ 100 million – approximately $ 136 million – of the BBC’s contract budget for a variety of new programming over three years. (The total budget to start up is over £ 1 billion per year.)
At first glance, the BBC seems to be making progress. Some of his biggest shows over the last year have been directed by colored people and focused on such as Michaela Coel’s “I Can Destroy You” about a black woman facing fuzzy memories of a rape, and Steve McQueen’s “Little Ax” series. about Black British History. The BBC also surpassed an internal target set before Sarpong took her job so that people with color account for 15 percent of their on-air talent.
Away from the spotlight, however, Sarpong said the picture is far less encouraging. Last month, Sarpong released her first major report in her new role, highlighting some of the challenges ahead.
“The BBC has been incredibly successful at what you see,” she said, “but certainly not at under the line, behind the camera.”
The job also puts Sarpong at the center of a political battlefield. The BBC is funded by a mandatory license fee for all television owners, and while the company is less ubiquitous than it used to be, it plays a tremendous role in national life, with dominance in everything from online news to toddler cartoons to orchestral music. According to an estimate by an official regulator, the average British person spends well over two hours a day on BBC results.
It’s also increasingly a political punching bag. Over the past year, conservative politicians have repeatedly criticized the organization, claiming that it promotes a “lively agenda”, including when it suggested that the lyrics be omitted for jingoistic songs traditionally performed at an annual classical concert.
Left-wing commentators were equally critical, particularly when a story surfaced alleging the broadcaster prevented employees from participating in protests against Black Lives Matter or Pride marches. (The BBC said their rules had been misinterpreted.)
Sarpong said she has “got a few gray hairs since the beginning of her role,” but added, “Whatever I criticize, it’s worth it as there’s a bigger mission here.”
Sarpong was born in East London to Ghanaian parents. She spent her early years in Ghana until a coup forced her parents to return to London, where she lived in public housing.
As a teenager, she was involved in a car accident that left her unable to walk for two years, she said. While in the hospital, she saw Oprah Winfrey on TV and it made her realize she could work on TV, she added. Her school reports always said that she “had to talk less,” said Sarpong. “I remember watching Oprah think, ‘Oh my god, you can get paid to talk!”
Sarpong soon got an internship at Kiss FM, a radio station specializing in dance music. She showed up wearing a ruff and remembered what it was like to have to explain her accident to everyone she met.
Her rise from that small role, then MTV, was quick. Sarpong became a youth television star in the UK after moving to Channel 4, where she put on a popular weekend show and interviewed the likes of Kanye West and Prime Minister Tony Blair. She was best known for her laugh – “An irresistible elastic giggle,” according to The Guardian.
But she struggled trying to move up the TV ladder, she said. She went to meetings on “shiny floor shows,” an indication of large Saturday night entertainment, but said her audience was not ready for a black host, she said. She moved to America and increasingly into activism.
Sarpong’s friends and acquaintances said in telephone interviews that she had the character of changing the BBC. “They actually hired a fighting dog that won’t let go,” said Trevor Phillips, a former television news anchor who was also chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, in a telephone interview.
Lorna Clarke, the BBC manager in charge of the pop music, described her as charming but firm. “I’ve seen her in action here and it’s impressive,” she added. “She’s there and says, ‘We can do that, can’t we?'”
Some BBC critics say the most alarming area the company lacks diversity is not in relation to race, sexuality or disability, but in relation to the political attitudes of its employees. UK Conservative government ministers and others on the right have used the language of diversity to criticize what they think is the BBC’s liberal bias. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the broadcaster needed to do more to “get real diversity of thought.”
Simon Evans, a self-described right-wing comedian who sometimes appears on BBC radio broadcasts, said in a telephone interview that the BBC’s comedy edition is dominated by leftist views. “You have to involve people with different opinions, views and skin colors,” said Evans. “That will crack the ice cap on the organization’s culture,” he added.
Sarpong said that if its policies were successful, the BBC would be more diverse in opinion. “If we do our job you will,” she added.
Sarpong has mixed up with stars over the course of her career, but she said she has also gone to every corner of the UK to do TV shows. She knew what made the British people tick, she said, and that would make her successful. “You have to think about how to bring the majority,” she said, convincing her that diversity is not a zero-sum game where one group benefits at the expense of others.
“Everyone has their role to play and it is very important to know what your role is,” said Sarpong. “I am very clear about what is mine.”