Role of Media

By Rob Berkeley MBE, BBC Project Lead, Audience Accountability

Rob Berkeley MBE
BBC Project Lead, Audience Accountability

Staying ‘Woke’: How Diversity and Inclusion Will Save Public Service Media

In June 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary extended their entry for the word ‘woke’. They argued,

“The original meaning of adjectival woke (and earlier woke up) was simply ‘awake’, but by the mid-20th century, woke had been extended figuratively to refer to being ‘aware’ or ‘well informed’ in a political or cultural sense.”

The Oxford lexicographers remain assiduous in their ongoing work to map the English language. More than the latest foray in the seemingly never-ending drive for dictionary sales, the evolving definition of ‘woke’ has some lessons for us in thinking about inclusion and diversity in public service media. The lexicographers go on to say,

“In the past decade, that meaning has been catapulted into mainstream use with a particular nuance of ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’, popularized through the lyrics of the 2008 song Master Teacher by Erykah Badu, in which the words ‘I stay woke’ serve as a refrain, and more recently through its association with the Black Lives Matter movement, especially on social media.”

Language changes. Change is key in enabling us to describe our world in a fresh manner and share our insights with each other. Any user of the language can trigger its development without the need for external validation or official diktat. However when the meaning of a word changes for some but not others, this can put at risk the ability to communicate between groups. The lexicographer performs a crucial (and powerful) role in enabling developments in language use to be captured, codified, analysed and shared. A task transformed by the growth in publicly available data about the ways in which we use language through social media. In the case of the extended meaning of ‘woke’, it took those lexicographers nearly ten years to notice, respond and amend the dictionary accordingly.

The BBC has recently renewed its royal charter; a process that involved a broad public debate about what the next ten years holds for the BBC. The debate reflected widespread agreement that given the speed of change in both the make-up of British society and the media landscape, the BBC does not have the luxury of the lexicographers’ ten years in which to work out its responses. Individuals have always sought to use the media, like language, creatively, and as the barriers fall to creating media content (and to distributing it solely among discrete groups of people similar to us (1) ), our options for self-expression grow. One of the outcomes of the greater choice of content and means of receiving that content, is the potential reduction in shared experiences; the end of the ‘water-cooler’ moment at the more trivial level, but also a threat to a public sphere that is inclusive and diverse, and public debate that is informed by all who have a stake in it.

There are competing visions of what the public sphere is and how it is constituted. For some the public sphere exists as a neutral space where the public meet to inform each other, and engage in debate so that the citizen can then make informed decisions (2). Others would question whether there can ever be a neutral space of this kind; immune to structures of exclusion on the basis of wealth or identity. They suggest instead that we have a series of overlapping publics and counter-publics – some with more access to power and resources than others(3). Which you believe to be the more accurate description of the media landscape has a significant impact on what you do as an organization seeking to inform, educate, and entertain the diverse peoples of a diverse nation. Whatever your conception of the public sphere, however, it is clear that the lessons from ‘woke’ apply here – media forms are dynamic and changing at pace; people will create their own forms of media without the need for official approval; there is a role for media which operates in the public interest to reflect and capture changes in that expression; and that role is a powerful one which is likely to become more rather than less significant as media sources and platforms proliferate.

The most direct way to respond in this context is to have voices and experiences from right across society within the organization, learning from each other and collaborating to create relevant content. This is why the BBC has set stretching targets for the diversity of its staff, with progress reported publicly by grade and by protected characteristic. It also takes its responsibility to the industry seriously, using its buying power to encourage greater diversity, creating media centres and hubs across the nations and regions, working alongside industry partners, and building the diverse workforce of the future through an emphasis on apprenticeships , as well as supporting media and technology education (including the MicroBit and School Report).

Listen better

The second part of the response is to listen better. More people should get the opportunity to have their say on the content and feel that they can influence an organization that is both responsive and accountable. Beyond the formal complaints processes, online personalization will provide much more accurate data on audience views. Initiatives like BBC Three Playground, and BBC Children’s Stepping Out, BBC Scotland’s The Social, or Radio 1 Youth Council bring audience insights direct to the decision-makers commissioners.

A further response to the new media challenge to the public sphere is emerging in the way that the BBC responds to its mission. With television sets and radios potentially going the way of the typewriter, telephone landline and video recorder, there has been a revolution in media consumption patterns. Online on-demand services account for over a third of TV viewing hours in the US. Increasing numbers of people no longer own a television. Immersive virtual reality is already here and the technology is moving at pace. A report from the British media regulator, Ofcom, noted that:

Viewing of broadcast TV by children (four to 15 years old) and 16- to 24-year-olds fell 33% between 2010 and last year . . . At 344 minutes viewing per day on average, pensioners clock up more than triple the amount of traditional TV viewing of children and younger viewers.

This month, the BBC published its first Annual Plan under its new charter . In the Annual Plan the organization takes the opportunity to set out its creative vision for the year ahead. It is clear that among commissioners there is a desire to create content that brings people together in both reflecting and defining a diverse nation.

Drama. A strong streak of Britishness must run through the centre of everything we do . . . So our plan is for the next five years of drama from the BBC to be a celebration of British authorship, identity and life in all its most diverse forms.

Entertainment. Entertainment unites audiences through uplifting and inspirational content. In a world of change and uncertainty, the UK needs feel-good, innovative entertainment shows more than ever. Entertainment brings big broad audiences together, fuels the national conversation and reflects the diversity of the UK. In a world where audience viewing is increasingly fragmenting, entertainment shows provide big appointment-to-view events and talked-about shared viewing moments.

Comedy. The BBC’s creative mission in comedy is simple – we should make people laugh. But comedy from the BBC also helps define and reflect our diverse national character

Sport. The BBC’s aim in sport is to bring audiences the big sporting moments that unite the nation

Nations and Regions. Our programmes need to be made across the UK’s Nations and regions. Our local and Nations services need to be relevant to audiences in each place. But as well as showing what makes us different, we must also celebrate what brings us together for shared experiences and the national conversation.

Being able to host a ‘national conversation’ requires the ability to know and understand that nation (and know who is not being included), to be able to bring people together around shared concerns, and to have them want to come back. The BBC has put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of its efforts in this arena. Without a prioritisation of activity that creates a more inclusive organization, that develops trust among a diverse range of audiences, and unifying shared experiences that are inclusive and attractive, public service media may struggle to maintain its foothold in an increasingly crowded and contested public sphere.

Today, the BBC’s role to reflect all the communities of the UK has perhaps never been more important. Never has the pace of change in British life been so quick, and never has it been so vital that all of the country’s voices are heard. We believe we are on the right track, but we are not complacent. We know we have to continue to work.

A period of anticipated constitutional upheaval, and a series of tragedies and atrocities that have hit British cities in recent months show how important an inclusive national conversation can be and how crucial it is that in that conversation, all voices can be heard, information is accurate, and that truth is spoken to power in the interests of the public. A failure to stay woke, to ensure that the BBC has access to insights and talent from all parts of Britain’s diverse population, risks both the public sphere and the quality of public debate/democracy. Current key risks to informed and meaningful debate as a means of bringing society together is arise from a failure to include all but also from greater distrust in media sources.

At the end of June 2017 two new definitions were added to the Oxford English Dictionary; one was ‘woke’, the other, ‘post-truth’.


  1. Pariser, Eli (2011) The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think
  2. Habermas, Jurgen (1962) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society
  3. Fraser, Nancy. 1990. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26:56–80

The Author

Dr Rob Berkeley MBE. Award-winning busybody, recovering academic and reformed social reformer, Rob Berkeley currently plies his trade advising the BBC on accountability. Impatient with injustice and exasperated by wasted potential, he volunteers on the boards of Baring Foundation, and Britdoc Foundation, has previously served on the boards of Stonewall, Equality and Diversity Forum and the Oxford Access Scheme, and been Chair of Naz Project (NPL) and BGMAG. He was Director of the Runnymede Trust 2009-14. Alongside his academic writing on education, social justice and community organizing, he has presented and co-produced short form documentaries, and written for The Guardian and The Independent on racial justice. His current obsession with innovations in media technology and their potential for social justice means that he watches a lot of TV/film and calls it ‘research’. Dr Berkeley was awarded an MBE in 2015 for services to equality.



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