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ITV's Carolyn McCall on tokenism fears, Black Lives Matter and why educating boards isn't 'woke'

ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall. Photo: ITV
ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall. Photo: ITV

Dance troupe Diversity took to the stage during the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent last year for a special performance narrating one of the most difficult years in decades. Millions of ITV viewers watched as troupe leader Ashley Banjo told his future child the story of 2020.

The performance touched on COVID-19 but largely focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. A policeman mock kneeled on Banjo’s back, echoing the murder of George Floyd. The song Black Lives Matter by Dax played in the background, including the lyric “I can’t breathe” — Floyd’s last words. Policemen in riot gear circled the dancers as they moved through mock teargas and, mid-way through the four-minute performance, Diversity knelt with their fists in the air — the symbol of protest that has become synonymous with Black Lives Matter.

Some viewers were horrified. Ofcom, Britain’s broadcasting regulator, received 24,500 complaints from viewers. They ranged from claims it wasn’t appropriate for family viewing to arguing broadcaster ITV was unfairly promoting a political organisation. Some claimed the performance was racist to white people.

Watch: Diversity's Black Lives Matter performance on Britain's Got Talent

Read more: The EMpower Top 50 Advocate Executive Role Models 2021

“It was startlingly shocking, I thought it was shocking,” Carolyn McCall, ITV’s chief executive, told Yahoo Finance UK. “The number of emails we got — shocking.”

ITV stood firm in the face of the criticism and issued a statement in solidarity with Diversity and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“When it came to the crunch, we thought: we don’t want to be virtue signalling,” McCall said. “That’s really the last thing — if you knew Kevin Lygo [director of TV at ITV], you’d really understand that too — neither of us want that. But we felt our talent was being attacked.”

Ofcom ultimately concluded the incident didn’t breach any rules and didn’t pursue the complaints.

“Actually, that was our role as a broadcaster, to back our talent," McCall said. "Actually that was something that was seen and got a massive discussion going and that’s what we’re there to do — to push the conversation forward, even if it’s not very comfortable.

“Broadcasting is a very powerful medium and it doesn’t just reflect society, it shapes society. That’s why we did what we did with Diversity.”

McCall’s efforts to promote and support ethnic minority talent, both internally and externally at ITV, have been recognised in the EMpower Advocates list 2021. The list — put together by diversity and inclusion organisation INvolve — celebrates non-ethnic minority executives who are championing their ethnic minority colleagues by pushing for greater representation and equality in the workplace. McCall has topped the ranking, which was put together in partnership with Yahoo Finance UK.

Read more: The EMpower Top 100 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders 2021

“I don’t even know that that means, I’m not being funny, I don’t actually know what that means,” McCall said when asked how it felt to be a leading diversity and inclusion advocate. “I said to Ade [Rawcliffe, ITV’s group director of diversity and inclusion], I think it’s a good thing, don’t you? She said, yes it’s a good thing. But it’s very nice for ITV I think.”

For McCall, who ran EasyJet (EZJ.L) and the Guardian Media Group before ITV, championing underrepresented groups has come more or less naturally. She traces it back to her own experience being a senior woman in the clubby male world of business.

“I’ve always been asked how I do what I do,” she said. “I’ve always found it baffling. You’ve got children? Yes, well, do you ask Willie Walsh [the former chief executive of British Airways-owner IAG] that?

“I think as a woman, you have a different experience but you have an experience of being treated rather oddly I think, especially as you get more senior. Of course it’s not the same, but there are some similarities because it’s about equality. It’s about everyone being treated in the same way and having the same opportunities.”

Carolyn McCall
McCall in 2016 during her time in charge of EasyJet. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

One of McCall’s first acts when she arrived at ITV in 2018 was to set up a diversity and inclusion council, copying a successful strategy she had used at EasyJet. The council features representatives from ITV’s employee resource groups for Black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees, disabled employees, and women, among others.

“It’s the way you can hear what’s actually going on on the ground,” she said. “What is really good is they do speak really openly about things.”

ITV is “a very warm and quite welcoming environment”, McCall said, but the council helped management identify areas of disparity and highlighted how the organisation could be doing more to promote BAME individuals to senior leadership positions.

Read more: The EMpower Top 100 Ethnic Minority Executive Role Models 2021

Work was already underway to address these issues when the Black Lives Matter movement swept the world. In response, the company launched a diversity and inclusion acceleration plan last July. ITV publicly committed to improving minority representation both on screen and within its organisation — and to do so faster than had been planned.

A month later, McCall promoted Ade Rawcliffe to ITV’s board as group director of diversity and inclusion. Rawcliffe had been head of diversity within ITV’s commissioning business. Her promotion made ITV the first FTSE 100 (^FTSE) company with a dedicated diversity director on its board.

“If you don’t have someone with that experience sitting around your management board, you don’t really understand whether you are changing fast enough or whether you are doing the right things to make change,” McCall said.

Ade Rawcliffe, ITV's group director of diversity and inclusion. Photo: ITV
Ade Rawcliffe, ITV's group director of diversity and inclusion. Photo: ITV

Rawcliffe was “kind of double promoted,” McCall said, and the ITV boss worried about how the move might be seen externally.

“In my head, I really struggled with it,” McCall said. “Only because I was thinking: people are going to think this is tokenism. I had a long chat with my chairman and I said they’re going to accuse me of tokenism, they’ll say we’re just reacting. I had actually been thinking about it for some time.”

Rawcliffe’s addition to the board has been “very good”, McCall said. She has helped ITV broaden its BAME recruitment network and helped to educate board members on the issues affecting these communities.

“I know some people think that’s very ‘woke’, you know,” McCall said. “But, bluntly, you need to be educated. If you say to people: 'look, there is an issue here', many people don’t see the issue.

“Sometimes people in management feel uncomfortable about saying things because they think it might be un-PC, so then they don’t say it at all. That doesn’t move anything forward. [Rawcliffe] and the team have been really good on that and the feedback has been really good because it increases people’s confidence about talking about issues to do with race. This thing about positive action has been quite a big galvaniser internally.”

Change is happening on screen too. Close to one in five shows on ITV last year featured lead characters from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. Examples include Andi Peters standing in for morning host Lorraine Kelly, Allison Hammond hosting This Morning, and Ian Wright hosting Moneyball. The Royal Society of Television praised ITV for hosting the first ever all Black panel on Loose Women when it was named Best Daytime Programme 2021 earlier this year.

Charlene White, Judi Love, Brenda Edwards, and Kelle Bryan on the first all Black panel on ITV's Loose Women. Photo: ITV
Charlene White, Judi Love, Brenda Edwards, and Kelle Bryan on the first all Black panel on ITV's Loose Women. Photo: ITV

“[Former ITV News presenter] Trevor McDonald’s been one of the greatest role models in ITV’s history actually,” McCall said. “He said this thing: You’re changed by what you see but you are also changed by when you’re seen. We use that internally as a bit of a mantra.

“We have to be representative on screen as well as off screen. We have obviously looked very closely at how we’re doing that, whether we’re doing that — clearly not enough. The intentions are always good on screen, but it’s a complicated business. That’s not an excuse anymore.”

McCall’s advice to leaders looking to emulate her success as an advocate is to create strong employee groups who can speak up for the underrepresented, listen to them, and develop clear and concrete plans in response to what you hear from them. Engagement at every stage is crucial.

“It’s about speaking in order to learn and understand, rather than speaking without thinking,” she said.

Watch: Am I wasting money by renting?