Jon Holmes: I still love the BBC despite my Now Show sacking - I just believe in treating people as humans

Jon Holmes

Monday, October 3, 2016

Over the weekend talkRADIO Jon Holmes was involuntarily caught up in a media storm, following his sacking from BBC Radio 4's The Now Show and his subsequent comments on the dismissal.

Now, following a weekend of feverish speculation,. our afternoon presenter gives his side of the story.

Last week I tweeted part of a conversation that I had with someone at the BBC, whose job it was was to call me and give me some bad news.

The person did this perfectly politely and officially, but did tell me something which I found quite surprising to hear - at least out loud. And because I was so surprised, I tweeted about it.

This resulted in my family being doorstepped by the Mail on Sunday and, as it seemed they were going to run a story anyway, I asked for space to write something level-headed on the subject, rather than be misquoted all over the place.

To be fair, they did print it, but that hasn't stopped other papers going for headlines like “BBC presenter calls BBC racist” which I haven't. At all. 

Because of course they're not racist. I, in common with many other people who work in the media, have been dropped from things many times, and for many reasons. And that's fine. All part of the ride. I fully understand the need to 'refresh' programmes. That's not a problem.

What I was surprised by was the reason I was given by the Beeb for my removal from the Now Show, Had this not been said to me, then no story. But I just found it odd.

So I tweeted it. The Mail on Sunday picked up on it, then used it as an excuse to go BBC-bashing. There was nothing I could do about this but, as I say, I asked for a right of reply to try and keep the debate all relatively sensible.

So, for clarification, here's what I wrote....

This week, I took a phone call.

“Jon”, said the BBC’s Head of Awkward Conversations. “That show you do on radio 4? The Now Show?”

Yes, I said, tentatively, because phone calls like this never end well. 

“It’s back on air in November”. 

I already knew this, because I had been asked to block it out in my diary at the end of the last series. But now I was Having. An. Awkward. Conversation.

“I’ll get straight to the point” she continued. “I’m afraid for the next series, we’re not inviting you back. We’re recasting it with more women and diversity”.

And that’s fair enough. I’m not here to complain about it. Eighteen years is a pretty good innings. And what’s more, I totally understand and agree with all things BAME and Lenny Henry and Ofcom boss Sharon White’s call this week for “harder quotas and diversity targets” so this isn’t a sour grapes piece by any means at all.

The BBC does a difficult job well under all kinds of pressures, and I get that it struggles to reflect everything that Lenny and the Guardian hold dear. Indeed, we are a multicultural society and all voices should, rightly, be represented, even on Radio 4 where a discussion of a “Black Man’s Willy” on Gardeners’ Question Time drew complaints. (It’s a type of plant. Google it. Although if you do, for God’s sake have ‘safe search’ switched on.)

The story generated plenty of headlines. Like this one in the Guardian.

Diversity is important. Of course it is. We know it is. That’s beyond argument. A quick sample of 2016 newspaper headlines reads thus:

“Oscars in Diversity Race Row”

“Diversity Crisis in British Military”

“Baftas in Diversity Race Row”

“Diversity Crisis in Football”

“Brit Awards in Diversity Race Row”

“2009 Britain’s Got Talent winners Diversity announce new tour”

…all of which proves that more needs to be done.

And yet.

I’m going to pose a question. Deep breath.

Ok. It’s this: are we getting it right? Should I, as a white man (through no fault of my own), be fired from my job because I am a white man?

Arguably, yes. You may well think I’m crap on The Now Show, and that’s fine, but to be told it’s because I’m the wrong sex and colour? I’m just not sure that’s helpful to anyone’s cause. I realise I’m probably jabbing an ill-judged pointy stick into a diversity wasp’s nest here but, what with all the recent column inches on the subject, maybe it’s time to open up the debate – and, in all honesty, not just because I’m on the receiving end.

Truthfully, I was happy to just suck up the bad news. It’s never nice to be sacked, whatever the reason but, hey, that’s showbiz. But after I tweeted the news, I was contacted privately (quietly and off the record, because people are terrified of saying the wrong thing) by many presenters, actors and even agents who are now being told, and I quote: “We love your client. He’s perfect for the role. But we’re not allowed to even invite him in for a meeting because we’ve been told to cast someone Asian.”

“You’ve got the job” a presenter was informed, only for her to take a call a few days later saying “Ah. While we want you on the show, we’ve now been told we can’t have you, because you are too white and middle-class.”

I totally agree with and understand all things BAME and Lenny Henry (Getty)

Look. I reiterate: it’s fine. We all agree that representing our wonderfully multicultural society is important. ‘Crucial’, even, to hijack one of Lenny’s catchphrases from the 1980s. But, having heard so many stories this week I decided (against my agent’s better judgment) that maybe someone should stick their head above the parapet to ask ‘can we do this better’?

If we are now openly giving jobs to people based on the colour of their skin, surely that is only emphasising just the kind of social division that the equality that I was brought up to embrace strives to eliminate?

 So what if – and I know this is radical - but what if everything and every job in all walks of life was open to everyone equally and we all just agree that everyone’s the same, by which I mean – you know – ‘human’? What if just the best human got the job, irrespective of anything?

Could we not all agree we’re all just humans with our hopes, dreams, flaws, beliefs, differences and cultures all wrapped up in a parcel marked ‘people’? Is that so offensive? I mean I know it’s a big ask and yes we’ll have to agree to draw a line under much that has gone on before, but what if we’re all just ‘people’, judged on merit? Call me crazy but what if, regardless of skin colour, or anything else, the best candidate gets the job?

I’m not even asking for my job back. That’s not the point. I just wonder, what with all the pressure about being seen to ‘get it right’, we’re actually getting it a bit wrong? The term ‘positive discrimination’ is bandied around, but I’m not sure that anything that discriminates is that positive really, because it’s, well, discrimination.

I don’t think that discrimination of any kind is ever positive, however well-intentioned everyone think they are, because someone is always going to lose out based on something they can’t help. I love the BBC and everyone I’ve ever met and worked with – whatever their sex, creed or colour  – is doing the best they can and just trying to get on and do the right thing. But even they are all privately saying it’s all got a bit out of hand.

Personally I want equal opportunities for all, irrespective of who or what they are. So maybe we should open up the debate.

A good friend, a mentor even, who works in broadcasting (female, Jewish) was some years ago responsible for setting up the BBCs diversity programme. She took me aside this week, on hearing my news. “I’m so sorry” she said. “We just wanted to represent everyone fairly. It was never about sacking people who already do the job and simply replacing them to tick a box. This isn’t what we meant to happen at all.” 

You can listen to Jon every day on talKRADIO between 1 and 4pm. Just go to www.talkradio.co.uk to listen online. Or you can hear more of Jon's views by following him on Twitter @jonholmes1.