A group of deaf film-makers say they are “increasingly dismayed” by a charity’s failure to ensure it is run by users of British Sign Language (BSL), even though it spends about £2 million every year commissioning television programmes in BSL.
They say the leadership of the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT) is mostly hearing people who do not use BSL.
The trust’s chief executive and head of commissioning are both hearing, and neither are fluent in BSL, while the chair and four of the other eight board members are hearing.
The BSLBT: Sign for Change campaign is calling on the trust to act on the lack of BSL-users in senior roles.
The trust was set up in 2008 to offer a way for commercial broadcasters to meet their regulatory requirements to provide BSL content on their channels*.
The campaign has set up an online petition that calls on the trust to “move with the times, and fall into line with other media organisations and broadcasters serving minorities and minority languages”.
It follows concerns raised by a collective of deaf film-makers, programme-makers, writers, directors and screen talent working in deaf media, who have shared their concerns about the way the trust is run with the communications watchdog Ofcom.
A third piece of campaigning pressure has come through an unpublished survey of deaf professionals working behind the camera in television and film, which found only 11 per cent agreed that the trust had “appropriate Deaf leadership” throughout the organisation.
The deaf media professionals behind the Sign for Change campaign told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that the trust’s plans for the next three years will see its output “dominated by hearing-led companies employing a handful of deaf staff”.
They say that the number of programme-makers whose first language is BSL, and those from a diverse background, is already “vanishingly small”.
They also say that nearly all BSLBT content is commissioned for its “flagship” 8am slot on Film4, which means, they say, that there is no swearing, depiction of alcohol, drug use or nudity, or treatment of hard-hitting issues.
They said that this “infantilises and demeans the deaf audience”.
They want Ofcom to review the way the charity is run.
They added: “The charity does not need to be a charity, or even to exist at all.
“It should be replaced by a more streamlined organisation focused on understanding what deaf audiences want, and giving a more diverse range of film-makers and programme-makers the opportunity to develop a career in acting, writing, directing and producing.”
They say there is “simply no accountability” and so they are “speaking out for radical change”.
And they criticised the trust for failing to engage with the petition, with the survey, and with the concerns of deaf programme-makers and film-makers.
They added: “It is as though they are hoping this issue will go away. It will not go away.”
The Ofcom letter, which was sent separately to the Sign for Change campaign, is also strongly critical of the trust’s commissioning strategy.
It says the trust runs a near-monopoly in the provision of BSL content in the UK, so there is “simply nowhere else for deaf creatives to go for sign-presented work”.
Award-winning Deaf writer-director Ted Evans, who runs Defeye Films, was one of those behind the letter to Ofcom.
He also supports the Sign for Change campaign and signed its petition, and he says it is just “common sense” that “anyone who has direct influence over deaf issues and/or sign language should be able to sign”.
But Evans, who was named by Creative England in 2018 in its list of 50 of the country’s most exciting creative talents, has broader concerns about the trust.
He is particularly concerned that both BBC See Hear and BSLBT broadcast pre-watershed programmes at 8am, which “limits what deaf filmmakers get to produce and what deaf audiences get to watch at home”.
He said: “At a time when our community, and society generally, is going through great change, deaf TV has remained stale and outdated.
“The BSLBT’s current guidelines stunt progress, infantilise deaf people and influence how we are represented from within the community.”
Evans said that many deaf people have expressed dissatisfaction with the content produced by the trust, and the next generation “don’t seem to be engaging with deaf TV in its current format”.
He added: “I think competition is healthy and Ofcom should explore other alternatives if BSLBT are unable to meet the demands of a diverse, modern deaf audience.”
Further evidence of concerns has come from BSL-user Erika Jones, who has worked as an assistant producer for the BBC since 2014, and who compiled a detailed report after surveying deaf professionals working behind the camera in television and film, believed to be the first such report of its kind.
Of those who responded, only nine per cent were happy with how BSLBT was run, with only 11 per cent agreeing that it had “appropriate Deaf leadership” throughout the organisation.
One of the respondents, quoted in her Unmuted report, said: “They need to go back to the drawing board and be led by a person who embraces Sign Language – it is BSL BT after all!”
Tim Patterson, the trust’s chair, told DNS this week that the charity had the budget to commission only 25 to 30 programmes a year and so tried to provide a broad range of programmes “so that we have something to offer to everyone”.
He said the trust offered “a fantastic selection of programmes which demonstrate the breadth and depth of Deaf culture and language”.
He agreed that it was “very frustrating” that the Film4 slot was at 8am, and he said the trust constantly seeks “better slots”, while it works “really hard to push the boundaries and to cover challenging stories and issues in very inventive ways”.
Another broadcasting slot, on Together TV, was much lower-profile and almost none of that channel’s programmes are subtitled, he said.
He added: “We do commission most of our content for 0800.
“We reject, however, that this infantilises or demeans the deaf audience and the range of content that we offer is evidence of this.”
Patterson agreed that the trust “should have put more resource and effort into qualitative research carried out face-to-face in BSL sooner”, but he said it would soon begin to do this regularly.
He said the panel for his own appointment as chair last year was 50 per cent Deaf and 50 per cent hearing, and his appointment was unanimously approved by the board, while eight of the trust’s 15 staff are Deaf BSL-users, including its head of operations, its communications manager, and its two executive producers.
He said he saw a “united team of Deaf and Hearing people”, while hearing members of the team take BSL classes.
Patterson said that all the trust’s programmes come through an open commissioning round and the proposal for every programme idea must come from a Deaf person, although he said his “mind is definitely not closed” on reviewing the commissioning criteria, while a new commissioning advisory panel was wholly filled by fluent BSL-users, all but one of whom are Deaf.
He said: “We work with television production companies owned and run by both Deaf and hearing people.
“Each company is very different and so they offer different opportunities and experiences for Deaf people to learn and develop new skills as well as to bring their experiences and share their perspectives with other programme-makers.”
He said: “Deaf people can, and do, submit ideas to a number of different funding bodies. For example, the BBC, the British Film Institute.”
Patterson said the trust was “open to change” and its discussions about the issues that have been raised have been “lively and fruitful” and he was “looking forward to pursuing them”.
But he said that any structural reforms were a matter for Ofcom and the broadcasters that fund the trust, although BSLBT would be “very happy” to take part in any discussions.
He also said that the trust had “written to the petition on more than one occasion seeking dialogue and have had no response.
“The board has prepared an open letter which will be published in BSL and English on our website shortly.”
Ofcom said it had received the letter from Ted Evans and his fellow campaigners and was “looking into the matters raised”.
*BSLBT is currently the only provider approved by Ofcom for this content, other than broadcasters providing their own programmes in BSL
Picture: A scene from the BSLBT-funded show Deaf Funny, one of the trust’s most popular productions
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…