Podcast: Amplifying disabled voices in the media

The Disability Download

On this month's episode, disability rights activist Jazz Shaban catches up with BBC Correspondent Gary O'Donoghue. Gary reflects on his own experiences as a journalist and how he feels the media landscape has changed over time.


Gary O’Donoghue: I think the media, generally the media spends a lot of time complaining that it can't find disabled people to talk to. You know that it doesn't know where to look, doesn't know how to find disabled people with not just their own lived experience, but with expertise in this and that area. And that sounds pretty lazy to me. I think I think they're not trying very hard, so I think the media has got to redouble its efforts on that.

Erin O’Reilly: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download, brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I'm Erin O'Reilly and on this podcast we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations around disability.

Hi everyone and thanks so much for tuning back into another episode. This month we're talking all about diversity in the media and storytelling, and we're joined by BBC journalist Gary O'Donoghue who some of you may recognise. And he currently works out in Washington DC.

And Gary sits down with my colleague Jazz to talk all about diversity within the media. And they reflect on how much things have changed. But also what still needs to shift within that landscape as well. And they have a really, really good chat about why authentic voices are so important in media storytelling. It's a really great listen, so let's just dive right in!

Jazz Shaban: Well, good morning. Hello, my name is Jazz and I work at Leonard Cheshire as our OPD, Engagement Manager and I'm really, really delighted to be talking this morning to Gary O'Donoghue, who, uh, I've seen many times on my BBC News channels. And actually I'm gonna give a little tiny something away 'cause I got a feeling I may have met you a long long time ago at the when I was applying for the BBC media traineeship many many, many years..

Gary: Oh wow!

Jazz: Ago and so it kind of leads me to my first question actually, which is obviously, you know, you're a successful journalist, having worked at the BBC since university really, on a range of broadcast roles. So really, how did it all start for you? And what would you say have been some of the highlights of your career?

Gary: Well it’s aways quite difficult to really pinpoint the moment where I think I decided I wanted to be a journalist. Because certainly throughout part of my university career I expected to go into something perhaps IT related. I was...at school I did a Computing Science A Level, and I thought that there were some jobs in there, not necessarily in coding, for example, but in systems analysis and things like that, that I would be quite interested in.

So I was looking at things like that in the early part of my university career, even though I was doing a, you know, an Arts Degree. And then sort of by accident my father, he was a taxi driver, he picked up a blind person one day and an older blind guy called Kevin Mulhern, who many will know as a sort of big sort of media figure, disabled media figure. And my dad was telling him about me being at university and Kevin said well if he wants to come and see my program going out on air in Birmingham, tell him to come and have a look. And Kevin at that time was running a program called Link from Birmingham about disability issues. And I went in there for a day and watched the whole programme being put together. And I think I was pretty hooked by the whole process at the time.

And through that I got some other introductions and got some bits of unpaid work experience at the BBC after that, working in some Radio 4 programmes during just during the vacation, the university vacation. And then at the end of my university time, I applied for a few training courses, got none of them, got turned down by all of them, in fact.

Despite having you know quite a lot of experience, by the way, I say quite a lot of it, but a lot of demonstrable commitment and experience to wanting to go into that field through various different vacation jobs I'd had. And I'd had some stuff already on air at that stage on Radio 4 on the In Touch Program. But I was turned down by all those schemes, those sort of high flying schemes, and I kept knocking on the door, and eventually someone about six months after university gave me a shot and I joined the the parliamentary unit down at Westminster. Did some reporting on Today in Parliament and then spent a couple of years on the local radio regional desk down there and that's really where it sort of took off from. And after the ‘92 election, and talking ancient history here, of course I had...

Jazz: Still remember it!

Gary: [laughs] a reasonably good election and I managed to get a sort of permanent job after that. So a year after university, I was sort of gainfully employed in a, in a full-time job.

Jazz: Hey, I mean that's a really.... to be honest, it sounds like that your ride into media broadcast was a little less bumpier than mine! But you know 'cause in terms of fairly quick, although it probably felt like a long time at the time, segue into it. I mean, did you find that initially that stigma and discrimination around disability is something that you came up against yourself both in your career and it you know... or is it something you feel that's changed over time?

Gary: I mean, it's a really difficult question. I mean at the time I mean, this is 30 years ago, this is before civil rights legislation came in ‘95, for example. So you know there...that was a point in time where you were perfectly allowed to discriminate against disabled people in employment. You know there was no law against it whatsoever. You could say it out loud, even if you wanted to. Not that many people did, but you could. And I think there were, there were a lot of old-fashioned attitudes around at the time, some of them reasonably explicit.

I mean, I was told when I was 21 that a blind person couldn't be a reporter. You know, told to my face by a senior person that that couldn't happen. And of course you know in at that point in time you, you know, you don't know what to make of it, you don't know whether that's a general view, it kind of knocks the stuffing out of you in particular. But I was pretty determined not to take no for an answer. And, and more importantly, there were other people other you know, able bodied people who were not saying things like that and offering some opportunities. So it all really depended on the individuals you came across. But I, you know I, I would say there were there were, there were real difficult times and I think some of those attitudes persist to this day because in a sense, why wouldn't they?

Those sorts of views are deeply ingrained in our culture, they're reinforced by our culture you know in literature, in religion, in all sorts of areas of our culture and they don't change overnight, do they? People learn to mitigate them and they learn to sort of avoid them and maybe even conceal them, on some occasions. But they weren't, they're not going to change wholesale in that short period of time, so it's one of the difficulties I face when I get asked by people at the the start of their career, you know whether everything’s changed and now attitudes are enlightened. You know it's difficult to say yes absolutely, because I think there are still some problems. And I still feel, you know, from time to time and this is no particular comment on anyone or any organisation, but in general terms, I certainly still feel that there's a, there's a long way to go in some areas, and I'm, you know, 30 years into my career.

Jazz: Absolutely. I and I, it’s interesting that you talk about the ingrained nature of stigma and you know which it leads to discrimination and it such a one of those, the hidden nature of of people’s attitudes. But does it mean necessarily you know that we still challenge it? I think it's one of the main areas, the last frontiers really in when it comes to challenging attitudes towards disability, is that stigma and discrimination, for the very reason that people don't want to admit that they have prejudices, no matter how noble they might be, whether it comes from a protection point of view or just, you know, just not wanting to be around it. You know, do you think that the media has a role to help support and challenge those prejudices and that representation?

Gary: Oh, it absolutely does. And of course you know it's one of the most powerful means for social change that we have, isn't it, the media? And that those messages can be taken out and spread to a lot of people very quickly through, you know, positive portrayal in the media and things like that. I mean, I think the difficulty people have, you know, as effectively as employees or when they're doing their job is there's a, there's a whole sort of set of layers to this problem. Because you know there, there are practical problems and difficulties surrounding having a disability and how you do your job. That's one set of things.

Those are real, so they're not imagined. They're not attitudinal always, there are some things you know as a blind person, you need a screen reader, you need a certain kind of training to be able to use, you know particular bits of software that is different to the kind of training that a sighted person would get from somebody. So that's one thing, it's getting people to understand that that's a that is a barrier in itself, and something that can be overcome, but is a real one. Then you have the sort of more vague and insidious attitudinal problems. You know, the ones that do come from the culture that people almost often don't even know their, they have about disability. I mean, you only have to look at the the way language is used to know that. You know, blindness, in my case, blindness is a massively negative word in the language. It's used consistently to denote ignorance, stupidity, lack of any kind of knowledge. Lack of any kind of understanding. It's used metaphorically like that all the time, so it would be ridiculous and surprising that that metaphorical use, so constant and widespread, doesn't actually infect what people see when they see a blind person.

You know there's not a brick wall between literal language and metaphorical language. The meaning sort of flows back and forth between the two, so there's those sorts of problems as well. And then I think you know you've got sort of in wider sort of institutional structures that are just not geared up to cope with difference. And I think perhaps, I don't know, I think the jury is still out in this, but there may be some sense in which the pandemic has actually accelerated a lot of those, the breaking down a lot of a lot of those taboos. So for example, disabled people who do find it easier, so for part of the time at any rate to work from home, it's now much easier for them to argue that that's a perfectly legitimate working path. Because it's been made, has worked, and it's been made to work during the pandemic in a way that most employers would have resisted beforehand.

Jazz: I think the pandemic has really created a new environment for challenging and ensuring and changing practices around authentic voices in storytelling and reporting. and in a time when we used to fly reporters around the globe, and journalists around the globe, you know, and they weren't able to during the pandemic, you know people were looking for other ways of getting those stories out. And so citizen journalism and equipping disabled people to be able to tell those stories you know became a real possibility in in trying to change the way we operate, I guess as a broadcast media people or communicators and so on. And I think that we're really standing on an important possibility for change here, and I'm wondering whether you think there is a real opportunity, and you as a journalist and working in that, you know for kind of pushing for that that change?

Gary: And I do agree with you in the sense that you know the the last two years have demonstrated that there can be, you know you don't have to be jumping around a particular location. Or you don't have to be kind of in under the studio lights to be able to participate in the discussion in the media in authoritative and meaningful way. The sort of grammar of what's acceptable and what works has changed, and so you know people in their homes, in their studies at home, in their, in the context of their home environment, being professionals talking about their expertise, talking about their lived experiences as well, all those things have been legitimised by the pandemic. And I think for some disabled people, that's going to be an incredibly important card going forward. Because no longer I think not just from the you know media organisation’s point of view, whether that be the BBC, ITV whoever. Not only from their point of view, but more significantly from the public point of view.

Their view of what looks and sounds authoritative, and professional, has changed as well, and that will create some, I think some opportunities for some disabled people who do find it more difficult to get around, in that mobility sense, but that do have so much to offer in terms of their own experience and their professional expertise. And if they can do that from a context where they can operate much more effectively with their support systems around them in the environment they know and the environment that works for them as opposed to, you know, battling through transport systems into offices that don't quite work for them. Then that's got to be a good thing. I mean, I think there is a sort of a tipping point here, and the question is, you know that we don't know the answer to is whether things will just revert to how they were or whether this is a permanent change. But certainly, you know in their living memory, from now on we'll have that experience of having made it work, and that has all sorts of implications I think going forward in terms of flexibility for people that want to and have to work differently.

Jazz: Yes, and I think that is the ultimate challenge here isn't it? Is to be able to hang on to the gains that have been made in order to kind of see that through. I mean you, we were talking about authority there and you know just moving on from that, you know I think the authentic voices within storytelling and news reporting is is so very important, especially when it comes to how the disability experience is told, so I mean, would you agree with that? And do you think the media is actually getting it right in how it's reporting disability at the moment?

Gary: Generally the media spends a lot of time complaining that it can't find disabled people to talk to. You know that it doesn't know where to look, doesn't know how to find disabled people with not just their own lived experience, but with expertise in this and that area. And that sounds pretty lazy to me. I think I think they're not trying very hard, so I think the media has got to redouble its efforts on that. And of course, there's an important, you know, it's very, incredibly important in a really fast changing landscape for media organisations generally to retain the trust of their audiences, and one way they retain the trust of their audiences is, is if they can persuade their audiences that they are like them, that they reflect the country properly that they operate in. And if they don't do that, including the voices of disabled people in professional contexts and in the context of describing the lives of disabled people, then they're going to suffer as a result.

Because we're not talking about a small number of people here, as you know, we're talking about 20% of the population that you know has a disability under the Equality Act. We're talking about all those people who are around those disabled people who are allies and have understandings of those disability and care about those disability issues as well. This is not, this is not a small number of people. It's not as well organised, or I would argue doesn't have as well organised a voice as some of the other groups in society, and I think that's a you know, discussion for another day, but that's something that has allowed media organisations to ignore disabled people a little bit. And you know we're not very noisy about it, about being included in a way some groups are, but the organisations would ignore that group at their peril because this group has money to spend, it has choices now in in the media landscape and it will go to those places where it feels it is included and will exclude those that that it doesn't.

So I think there's some, there's an economic argument here, as well as a moral argument, and I think some people in the media industry are starting to understand that. I think it's a very slow process. You still, I still see, I saw recently a you know a study done by a prestigious institute on diversity in the media didn't even mention disability, didn't mention it, hadn't looked at it at all and it wasn't part of the study. And you think, goodness me, what's going on there? But generally speaking, there is at least some nod towards disability and inclusion in respect of disability. But we've got a long way to go I think.

Jazz: I mean, I couldn't agree with you more. And although you say it's a conversation for another day, how would you say the noise levels in the UK amongst the disability movement compares with the noise levels in say the US, which obviously you have a lot of experience of and I do too, you know, and how that has played out? Because obviously they they've kind of, you know, much more visible, so my first time I went to the US was in 9’1 and I just I was living in Washington DC at the time and I was just amazed at how accessible it was in ‘91. You know, I still couldn't even get on buses in the UK. So what do you think has been the, has been like the key driver I guess, in the US that we don't necessarily have in the UK around the noise levels of disabled people?

Gary: I really only know this sort of the, the blindness area. I don't pretend to have any particular knowledge on other disabilities in the states because I haven't really been involved in that. But what I see in the in the blindness field, the visual impairment field in the states, are two large organisations, one very large, one less large, led by blind people, organised by blind people in an incredibly focused and determined way. So the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, all both of which have you know, significant legislative arms doing lobbying, working on Congress the whole time to get stuff done, they have significant legal departments taking on particular legal cases, high profile legal cases, you know?

NFP have had a couple of you know very big successes over the years in terms of changing attitudes in the technology industry, for example, and making things happen. Like you know, an accessible iPhone, for example. You know they have to claim a lot of credit for that, and we don't have those disability led organisations in on any kind of scale in the UK, as far as I can see, we have, as you know, a lot of organisations for, rather than of. And the level I think of activism that we saw in the 90s, for example, I mean when I was a reporter on the BBC Two From The Edge program, disability magazine program, we would do weekly pieces on people chaining themselves to buses in Oxford Street.

Jazz: Yep. You might find I was one of them.

Gary: [laughs] Exactly exactly, you know, there was the as you know, the Direct Action Network and all sorts of other groups doing some stuff and you know, like it or not, that's what gets noticed. And that's you know I think it's impossible to argue that that stuff didn't lead to an atmosphere where the law was changed. And you don't really..there's none of that at the moment in the UK. There's no real pressure, certainly no activism of that kind, but also no no real sort of as far as I can tell, really organised lobbying of government. I mean, there's bits and pieces around the edge on, you know, benefit rights, voting and things like that you see from time to time, but I don't see a very noisy voice anywhere if you like in the UK advocating for disabled people.

Jazz: And I think you're absolutely right. And it's not there and I think it's not there because I don't think... it's going to be a vicious circle Gary because if it's not publicised, and that people aren't angry enough like they were in the 90s, people aren't going to rise up. So you know, we're kind of in this kind of strange environment at the moment, where news stories around disability aren't making the headlines. So whether it be disabled people or whether it be organisations like Leonard Cheshire aren't getting the media attention in the same way other headline making movements, aren't doing that. And so therefore because people don't know the difficulties that disabled people are facing around the benefit cuts, around employment, around a whole range of the sort of work that Leonard Cheshire is trying to support disabled people in developing and strengthening the voices, if they're not getting that kind of media share, people aren't going to be angry enough to and think well, this is as good as it gets. We'll stay with it. So what, what do you think changes needs to happen, if any, within media representation, particularly news journalism, around galvanising and supporting the disability voice?

Gary: I think it's uhm, you know, I mean, there's, uh, we all know that the media in general has a tendency to really only focus on certain kinds of disability story, you know the triumph over tragedy type stuff. You know the latest person to run up a mountain and down again, or things like that. I'm trivialising slightly because there are, there are there, is there is more than that.

Jazz: Those the main stories. [laughs]

Gary: But you know, I mean, I don't remember in certainly in recent terms hearing a story on the weekly or the the monthly unemployment figures, where someone turns around and say still 70% unemployment amongst disabled people. And that's not budged, whether there's been boom or bust in the economy, I mean that ought to be a scandal. It is a scandal. I don't, I can't remember hearing a story about, you know there was a study not all that long ago, maybe five years ago, that said blind children underperform about 15% at GCSE compared to everyone else. Well, you know, and this is not blind children with extra disabilities. No, not extra intellectual disabilities.

Well, why? Why are we allowing them to underperform by 15%? So those sort of employment and education stories, I mean, you get that there's there are plenty of sort of medicalised stories around, as always as you know. But the stories that that are going to make real change or could be the catalyst for change in terms of economic opportunity and fulfilling lives and all that kind of thing, they don't really get touched very much, despite the fact that actually when you look at the headlines on them, they're astonishing. I mean, the country simply wouldn't know that the unemployment rate amongst disabled people were so astronomic and awful.

Jazz: And I absolutely, I think that we've got a long way to go to ensure those kind of ordinary lives attempting to be lived or being lived, you know, become part and parcel of media journalism and broadcast journalism.

Gary: Yeah, mmm.

Jazz: And I think you raise some really important points through this, and it's been a great podcast. I wish we had more time to chat. I'm gonna probably bend your ear quite a bit more as the weeks and months go on. And as the cogs in my head, I'm thinking well here’s somebody who has really got a strong voice, you know, for advocating change in the media, so I just want to thank you very much for your for your time Gary and coming in and speaking to us today.

Gary: My pleasure, absolute pleasure.

Erin: I don't know about you, but I absolutely loved listening to that chat and hearing about both Gary and Jazz’s experiences. You know they made some really interesting points about the disability rights movement and how important it is for the media to be amplifying those messages more. And you know, just sharing more of those personal stories where they can. And you know, we've seen a bit more media interest over the years, but it could certainly go a lot further.

We'd love to know what you thought of the episode. You know, what struck a chord with you? Let us know by getting in touch on Twitter or Instagram @LeonardCheshire or by emailing us at disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org. And if there's a guest in mind that you really want to hear from, tag them on social, tag us and let us know. And as always please do remember to like, share and subscribe to the podcast.

Thanks so much for listening everyone, stay safe until next time, I'm Erin and this has been The Disability Download.