BBC broadcaster Nigel Rees quit after 46 years over ‘diversity drive’

A Radio 4 presenter has revealed that he resigned after 46 years because he felt under pressure from the BBC to book more "diverse" guests.

Nigel Rees, 77, had presented the hugely popular programme ‘Quote… Unquote’ since 1976 when he left last month.

The veteran broadcaster has now said he felt pressured by the corporation to invite diverse speakers onto the show who were not necessarily the most suitable guests.

"We had prescriptions to have diverse groups and disabled guests. I didn’t agree with it at all but I went along with it because I had to. It came from upstairs and it seemed to be a general priority," he told The Sunday Times.

"I am not willing to go on having my choices interfered with in order to tick boxes in the name of diversity and representation. It is difficult having it enforced for the sake of it. It is also patronising, not least to the people who don’t want to be on because they feel they are ticking a box."

The BBC’s focus on diversity in recent years has been criticised as out of touch with its audiences.

The acronym BAME will no longer be used as it may cause ‘serious insult’

Last month, the corporation said it would no longer use the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) as it could cause "serious insult" to ethnic minorities if they feel they are being referred to as a homogenous group.

A report commissioned by the BBC on behalf of the broadcasting industry, and carried out by the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, said the term was "problematic".

Mr Rees and his producer John Lloyd pitched ‘Quote… Unquote’ to the BBC 46 years ago, and he said he was proud to recruit guests through his own contacts.

A panel of celebrities are quizzed on the origins of quotes, and are invited to share some of their own favourite quotes. Part of the show is dedicated to answering listeners’ queries on etymology and the source of quotes.

Since January 1976, he presented 57 series of the show and hosted more than 500 guests, which included Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough, Anthony Horowitz and Glenda Jackson.

Rees felt his autonomy slipping away after BBC started ‘making impositions’

However, he said he felt his autonomy slipping during the 56th series in 2020, when the BBC started "making impositions" on who he should invite onto the show.

While Mr Rees said everyone who contributed to the programme gave an excellent performance, he increasingly felt his guest choices were being questioned over fears of offending audiences.

He also gave examples of "cultural issues" creeping in, making him feel out of touch.

Mr Rees said he was asked not to mention some lines from Noël Coward’s 1932 comic song Mad Dogs and Englishmen as the BBC feared it would promote "colonial attitudes".

A woman once wrote into the programme to complain because a guest had told a joke about their Jewish mother, he said.

A BBC spokesperson said: "We want our output to be representative of the UK and we want contributors on our comedy shows to be wonderfully engaging and funny. 

"These two ambitions are not mutually exclusive and it would be highly condescending to suggest otherwise. We have creative, editorial discussion around every production and they are very much standard practice."

To mark the 40th anniversary of ‘Quote… Unquote’, Mr Rees selected some of his favourite quotes featured on the show.

These included; "Nothing matters very much and very few things matter at all", by Arthur Balfour; "Try to learn something about everything and everything about something", by TH Huxley; and "A week is a long time in politics", by Harold Wilson.

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