Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Donald Trump, the BBC and what happens when a woman of colour speaks her truth



On Wednesday 25th September the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit officially found that BBC Breakfast’s presenter Naga Munchetty had breached the corporation’s guidelines by offering a personal opinion on President Donald Trump’s retort to four congresswoman of colour to "go back" to the "places from which they came".

The Executive Complaints Unit’s decision is wrong, and has three implications.

First, the decision suggests a serious lack of diversity in the organisation. It demonstrates that even with a limited increase in diversity in certain areas it does not seem to have been matched with a similar increase in inclusion.

Second, the decision, if not handled properly, could have a seriously negative effect on BAME (Black Asian & Minority Ethnic) staff working in the organisation.

Third, if the most senior levels of management do not respond publicly to the decision, it may well have a seriously negative effect on the BBC’s reputation and credibility vis-a-vis large parts of its audience for years to come.

I will now go through each of the above points in turn and at the end suggest how the BBC could turn this potentially disastrous situation to its advantage.

But before I do, a little background: I worked at the BBC for 24 years, the last eight years of those as a senior exec during which time many of my decisions would be scrutinized by the Editorial Policy Unit. Towards the end of my time at the BBC, I actually took a senior role for six months in the Editorial Policy Unit, and so have a good understanding of how both the editorial guidelines and Executive Complaints Unit work.

It is no exaggeration to say that I love the BBC’s editorial guidelines. I think they are brilliant. They offer guiding principles for anyone working in the media and they informally act as a blueprint for the rest of the broadcast industry in the UK (and globally) on how to approach editorially sensitive and difficult issues. 

One of the most important aspects of the guidelines however is that they are just that; “guidelines” - they are not rules. This can be difficult for people who are new to the BBC to get their heads around. For example, young journalists would often ask me “how many days do we have to give to a company for their right of reply?”. They wanted me to tell them the rule. And the answer was always “it depends”. If it is a very complex issue that would require a company to go through several years of tax returns then you may give them a week or longer. If it is a very simple issue, such as; “was your Birmingham branch closed on Monday?” you might give them less than a day to respond. 

The BBC’s editorial guidelines do not give you hard and fast rules. It gives you a helpful framework to think through editorial decisions. And as a framework it is literally second to none.

I say all this because it is important to understand when assessing the Executive Complaints Unit decision with regards to Naga Munchetty that we should not necessarily look at the BBC’s editorial guidelines as a set of “rules” but instead view them as principles, how they were interpreted and who was doing the interpretation.

THE DECISION WAS WRONG

So let us examine why the decision was wrong:

On 16th July 2019, President Trump tweeted that four congresswomen should “go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”. All of the four congresswomen are people of colour, all four are US citizens and only congresswoman Ilhan Omar was born overseas. The following day Naga Munchetty’s white co-host, Dan Walker, in discussing the tweet said that to him the most “telling quote” was that an unnamed woman had said that she had been told many times to “go home” back to her own country but she had never been told that by the “man sitting in the Oval Office”. 

Naga then responded to Dan by saying: “Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism,”. The BBC journalist told viewers: “Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.”

Dan Walker then asked her how she felt when she heard President Trump use such language and she replied: “Furious. Absolutely furious and I can imagine lots of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that.”

Let us unpick this a little.

Dan was the first to imply that the phrase “go home” is a common insult, as the unnamed woman has heard it several times. He then went on to say that it was particularly pertinent because it was the President using this insult.  

These were both issues raised by Dan using that quote - not Naga.

So did Naga breach the BBC’s guidelines in her response?

A very simple interpretation is: Yes she did. Why? The guidelines say:

Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC – they can have a significant impact on perceptions of whether due impartiality has been achieved. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.

From Naga’s response it would seem the audience can now tell her “personal opinion” on a matter of “political controversy”.

However the guidelines also make three important clarifications:

1. Due impartiality, “does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the rule of law. 

2. We should take account of the different political cultures and structures in different parts of the UK, and different cultural views in other communities.

3. Presenters “may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence”.

I would contend that addressing racism is a fundamental democratic principle and so Naga’s response comes under the first clarification.

In addition, I think the BBC’s Editorial Policy Unit is currently struggling with how to deal with the second clarification. The BBC Editorial Policy Unit is used to dealing with “different cultural views in other communities” when those views and communities are outside of the BBC. But as the BBC strives to become a more diverse organisation it will increasingly have to deal with these very reasonable views from the BAME community being expressed within the corporation. My understanding is that the BBC is currently not even discussing this very difficult issue let alone dealing with it.

Furthermore, as a woman of colour, it could be argued that Naga was not just expressing a personal opinion but was providing a “professional judgement, rooted in evidence”, it was precisely why her white co-host asked her opinion and how it made her feel. 

For all these reasons I believe that the Executive Complaints Unit have interpreted the BBC’s own guidelines incorrectly and placed undue emphasis on the overarching principle while ignoring the caveats and clarifications put in place along the principles to help make effective judgements.

In other words - they got it wrong… Not because the guidelines are wrong but because they interpreted them incorrectly.

LACK OF DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION

The next question of course is why did they interpret the guidelines wrongly? Is it politics and censorship? Is it because the BBC cannot be seen to be against President Trump?

This is possible, but from my time at the BBC I don’t believe so. The BBC does its best to be an impartial organization. 

Instead, I think the reason comes down to a lack of diversity.

Let me explain. I do not know the diverse composition of the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU), nor do I know which specific members of the unit were charged with assessing this specific issue. However every person I have ever known to be a member of the ECU is white.

Coincidently, I received an email from an investigative journalist who did a quick search for current members of the ECU and could only find white members. I stress that this does not mean that there are not non-white members, I just haven’t found any yet.

The ECU’s lack of BAME diversity is because it is normally made up of ex-senior programme executives, and the BBC has historically had a lack of BAME representation in these positions.

As a result it is likely that a predominantly white department was deciding whether the comments made by a person of colour about their own personal experience of racism were appropriate, and weighted different aspects of the BBC’s guidelines against one another.

The fact is none of us are 100% objective and impartial in our judgements – we often bring cultural baggage and values to our decisions. So how we value conflicting aspects against one another can be very culturally specific.

Now, it is possible that the ECU has become very diverse in the last four years since I left the BBC. It is also possible that the investigative journalist is incorrect and there are in fact a lot of non-white members of the ECU that couldn’t be found on public record. 

But even if this was true, there would still be the question of inclusion and culture.

“Diversity” is often viewed as the physical make-up of an organization – i.e. is it 15% BAME? Is it 50% women? Is it 18% disabled? Etc. “Inclusion”, on the other hand, is whether those diverse members are able to shape the culture and values of the organisation. 

The culture and values of an organisation can take a long time to change - usually longer than it takes to change the actual diversity of an organisation. And before diversity does set in and have its impact, “diverse” members of staff who are recruited or promoted can feel the pressure to conform to the dominant values of the organization.

The ECU’s decision would seem to indicate that it may still have some way to go with regards to diversity and even further when it comes to inclusion.

CONSEQUENCES FOR BBC’S STAFF

Since the ECU’s decision was announced, BBC staff have already expressed genuine anger and fright.

For instance, BBC correspondent Sangita Myska tweeted: "Right now, there is a lot of bewilderment among BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] staff", adding "there is unique self-censoring that BAMEs do across all industries & workplaces".

Presenter Matthew Price tweeted his "solidarity", saying: "There's a lot of bewilderment (and some anger) among non-BAME staff too... and I agree there's general concern about voicing it openly."

And  BBC presenter Carrie Gracie tweeted: “#nagamunchetty Unease among #BBC journalists for whom ‘go back’ = racist. If power trumps or bends meaning then no point in journalism, just print propaganda. There is no #BBC journalism worth the name without #BBC values. Accountability is one. Explain @BBCNaga reprimand please.

It might not be obvious to people who have not worked at the BBC but this level of open dissent with regards to an editorial decision is possibly unprecedented.  It seems that for many the ECU’s decision tells them that this is not an organisation that accepts them, their values or understands their life experiences. For me, as a  24-year insider, who is now on the outside, this looks like an organisation that has lost its way when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and is losing the confidence of its staff.

LONG TERM IMPACT ON THE AUDIENCE

Notwithstanding BBC staff, the possible long-term impact on the BBC’s audience could be devastating.

The ECU’s decision has already gone viral on various social media platforms and has confused many. It either suggests that the BBC is not impartial in its politics – seeking to censor certain views, OR suggests that while the BBC may have improved its diversity in-front of the camera, its editorial values behind the camera are outdated and have not kept up with the changing demographics of its audience. 

This one decision erodes trust in whether large parts of the audience, including those from a BAME background, believe in the corporation’s credibility and its values. 

The BBC, as a “national broadcaster” that represents the people - as opposed to a “state broadcaster” that represents the government -  is built on that bond of trust between itself and its audience. This decision weakens that bond.

WHAT SHOULD DO THE BBC DO NOW?

Surprisingly I think the BBC could use the ECU’s decision as an opportunity to build trust as well as strengthen its diversity and inclusion.

Firstly it is important to recognise that the BBC is not a monolith. It is full of competing departments.

The ECU is quite separate from the rest of the BBC.  This separation is 100% essential, and very normal in large organisations – who will often have a separate audit function. These audit or investigatory parts of organisations – while directly helpful to organisations in consistently providing rules and frameworks for organisations to adhere to – have to be separated in order to be able to fairly and independently investigate and judge complaints against the organisations.

I have not yet spoken to people in senior positions of editorial responsibility in the BBC about this. But based on my previous experience I suspect quite a few disagree with the ECU’s decision. 

These – and ideally all – senior members of the BBC should make their position clear and come out internally in support of Naga. In doing so they can of course accept the decision, but in much the same way a US supreme court judge may accept the judgement of his/her fellow judges on a controversial case, s/he also has the right to write a dissenting opinion. Senior BBC staff could use the same right and take this opportunity to explain why they think the ECU has made the wrong decision.

Why? This would show the journalists working at the BBC that senior management support their views and opinions.

I also suggest senior management goes further, so as to ensure public credibility. Ideally, the most senior levels of BBC should make a public statement about the ECU’s decision, and use this as an opportunity to reiterate the importance of diversity and inclusion at all points of the organisation.

For instance, a statement could include the idea that: 

Whilst we accept the independent judgment of the ECU we recognise that this has raised questions about the impartiality, values, diversity and inclusion of the corporation as a whole and of the ECU specifically. We are firmly committed to impartiality within political debate, as well as the diversity of values and opinions of all our staff. We encourage them to express these values within the framework of the BBC’s editorial guidelines both inside and outside of the organisation. 

Furthermore we understand that people may be concerned about the diversity and exact make-up of the ECU and the people making the decision. We believe that the ECU is able to come to fair decisions but we also recognise that perceptions of impartiality and diversity are important for people to have trust in editorial judgements. For this reason we are from today setting a specific target that by 2022 15% of the ECU’s staff should come from a BAME background, 50% should be women and 18% should be disabled to accurately reflect British society as a whole, and we also commit to ensure other aspects of diversity from regionality to sexuality are also accurately represented.

The ECU’s decision and the public discussion that has followed it has once again shown how important diversity is to the organisation and we hope to live up to the high standards that our British and global audience expects of us”. 

WHAT SHOULD OTHERS OUTSIDE THE BBC DO NOW?

As I’ve set out above – I truly hope that the BBC will not just stay quiet on this. I hope it will use this as an opportunity to regain credibility as well as redouble its efforts to increase its diversity and inclusion. 

However, others can also respond, and encourage the BBC to respond as needed.  

Finally, as a senior exec, I have one more idea:


The BBC, should give Dan Walker and Naga Munchetty their own documentary to investigate racism and what it means to “go home”! If a brief chat on a studio sofa can generate this much interest, I am sure I am not the only one who would watch a 2-part documentary on it. And if the BBC won’t commission it I worry Channel 4 will instead… Let’s (literally) watch this space…


(Correction: When first published I refered to the Executive Complaints Unit as the Editorial Complaints Unit, this is because when working at the BBC we simply refered to it as the "ECU". The mistake has now been corrected) 

16 comments:

  1. Excellent piece. I had seen Naga’s comments as justified and appropriate. They did indeed add a valuable “professional judgement” for me as a middle-aged white man and I was shocked by the ECU’s decision. Sign me up for Dan and Naga’s documentary.

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  2. Fascinating. As a WIA (white irish atheist - I just made that up so bear with...) I am always looking to absorb the experience of people from a minority background. It makes me a pain in the backside at work as I find myself challenging a lot of outdated and lazy assumptions.

    Question - would lack of diversity from say, an economic background be a viable explanation of the reaction by the BBC to Labour becoming left wing?

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    1. For most mainstream broadcasters (around the world - not just the BBC) "objectivity" usually means viewing things from the dominant narrative. I don't think as journalists we do that deliberately but it is the "safest" option.

      Incorporating diversity (which often means adopting a mild form of cultural relativism) is a real challenge to news values of "objectivity".

      I hope this answers your question about economics, but I think it is a far bigger issue than just whether we can examine different economic theories equally.

      This is just a personal opinion. I am not an academic and I am sure there are far cleverer people than me that are studying this.

      Marcus

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    2. I think you make a good point. The BBC is part of the establishment and often reacts to defend it, even to the point of scurrilous distortion. This can be seen in the incredibly biased Panorama on Labour's alleged "anti-Semitism". I don't think it is simply about lack of diversity: the BBC could pack the ECU with pro-establishment people from an ethnic minority background if it was clever enough. They do exist, for example Kamal Ahmed, editorial director of BBC news, who, if he did not have oversight of Panorama, must have had a role in the way the BBC has presented a distorted view of the Labour Party over the last few years. According to an interview with Ed Vuliamy on Democracy Now, when Ahmed worked on the Observer he resisted publication (along with the editor) of the Katharine Gun leaks about the US asking GCHQ to spy on the the UN security council (see the forthcoming Hollywood film!)

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  3. Another thing that would help is amending the Equality Act 2010 so that staff in the BBC are covered by the Public Sector Equality Duty. At present the BBC argue only staff involved in collecting the licence fee are covered and this has not been challenged by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This has significant implications for diversity as the PSED gives statutory heft to addressing and monitoring change. I say this as someone who worked at the EHRC for ten years and spent two years working in the Acts statutory. Prior to that I worked at the Commission for Racial Equality lobbying to improve the Act as it went through Parliament.

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    1. That is fascinating - I will look into this more - I hope you don't mind but I might have to message you about this over the coming days.

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  4. We are all with Naga, as white British but Scottish I have experienced occasional anti-Scottish prejudice but never from anyone in any position of authority and certainly nothing on the scale of that endured by friends who are individuals of colour.

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    1. I am not going to make false equivalence comparing BAME people and white Scots, but after working in Scotland for eight years I found the discussions around relative power dynamics between a majority and minority group really informative when analysing both issues.

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  5. Intetesting that no fault was explored against Dan. Ie incitement for Naga to break the 'rules'. When asked the question on live TV how would the BBC have expected her to respond? Not that I want Dan to get into trouble but this just shows the narrowmindedness & perversity of the decision.

    It would also be interesting to see how proportionate are the investigations into BAME staff compared to white staff. In other organisations BAME staff are much more likely to have a finding of misconduct against them and more severe sanctions than their white colleagues.

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    1. That is really interesting. I am not aware of anyone doing that type of analysis breaking down complaints relative to protected characteristics (gender, race, religion etc). I might suggest that to a few academic friends - thank you.

      Marcus

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  6. I complained to them yesterday, today they bounced it back with 'they stand by their policy.' I love what you've said and how clearly you've said it. As a former Met Police Diversity facilitator I can clearly see Institutional Racism and Sexism in their differential treatment of Naga- hopefully they will too, very soon (as you say above) take this learning opportunity and not dig any deeper.

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  7. Now we have the Guardian compounding the offense by describing it as a "race row". What on earth is all that about? I presume a race row is a between two or several "races". I don't see it as that at all and it is deeply disturbing that the guardian can describe it in such archaic terms. It is about those who experience or see racism and those who don't - and about power relations.

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