The treatment of BBC Breakfast host Naga Munchetty has sparked debate about transparency in how the broadcaster handles viewer complaints.
The row started on 17th July, when Ms Munchetty commented on a tweet by US president Donald Trump, in which he urged four congresswomen of colour to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”. She said: “Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism”.
Her co-host Dan Walker then asked how she feels about the comments, to which she replied “Furious. Absolutely furious. And I imagine a lot of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious that a man in that position feels it’s OK to skirt the lines with using language like that”. She concluded the conversation by saying, “anyway, I’m not here to give my opinion”.
These comments might not seem particularly controversial, yet shortly after the show aired, the BBC received viewer complaints which argued that in calling out the racism embedded in Mr Trump’s tweets, Ms Munchetty had broken BBC guidelines on impartiality. The broadcaster’s Executive Complaints Unit at first decided to uphold the complaint, arguing that its editorial guidelines “do not allow for journalists to… give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so,” also adding that “those judgements [on where to draw the line] are for the audience to make.”
The decision was followed by staff revolt: an open letter from prominent black Britons urging the BBC to overturn its decision, another series of viewer complaints, and critique from British media regulator Ofcom. The BBC was eventually led to reverse its original decision. In an email to staff, the director-general Tony Hall wrote: “the ECU ruling has sparked an important debate about racism and its interpretation. Racism is racism and the BBC is not impartial on the topic”.
While this offers some recompense to Ms Munchetty, important questions about media impartiality and transparency remain. In spite of repeated requests by Ofcom and others, the BBC has yet to make public a satisfactory account of its reasoning behind either decision. Additionally, by virtue of its outright denial that Ofcom has a right to carry out investigations of complaints processes, it can be argued that the BBC is obstructing due process from taking place.
The incident is situated in a media landscape where the desirability, as well as the practicability, of impartiality norms is increasingly being called into question. Lord Hall’s comments are a case in point: though important, the need for impartiality in public broadcasting may not extend indefinitely.
While most would argue that a public service broadcaster should not involve itself in politics or take stances of widely disputed issues, certain things are clearly offensive. Being a woman of colour herself, Ms Munchetty is apt to understand the context and embedded meanings of comments such as Mr Trump’s and so her perspective is a valuable contribution. Perhaps more importantly, in calling out the underlying racism in Mr Trump’s comments, she was arguably stating a fact more than she was giving an opinion.
Furthermore, the lack of transparency seems troubling. Regardless of the ECU’s ultimate decision, the whole carousel is likely to create a great deal of uncertainty among BBC staff. This creates potential problems with self-censorship. As a tax-funded corporation, the BBC has responsibilities to its staff as well as to the general public, as was pointed out by Ofcom’s group director for content and media policy, Kevin Bakhurst, who said that “more widely, we have serious concerns around the transparency of the BBC’s complaints process, which must command the confidence of the public”.
In order to retain that confidence, the BBC must take seriously the need for transparency in how it handles complaints.
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