The structural imbalances of an impartially racist broadcaster

The Naga Munchetty affair has prompted debate over how the BBC applies its balance and impartiality guidelines. Liam Shrivastava describes an institution that is unable or unwilling to understand its role in elite racism

October 2, 2019 · 9 min read
Naga Munchetty and Dan Walker during that exchange

The BBC’s near-obsessive approach to impartiality is regularly castigated by commentators on both the left and the right. Its strict attention to ‘balancing the arguments’ has led to situations where respected environmentalists and scientists are placed alongside climate-change deniers. Whilst the BBC has recently reviewed this practice and deemed it unworkable, demands for balanced reporting often end up legitimizing racist and extremist views.

In the past 12 months, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight has faced widespread criticism for advancing far-right movements. Last year, it dedicated a large portion of an October show to so-called journalist and far-right activist Stephen Yaxley Lennon, commonly known as Tommy Robinson. Immediately after the New Zealand terrorist attacks on two mosques in March this year, the show caused further outrage by featuring an interview with the UK leader of Generation Identity, a far-right group that calls for a defence against ‘The Great Replacement’ of mass immigration.

Now, the BBC has once again found itself at the heart of a racism controversy. This time, it’s not due to the broadcaster airing racist ideologies – it’s because it reprimanded one of its own journalists for simply acknowledging a racist act. In July, BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, alongside her co-presenter, Dan Walker, commented on Donald Trump’s attack on ‘The Squad’ – a group of four democratic congresswomen of colour that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. In a predictably vitriolic Twitter tirade, Trump asked, ‘Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.’

Munchetty explained that her own experiences of being told to ‘go back’ were ‘embedded in racism’. This is hardly a controversial opinion. In fact, it is hardly an opinion at all. It is patently obvious to most of us what Trump means when he tells people of colour (all born in the United States, save for Omar) to ‘go back’. Given Munchetty’s comment attracted just one complaint, it is clear that the viewing public understand that too. The fact that that complaint was partially upheld by the BBC, until its latest U turn, is not only a travesty for racial justice, it also exposes the BBC’s own governance structures as completely unfit for purpose.

During the Obama era, many scholars described a liberal-progressive fantasy of the ‘post-racial’ that seemingly heralded the end of racial inequality. The election of Donald Trump, who ran an unashamedly racist campaign against migrants not only demolished such notions, it also highlighted the media’s inability to adequately challenge or even acknowledge racist political rhetoric. Legacy media now finds itself mired in the contradictory milieu of Trump and Brexit: where racism has increased political currency, but we are simultaneously censured and discouraged against ‘bringing race into the conversation’. The treatment of Munchetty not only demonstrates this contradiction; it is also emblematic of the burden on people of colour to share and explain their own personal experiences, as if to serve as moral arbiters over what can and cannot be constituted as racism. The very idea of the ‘debatability’ of racism is, according to Gavan Titley, a central component of this post-racial moment.

‘We have let in too many that are now committing terrorist acts. I’m not trying to be racist or anything. It’s just hard facts.’ A scene from Who Should Get to Stay in the UK?

This prompts us to not only consider the corporation’s apparent unwillingness to defend its own journalist’s professional integrity, but also how the BBC’s balance and impartiality guidelines fail to adequately challenge racist sentiments platformed in their news and current affairs programming. In June of this year, the BBC broadcast a documentary series entitled Who Should Get to Stay in the UK? (yes, really). The three-part series followed several migrants applying for settled status in the UK, as well as citizens affected by the Windrush scandal. Following its impartiality principles, it regularly balanced expert opinions from pro-migrant advocates with defenders of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. One voice, however, appeared to bypass the BBC’s stringent guidelines. In episode one, asylum seeker Dillian is filmed making his way to a nearby park. On his walk he meets an anonymous, older white man. The conversation soon turns to immigration, when the man declares:

‘We have let in too many that are now committing terrorist acts. I’m not trying to be racist or anything. It’s just hard facts. And this is a hardened view of the majority of the white people that wanted to leave.’

A classic, but relatively banal, example of racism, juxtaposed with the well-worn ‘not-racist’ caveat from the speaker, may not seem particularly shocking. After all, we are regularly reminded of the racist undertones of the Leave campaign. What follows the exchange, however, reveals the BBC’s casual attitude to such views. The camera cuts to Dillian, now in the park, where the programme maker simply asks him, ‘it must be different from home?’ Dillian responds saying, ‘I guess this is just what people are like in Britain,’ and the show goes on. Where is the balance and impartiality in that sequence? Why is it that balance and impartiality only need apply to the people reporting the news? Surely the ways in which views are presented also need to be accurate and balanced?

Not only are we served a hot slice of racism unchallenged, the follow up question prompts a response that perpetuates the myth that ‘the white people that wanted to leave’ are all racist. This strikes to the heart of the BBC not only advancing racist attitudes, but also as a particularity of the ‘white working class’ in Britain. Racism is simply an affliction of the lower class and poorly educated, rather than a system of oppression carried out by elites. This is what Jacques Rancière refers to as ‘cold racism’. The most dangerous aspect of this is the ways in which the BBC has regularly legitimated such attitudes as direct consequences of the working class’ economic plight, most infamously in its 2008 White Season.

A scene from The Left Behind

More recently, BBC One broadcast the television drama The Left Behind, a story of a young white male facing homelessness and indignity at his zero-hours contract job, who becomes radicalised into committing a racist hate crime. The stereotype of white communities in post-industrial towns ‘left behind’ by the pace of change apparently have little option but to take out their frustrations by vandalising a halal butchers. In both these examples, there is a failure on the part of the BBC to understand, challenge or even question the racist ideologies that they appear so willing to broadcast to their viewers.

But why does the BBC have such a problem with covering race and racism? Aside the deep-seated postcolonial melancholia of the British state, one explanation is the BBC’s lack of diversity – especially at the top of the organisation. A recent Equality Information Report shows there are just 10.4 per cent BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) in senior leadership positions at the corporation, 9.5 per cent with disabilities, 12 per cent LGBT+ and 43 per cent women. It is 18 years since then Director General Greg Dyke declared the BBC leadership ‘hideously white’ and it appears little has changed. The six members of the complaints unit that dealt with Munchetty’s case are all white – should we be surprised that they reached such a baffling conclusion?

The BBC has a range of diversity targets for the year 2020, setting thresholds for representation across its broadcasts and administrative functions. Whilst this should be welcomed, these targets won’t necessarily change the attitudes of influential and powerful figures. Achieving 15 per cent BAME leaders will not automatically change industry logics, commissioning or production processes, especially given many BBC programmes (including Who Should Get to Stay in the UK) are produced in the private sector. There is a danger that simply meeting diversity targets will do nothing for achieving social justice, prevent the reproduction of stereotypes or challenge structures of domination or racist attitudes in society. We only need to think about prominent BBC broadcasters’ attitudes to the gender pay-gap to see that the BBC needs a drastic shift in culture at the top.

When a prominent woman of colour working at the broadcaster is reprimanded for simply stating what is widely understood as racism, there is not only a toxic culture at the BBC, we also have an institution that is incapable or unwilling to stand up for minorities and challenge the extremist rhetoric that continues to inflect our public discourse.

After intervention from Director General Tony Hall, the BBC only reversed its decision in response to widespread backlash, highlighting the total disconnect between the corporation and the wider public. It now must review its Executive Complaints Unit and editorial impartiality guidelines as a matter of urgency. What the unit’s decision and wider BBC programming demonstrate, is that whilst the broadcaster obsesses over its commitment to impartiality, it completely fails to recognise the institutional racism embedded in its editorial decision-making.

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