The BBC is facing growing calls to reform its complaints system and ensure the process treats all staff the same after the corporation’s disastrous handling of viewer feedback about the BBC Breakfast host Naga Munchetty.
The decision to censure Munchetty turned a single partially upheld viewer complaint about her alleged bias against Donald Trump into a crisis for the broadcaster, which has revived broader complaints within the organisation about the treatment of people of colour in its news operation.
It has also cast doubt on the BBC’s ability to enforce its strict guidelines on journalistic impartiality in the future, after the director general, Tony Hall, overturned the ruling against the presenter on Monday night after days of anger from outside and inside the organisation.
His decision came after the Guardian obtained leaked correspondence showing the original viewer complaint was also about Munchetty’s co-host Dan Walker, who was not put under scrutiny.
The editorial standards chief, David Jordan, had said Walker was not investigated because he was not mentioned in the complaint, with the BBC later clarifying that he meant Walker was not mentioned in the revised viewer grievance that went to the top-level executive complaints unit.
Hall has repeatedly defended the BBC’s commitment to impartial news coverage in the face of politically motivated complaints about its output from across the spectrum.
The corporation’s guidelines state that audiences should not be able to tell the personal opinions of journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political, or industrial controversy.
Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC TV news, suggested the corporation often found itself struggling with its own bureaucracy when it came to contentious decisions. “There’s a respect for process which means they end up for the first four or five days defending the process and it’s only late in the day that you decide you can’t really defend the conclusion of the process,” he said. “Staff are now really confused about what can and can’t be said on air, and what’s lived experience and what’s not.”
He said the BBC could now face demands from presenters who were religious conservatives to reflect on issues such as the teaching of same-sex relationships in schools or Jewish reporters could wish to offer personal responses to allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party.
The corporation has previously attempted to quash public protests this year from some of its LGBT journalists, arguing that some issues surrounding gay rights should not be up for debate.
Hundreds of journalists across the BBC’s domestic news service and the World Service – including some senior on-air correspondents – have taken the highly unusual step of sending an internal letter to Hall demanding reform.
They want a codified approach on how the corporation can report on issues of race in an increasingly polarised world, as it faces bad faith complaints from political campaigners about its output.
“It asked the director general to strengthen the BBC’s guidelines on reporting racism,” said one person who has seen the correspondence. “It also called for a review of diversity and equality policy across newsrooms - which many staff feel has failed to ensure BAME staff progress through newsrooms to enter senior editorial positions.”
Even some BBC journalists who feel angry that Munchetty was singled out by the corporation believe she did technically breach the code as it is currently framed. They are now considering how to press management to update the guidelines to reflect modern attitudes and reduce the ability of a small number of complaints to influence output.
The former BBC director general Mark Thompson, now the chief executive of the New York Times, told an audience in London that the broadcaster’s commitment to impartiality had been weaponised: “The BBC’s virtues, one of its virtues has been turned against it. That’s a characteristic of a long-running story.”
Bizarrely, according to multiple individuals at the corporation, at least one BBC executive who put their name to a statement issued on Friday defending the original ruling has now apologised to colleagues for doing so. The individual allegedly said they were unaware the original viewer complaint also mentioned Walker until they read it in the Guardian.
Hall’s decision to overturn the ruling also raises questions about the independence and authority of the BBC’s in-house executive complaints unit, given the director general has now shown he is willing to overturn its decisions in the face of sustained public pressure.
Under the current rules, the media regulator, Ofcom, which handles complaints for all commercial broadcasters, can only consider complaints if the BBC is unhappy with the original decision.
Jeremy Corbyn, who is engaged in a lengthy dispute with the BBC over a Panorama programme regarding allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party, said the BBC must apologise and overhaul its complaints procedure.
“When people of colour call out racism they should be listened to and supported,” he said. “Action should be taken against racists, not those that challenge them.”
Boris Johnson declined to comment on the issue. The prime minister told LBC he had never heard of Munchetty and did not know anything about the dispute.
Other journalists said that while the BBC was working hard to diversify its workplace through recruitment, the upper levels of management were still dominated by older, white men who shape editorial guidelines.
“Naga’s case is just symbolic of a lot of issues that haven’t been addressed effectively for years,” said one BBC journalist from a minority ethnic background. “It’s sad because we are so loyal to it and believe in public service.”