BBC staff challenge managers over racism in Naga Munchetty row

BAME workers at meeting demand an inquiry and say presenter deserves an apology

BBC managers faced open revolt from furious staff as they attempted to make amends in the row over Naga Munchetty’s comments about Donald Trump, amid claims of widespread racism within the organisation.

At one open meeting organised for BAME employees on Thursday, members of the audience demanded management formally apologise to the BBC Breakfast presenter, called for an investigation into editorial standards chief David Jordan, and demanded diversity representatives on the semi-independent executive complaints unit. Sources at the meeting said nervous BBC executives faced shouts from the audience when they were deemed to have not properly addressed their concerns, although another said everyone was “incredibly polite and restrained given what was going on” and the predominant tone was exasperation rather than anger.

At another staff meeting, the corporation’s head of news, Fran Unsworth, told BBC journalists she had no idea about the decision to initially censure Munchetty until she read about in the media, which was “obviously not ideal”, according to a recording passed to the Guardian. Editorial director Kamal Ahmed told the hundreds of staff present at the meeting he was astonished by some of the racism he had encountered at the corporation.

Munchetty was censured by the BBC last week after she was deemed to have expressed a personal political view on the US president’s comments telling four US congresswoman to “go home”. The ruling, sparked by a single complaint from a viewer, was reversed by director general Tony Hall on Monday following enormous internal and external pressure, which was heightened by the Guardian obtaining leaked copies of the original complaint showing that her co-host, Dan Walker, was also mentioned.

The BBC is now facing three major issues as it tries to limit fallout from the row. First, the battle to restore trust between management and staff from minority ethnic backgrounds who feel the incident is symptomatic of wider issues regarding race at the corporation. Second, the battle to clarify whether the BBC’s impartiality rules are still enforceable. And third, the unanswered questions regarding the handling of the incident by senior management and Jordan, who was sent out on air to publicly defend the corporation.

During Thursday’s staff session Unsworth made clear the BBC had handled the incident badly but emphasised that there are still “different views” within the news department about the complaint – suggesting some executives still feel the original decision was correct.

At one point, a Jewish BBC journalist asked whether they now have the right to publicly express their opinion on whether Jeremy Corbyn was antisemitic, while others asked if they were now allowed to express personal views so long as the weight of public opinion is behind them.

“As a Jew, if Jeremy Corbyn has criticised or said something that I don’t like, that I consider antisemitic, is it OK for me to tweet that ‘Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite’?” the journalist asked.

Unsworth made clear this would not be allowed. But the head of news – who along with the rest of the BBC’s executive committee had signed a statement on Friday night backing the original decision – would not say whether she thought Hall was right to clear Munchetty: “Was it bowing to pressure? In some ways, yes, it probably was. But I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing if there’s a strength of feeling which was not understood about these issues by the decision makers.”

Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark raised concerns that there is now limited clarity on what is acceptable, especially with the BBC expanding into opinionated podcasts aimed at younger audiences: “If presenters in different parts of the BBC do not know where they stand, we have got a complete and utter mess.”

One gay member of staff complained about the recent decision to stop BBC Northern Ireland members from formally taking part in Belfast pride and said minority groups were fed up with being used as a “talking point for a controversial discussion”.

“At what point does the BBC decide to reconsider what is a controversial subject and what I can have an opinion on? Because there are many times as a queer person I will see debates on TV about my existence.”

Unsworth said the BBC is unequivocally “for democracy, against racism, against homophobia” but said all licence fee payers had a right to have their views represented by the corporation, citing religiously conservative Muslims who oppose the topic of same-sex relationships being taught to primary school children in Birmingham.

“That’s just the deal that we have working for this organisation … otherwise we have to stop taking the money of every section of society. We can give it up, we can be a subscription organisation, say that these are our values but we can’t be a universal service if that is the case.”

One woman said she heard middle management debate the “existence of people from my community” and said BAME staff felt uncomfortable raising the topic for fear of harming their careers: “To me as a person of colour, issues around minority subjects seem to be very much up for debate, even if not on screen.”

Ahmed, one of the BBC’s few senior executives from a BAME background, responded: “I’m amazed at some of the language I’ve heard in this organisation. I’ve never been more aware of my colour than in this place.”

Another BBC journalist told bosses that the Munchetty ruling had undone hard work done by programme makers who try to reach BAME viewers: “We are at the coalface going to talk to different communities, people from different ethnic minority races, and they do not trust us. We have failed them hugely. And I really think that when people make mistakes, we have to apologise because we expect that of our children, we expect that of our politicians.”

In response, Unsworth pointed out that individuals such as Michael Grade, the former BBC chairman, still felt the original decision was correct and asked the audience member: “What are we apologising for?”


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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