On a day when I am learning it may be OK to eat red meat after all, I’m also having to re-think my attitude to the BBC.
I am delighted that the Director General has reversed a decision by the Executive Complaints Unit to uphold (in part) a complaint against news presenter, Naga Munchetty. But why did it take five days and numerous complaints to realise the original decision was wrong? And what on earth is going on inside the Executive Complaints Unit to make it think Ms Munchetty had overstepped the mark with her comments on racism?
There is a debate going on inside and outside the BBC about its assessment of what constitutes impartiality. Many people – myself included – think the BBC has got it wrong, but the BBC resists. What makes this latest case so interesting is that, now that the BBC has admitted, from the highest level, that it’s initial assessment was wrong, it is instructive to consider how the Executive Complaints Unit could possibly have thought otherwise.
It’s probably best to start with their decision. It consisted of just three sentences, which can be summarised as follows:
It was entirely legitimate for Ms Munchetty to comment in terms which reflected her own experience of racism and of suggestions that people from ethnic minorities should go back to their own countries. But she also commented critically on the possible motive for, and potential consequences of, President Trump’s recent statement. Judgements of that kind are for the audience to make; her remarks fell short of due impartiality in that respect.
I don’t think my summarising has altered the meaning, but you can read the Unit’s actual words here. When I first read the decision, I did think that maybe – just maybe – the BBC has a “no opinion” rule for journalists. But it took me about a nanosecond (or less) to realise that is utter bunkum. Every time a BBC news program turns to one of the political editors, we get comment aplenty, including possible motives and potential consequences.
Reaching for my iPlayer and looking at yesterday’s One o’clock News, I see that BBC Assistant Political Editor, Norman Smith, reported from the Conservative Party conference on claims of historical misconduct by the current Prime Minister. Norman Smith speculated that:
“You have a feeling that [the conference] is about to take a swerve in a direction that Boris Johnson really would rather it didn’t go. … It probably won’t make any difference to how Mr Johnson is viewed by the party faithful here. But it matters in this sense in that Mr Johnson is now having to talk about something he really didn’t want to talk about … The concern of those in Downing Street must surely be that this could yet dent Mr Johnson’s standing with female voters.”
I’m not minded to submit a complaint to the BBC about Smith’s discussion of motive and consequences because such comment is a major reason why I watch television news. Comment of this nature is standard fare for BBC political editors.
Returning to Naga Munchetty, it is clear that she expressed recollections of her personal experience of racism and her reactions to it. Was that what got her into trouble? No, it wasn’t. The Executive Complaints Unit specifically deemed that to be “entirely legitimate”. It was only her comments on President Trump’s “possible motive” for speaking and the “potential consequences” of having done so which the Unit found unacceptable.
Let’s start with consequences. You can see a video of Naga Munchetty’s exchange with her co-presenter, Dan Walker, and read a transcript of it by scrolling down that same page. Dan Walker asked a question about consequences which elicited a positive reply:
Walker: Do you feel his use of that [language] then legitimises other people to use this…
Munchetty: Yes. Yes.
This is exchange is well within Norman Smith territory (“It probably won’t make any difference to how Mr Johnson is viewed by the party faithful here. But … the concern of those in Downing Street must surely be that this could yet dent Mr Johnson’s standing with female voters.”)
The words which go to Trump’s possible motive are those emboldened below:
Munchetty: 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 [go home back to where you have come from]. … it is not enough to do it just to get attention. He’s in a responsible position. Anyway I’m not here to give my opinion.
Seriously? Did senior appointees within BBC’s management really think that was an unacceptable intrusion into motive? If that wasn’t on, how about this from Laura Kuenssberg speculating that the Prime Minister believes he will benefit from dividing the country.
“… it seems a lifetime since Boris Johnson said he wanted to bring the country together as he arrived in Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. Because so far his time in No 10 has suggested he believes he will profit instead from a divide.”
And just to demonstrate that we aren’t suddenly experiencing a decline in standards that the BBC decided it needed to stop, I point to this from Nick Robinson 12 years ago:
“Anyone listening to David Miliband taking phone calls on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show could be in no doubt. This is a man testing the waters for a leadership bid and a man simply unprepared to come to the defence of a beleaguered prime minister.”