The Naga Munchetty affair must be a turning point for the BBC
Our country is changing, and facing up to a new rise of racism. All our institutions need to be fit for this challenge, writes Seema Malhotra
Last week over 100 Labour MPs signed my letter to Lord Tony Hall, the Director-General of the BBC, in protest at the censuring of Naga Munchetty. Few would have missed the furious backlash about the decision made by the BBCs Editorial Complaints Unit, which reprimanded Naga Munchetty for her comments in relation to congresswomen being told to “go back home”.
Serious concerns were also raised by journalists both within and outside of the BBC by broadcasters and journalists of colour, as well as by hundreds staff and the general public.
Over the weekend, reports suggested that despite the increasing backlash, the BBC were continuing to back the conclusions reached by the Editorial Complaints Unit. As Channel 4 News presenter Krishan Guru-Murthy put it, the BBC are “defending the indefensible”.
I welcome the response by Lord Tony Hall this week effectively reversing the decision. He said: "In this instance, I don’t think Naga's words were sufficient to merit a partial uphold of the complaint around the comments she made".
But it is surprising it came five days after the story broke. And it happened during a week in which the public debate started to markedly shift to challenge the language being used by senior politicians, with Boris Johnson himself robustly challenged because of the impact of his words and rising threats against MPs. It was also a week in which the daughter of Yvette Cooper MP wrote very powerfully about the day to day consequences of threats to MPs on their children and family.
In our letter to Lord Hall, we recognised the vital need for impartiality and professionalism. We expect the very highest standards from the BBC which plays a huge part in our national life. But, Naga Munchetty’s comments were arguably insightful and informative in the context in which they were made. The wider debate was about rising islamophobia and wider racism and hate. The decision therefore was a somewhat inexplicable finding. With the language of political leaders and the consequences in our communities now a matter of increasing concern, this matter clearly calls for a new level of thinking about how we respond and what values we seek to protect.
Commentators have further begun to question how this could have happened and reached the furore it did, and what it says about the process that has led to it. Recent Guardian articles highlight how the “Munchetty case shines light on BBC's procedures”. There are “calls for greater scrutiny” of how the BBC “handles complaints”. Indeed, Tom Watson MP, Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS said “This is the right decision. Calling out racism takes courage. The ruling against Naga Munchetty was wrong and I hope the BBC reviews the process that led to it.”
Lord Hall has asked editorial and leadership teams "to discuss how we manage live exchanges on air around these topics in the future." This is necessary but not sufficient. Naga Munchetty deserves an apology. In addition the BBC should, with the advice of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, consult on and review its guidelines re race. There are also increasing queries about the diversity of management within the BBC, particularly with regards to those who handle complaints.
The new rise of racism is now a serious issue high on the political radar and is going to need new policies to handle it and its consequences. Our country is changing, and all our institutions need to be fit for the new challenges. The Naga Munchetty story is a very important turning point. We need to come back from the brink and our institutions need to be bold in standing up for the values they believe in.
Seema Malhotra is Labour MP fo Felthan and Heston