The Munchetty case shows the BBC’s impartiality rules are made by white men – and not applied even-handedly

How can you remain impartial on issues like racism?

Anjum Peerbacos
4 October 2019, 11.11am
Dan Walker and Naga Munchetty presenting BBC Breakfast on 17 July
BBC, fair use.

I and other Muslim professionals were recently invited to meet some of the key people at the BBC. It was a visit arranged in the hope of incorporating some more diversity at the broadcaster. It became painfully obvious to me as I walked into the gallery and overlooked the busy open plan office that although we lived in one of the most diverse cities in the world, the world of the BBC offices did not reflect that. Our group of 8-10 people stuck out like a sore thumb; myself as a visibly Muslim woman, even more so.

Last week, the BBC announced that it had partially upheld a complaint against BBC presenter Naga Munchetty. Munchetty had commented that remarks like those from Donald Trump who said four female politicians should "go back" to "places from which they came", in her experience “as a woman of colour” tended to be “embedded in racism”.

Despite initial suggestions from the contrary from the BBC, it then emerged that Muchetty’s co-host, Dan Walker (a white man), was also complained about. The complaint was titled: “Blatant political bias from both presenters”. But only the complaint regarding Munchetty was escalated, whereas the complaint about Walker was not.

After an outcry, the BBC overturned its decision to uphold the complaint and to take disciplinary action against Munchetty.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

The original decision made about Naga Munchetty breaching the editorial guidelines does not surprise me in the slightest, but it does infuriate me.

We live in a climate of fear, with the media often manifesting that. As a Muslim woman I have been the victim of abuse. After the Christchurch massacre the UK saw a spike in hate-crime of 593%, a large proportion of which was targeted at Muslims.

There is no way something like that can be spoken about impartially. People of colour or of a minority background face what Munchetty described, regularly. The BBC unlike other media outlets is supposed to be impartial, however how does one remain impartial on racism, sexism, or any form discrimination?

And the reality is that the BBC is not applying these guidelines consistently. To take just one example, John Humphrys as a host on the Today programme was regularly able to espouse his opinions and views on a plethora of issues, under the guise of the ‘man on the street’.

During the Munchetty case it has become apparent that the panel which heard the original complaint were 94% white. The rules that were created would have been by a predominantly white male group.

The concept of impartiality is a farcical one. How can one remain impartial on issues such as genocide, child abuse, sexism and race? Racism is not an opinion that one can choose to agree or disagree with, it is a fact. It exists. It is wrong. Munchetty was told that she had not followed the rules when the rules are not applied equitably and the rules do not work. Munchetty shared her lived experience and her response to what the US President had said. She did not call him racist but criticised his use of comments that in her experience tend to be used in a racist context. By that measure the white male privilege that exists within the BBC who then used the impartiality rules to beat her with; suggesting that she had not followed them. The BBC is denying her lived experience, and the ability to share that with others.

Meanwhile white male presenters are allowed to air derogatory and/or seemingly prejudiced views with seeming impunity. Andrew Neil’s tweet about the journalist Carol Cadwalladr infuriated his female BBC colleagues, but Neil issued no apology, merely deleting the tweet. The BBC have allowed male presenters a degree of tolerance where female journalists are subjected to inappropriate language on social media. The rules are largely created in an institution governed and controlled by white men of a privileged background. Munchetty said something that upset the balance and someone somewhere did not like it.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData