Attacking the professionalism of BBC journalists is all the rage, these days. Sometimes, it seems like everybody’s doing it. From senior politicians to keyboard warriors on social media come slights about bias (basically, if your side isn’t doing well, it’s probably the Beeb’s fault) and, in extreme cases, these criticisms are accompanied by the most unpleasant intimidation. One doesn’t have to dig deep into the swamp of Twitter before one’s spade clangs on a death threat against a BBC reporter.
Of course, there have always been those for whom journalists, especially those employed by the corporation, are considered legitimate targets to be doused in bile but, as our national debate becomes more fractious, so attacks on BBC hacks become more febrile.
Even if it were the case that BBC journalists were uniformly unprofessional and biased, they would not deserve the vitriolic attacks and threats so many of them endure. But the truth, as I see it, is that the corporation is home to some of the very best in the business.
Political editor Laura Kuenssberg is – despite the relentless criticism she receives – a first-class journalist whose insider knowledge of the shenanigans of both government and Commons helps make the BBC’s coverage of the state of our nation so very good.
Meanwhile, the installation of Emily Maitlis as its main presenter has revived Newsnight, turning it – once again – into essential viewing for anyone who wants to go deeper into the big stories of the day. Fiona Bruce has performed a similar act of resuscitation on Question Time, while Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett is an interviewer to be feared by any MP who dares turn up hoping to wing it. She has a bullshit-detector every bit as good as the one possessed by Andrew Neil, whose set piece interviews on BBC television are masterclasses in how to hold the powerful to account.
Another Beeb journalist for whose presence on screen I am grateful is Naga Munchetty, an energetic and engaging host on BBC One’s Breakfast show. Munchetty and her fellow Breakfast hosts, Louise Minchin, Dan Walker, and Charlie Stayt, have some of the trickiest jobs on TV. The nature of their programme – a mix of hard news and softer features – means they’ve often to move from the light and fluffy to the deadly serious. The potential for Alan Partridge-esque moments is huge. All, I think, navigate these treacherous waters with skill.
Breaching the guidelines
Munchetty, however, has displeased the powers-that-be in the BBC. Auntie has found, following a complaint from a viewer, that she breached editorial guidelines on impartiality.
Those who made this ruling on behalf of the BBC’s complaints unit should be ashamed.
This sorry situation was sparked by Munchetty’s comments during an on-air discussion about the words of US president Donald Trump, who had suggested that four female Democrat politicians should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”.
Munchetty spoke of her own experience of such racist language. “Every time,” she said, “I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism. Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything here but you know what certain phrases mean.”
Munchetty’s remarks provided insight and, sadly, expertise on the subject. She was doing what good journalists are supposed to do.
The BBC, having investigated the complaint against Munchetty, said that, while she was entitled to give a personal response to the phrase “go back to your own country” because of her own experience, overall her comments went beyond what the corporation’s guidelines permitted.
It would appear that Munchetty’s transgression was to suggest that racist language might indicate racism.
It is quite correct that the BBC, publicly-funded as it is, should be subject to very strict guidelines on impartiality. Its journalists should not, for example, express political views.
But we cannot expect them to take a need for balance to the point where they may not expand on issues about which they have insight. To require this of Naga Munchetty, or any other journalist employed by the Beeb, is to prevent them doing what they are employed to do.
Bullied by politicians, threatened with funding cuts, the BBC has become too timid.
BBC caves to criticism
So fearful have programme editors become of accusations of bias that they go to often ludicrous lengths to ensure balance.
Take the matter of climate change for example. There is solid settled science on the matter yet too often we hear discussions on TV or radio where cranks are invited to give their contrarian opinions lest the corporation is accused of taking sides.
It is notable that the BBC has caved in to criticism when it was directed at a journalist who is both female and non-white. Neither status gives Munchetty the right to break guidelines, of course, but I do wonder whether the corporation would have been so quick to condemn Huw Edwards or Andrew Neil had they made similar remarks.
Reassuringly, fellow professionals have come to Munchetty’s defence. Channel Four’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy and ITV’s Piers Morgan (in a rare display of being correct about something) are among many who have criticised the ruling of the BBC’s complaints unit (When you can unite Guru-Murthy and Morgan against you, you really should ask yourself whether you’ve got it wrong).
I’m told by chums who work for the corporation that the feeling Munchetty has been badly treated by her employers is widespread. Many would like the complaints unit to revisit the matter and to consider whether it has made a mistake. This would be an excellent step.
BBC journalists make mistakes; we all do. And when those mistakes have consequences, they must be held to account.
But Munchetty didn’t make a mistake. She did her job, using her experience of racism to illuminate the matter being discussed.
In criticising her, the BBC has failed Naga Munchetty and every other journalist who works there.