Following an event in parliament last week (Thursday 24 October 2019) called by Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler MP, Runnymede Research and Policy Assistant Nick Treloar has written this record of the rich discussion on the day. There is also a podcast recording of the event here.
The idea for #ReportingRace was conceived by former BBC senior executive Marcus Ryder and Dawn Butler MP, who hosted the convening to follow up on her letter to Baron Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC.
The core issue - for the letter and for the event - was the handling of a complaint against BBC presenter Naga Munchetty and the failings it highlighted within the mainstream media in understanding how racism works.
Runnymede and The RaceBeat took on organising the event, which was chaired by Marcus Ryder. The panellists - all with extensive experience working with public and private broadcasters - were: Aaqil Ahmed, Ceri Thomas, Maya Goodfellow, Mukti Jain Campion, Omar Khan and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
Other notable invited guests included the BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity June Sarpong MBE, Olympian and broadcaster Ade Adepitan, Sir Clive Jones, former head of GMTV, Seema Malhotra Labour MP, anti-racism champion Baroness Doreen Lawrence and Afzal Khan MP, Shadow Minister for Immigration.
N.B. Senior executives from the BBC, in particular the complaints division, were invited to attend but made no reply.
The discussion in the room centred on how race and racism are reported in the mainstream media, and how the censuring and subsequent apology to Naga Munchetty triggered a much needed pubic conversation.
Contributors in the room described the handling of the complaint as a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is. Despite a rise of visible ethnic minority people appearing on television reading the news, the worry is that this has not translated into greater understanding of how their lived experiences and the racism that they have endured alters the lens through which stories are presented. The BBC, in particular, was accused of wanting greater diversity of colour superficially, without being willing to absorb the greater diversity of lived experiences and voices that should come with it. Some panellists suggested that there is a new mood among broadcasting executives and the working culture has shifted to the right. It was said that the BBC is pandering to certain sections of society and ‘to hell with how black people feel’.
A particular concern about the handling of the Naga Munchetty case was the decision not to censure in any way her (white, male) co-presenter Dan Walker, who was also mentioned in the complaint. This suggests, not only a misunderstanding of what racism is, but an institutional racial prejudice when dealing with complaints of this nature.
The way in which the media frames race influences how viewers think, and feeds in to the wider public’s poor understanding of racism. The Naga Munchetty case represents the tip of the iceberg of an institutional culture that silences the experience of black and minority ethnic (BME) people. Panellists agreed that the complaint against Naga Munchetty was initially upheld because there are far too few ethnic minority people working in decision-making positions within these institutions, and in particular at the BBC. This means that those making these sorts of decisions do not have the lived experience or analysis to be able to accurately access the manifestation of racism.
The BBC’s idea of ‘impartiality’ is fundamentally flawed. Racism is not a valid opinion on which one is required to remain impartial. The BBC wants to have diversity on screen without welcoming what that diversity should mean for how you report on issues that affect minority ethnic people.
Setting the tone
It was acknowledged that the media industry’s role - and particularly public broadcasters such as the BBC - is in setting the tone for debate. The gravitas of the voices that are broadcasted out from established media institutions continue to have a powerful impact on viewers,; this is why the BBC reproducing skewed frames of understanding is so unhelpful. The BBC shapes how people understand racism; yet they do not themselves understand how racism functions. Those in the room with intimate knowledge of the BBC asserted that it does not have the sensibility or capability to deal with such issues as a result of who it employs (not enough people of colour). It is telling that the BBC was the only broadcaster to not make any progress on diversity figures in the last year.
Recommendations from the discussion
> There needs to be a diversity of ethnicity, personality and lived experience among those with commissioning power and editorial control within mainstream broadcasting organisations.
> Suggestions from contributors included, funding for better diversity, an improvement in contestable funding; ‘diversity and race correspondents’ existing in the same way we have 'environmental and religious affairs correspondents’.
> The BBC needs to re-draft its rules on impartiality to reflect a better understanding of racism.
> More people from diverse backgrounds should translate into an acceptance of their diversity of thought.
> We must all work to challenge the inherent biases and frames that exist about race and reporting.
> The massaging of statistics to fulfil BME quotas must stop. This would include setting up an independent body of statistics and complaints to investigate and report on these statistics.
Fundamentally, the world of reporting, broadcasting and journalism must be willing to accept that the Naga Munchetty affair is a tiny snapshot of a wider problem; the issue is a systemic one, and so must the solutions be.
The parliamentarians who were present at #ReportingRacism expressed a desire to use this opportune moment to put this issue on the agenda. “Training for unconscious bias is not enough, and MPs from across the spectrum are ready to challenge organisations and government.”