MPs call for public inquiry amid fresh allegations of bias by ‘scared’ Asian staff
by Barnie Choudhury
THE BBC’s new director general, Tim Davie, will be questioned by MPs over claims of “insidious, toxic and covert racism” in the corporation after Eastern Eye’s exposé last week prompted further complaints from current and former staff.
Davie, who started in his new post last week, is to appear before the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) parliamentary select committee in the next few weeks, in what has been described as “a big session”.
Earlier this week, in a letter to the select committee seen by this newspaper, Labour MP for Brent Central, Dawn Butler said, “I believe the substantive allegations in Eastern Eye suggest we have a problem in an institution which is publicly owned and should be held to account.”
Butler’s comments come as Davie addressed BBC staff last Thursday (3), pledging to create a “modern 50/20/12 organisation” that reflects “more accurately the society we serve”, with 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men, at least 20 per cent BAME, and at least 12 per cent disabled staff.
Following the allegations revealed in Eastern Eye last week, dozens of current BBC staff contacted the newspaper to describe their experiences of racial prejudice and how they have been held back at work because of their ethnicity. One Asian manager said they had been threatened with redundancy at least twice, while another told how they were on anti-depressants because of stress brought on by bullying at work.
Senior parliamentarians as well as Asian and black journalists have demanded an independent public inquiry into allegations that the BBC is “systemically, structurally and institutionally racist”.
Labour MP for Slough and shadow railways minister Tan Dhesi said, “The testimony from former and current staff is gut-wrenching. It paints a picture of pain and mental health impact which simply can’t go on. Racism has no part in our country or in our public institutions and it cannot be tolerated.
“It is time that the BBC is held to account and for someone to independently investigate these serious allegations.”
Claudia Webbe, Labour’s MP for Leicester East, said she stood “in solidarity with all BBC workers who have bravely shared their experience of racism”.
“Only by shining a light can we eradicate the disease of institutional racism. That means a full public inquiry into the systemic racism of our public service broadcaster. I will do all I can in parliament to push for this to happen. It is up to the government to enforce existing recommendations to combat this evil.”
Shadow employment minister and Feltham and Heston MP, Seema Malhotra, told Eastern Eye that last year, more than 100 of her Labour parliamentary colleagues signed her letter to the-then director general, Tony Hall, in protest over the censuring of BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, who criticised US president Donald Trump.
“The stories coming out from the BBC are extremely worrying and cannot be ignored. The BBC is a treasured national institution and public service broadcaster, with a remit to serve the whole nation. We expect the very highest standards from the BBC which plays a huge part in our national life,” Malhotra said.
After the article was published last week, dozens of current BBC staff contacted Eastern Eye to tell their stories.
“One junior black colleague was ordered by an older white journalist to move desks, even though they were sat five metres apart,” recounted one BAME employee. “When their line manager intervened on hearing the row, the white journalist said they weren’t comfortable because ‘of the BAME pandemic problem’. They were basically accusing their black and Asian colleagues of spreading the (corona)virus.”
In another instance, a black journalist looking for a desk to work from was asked by a white colleague if they were the cleaner. Although no action was taken against the white journalist, Eastern Eye understands they were spoken to about their “inappropriate assumption and comment”.
An Asian staff member who has been in the BBC for almost 20 years said, “One of my white colleagues is bullying and victimising me. Things came to a head when one of my parents died, and I couldn’t take it anymore, so I went to my editor to complain.
“They called us both into a room, and said they did not believe me because they had known my colleague a long time and knew they were incapable of being racist. The white colleague was asked to leave, and my editor said I should apologise to the person who’s still making my life hell.
“If your boss doesn’t believe you, what’s the point of making a formal complaint? I’m now on anti-depressants.”
As reported last week, freedom of information (FOI) requests during 2006 and 2015 showed that the BBC settled 101 cases relating to unfair and wrongful dismissal, discrimination over disability, sex, race, age, claim for holiday pay as well as victimisation.
Last week Eastern Eye revealed that a FOI request found between 2005 and the end of 2010, 16 people filed claims for racial discrimination. The BBC settled five cases without admitting liability.
Eastern Eye can also reveal this week that the BBC attempted to silence those who complained about racism by inserting a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) clause into their settlements.
Since the publication of these figures, Eastern Eye has been contacted by some who settled racial discrimination and victimisation cases. The paper has learned that they had to sign an NDA, which forbids them from ever saying anything negative about the BBC.
“They try to exert their power over you even after you’ve left, and they still monitor what you say in public,” said one complainant who settled with the BBC. “They subtly let you know they’re watching your every move even though you left years ago. The pressure they put you under is so bad that I have nightmares to this day about what I went through.
“Racism is real in the BBC, and people should be believed when they complain.”
Eastern Eye understands that it has been BBC policy since the end of August 2018 that employees do not have to sign an NDA – but only when it comes to the terms and negotiations of or existence of a settlement agreement, or the circumstances leading up to its agreement. Furthermore, NDAs can still be part of a settlement if a director approves it.
This newspaper has been told repeatedly that young south Asian and black staff are simply too afraid to say anything or go to their unions.
“Many aren’t even union members because they’re afraid of joining in case they’re labelled as troublemakers,” said one senior south Asian veteran.
“I’ve spoken to them, and in a short time, they realise that everything the BBC says about diversity, equality and respect is crap. It has rules, guidelines and ambitions. Mangers give us talks, but don’t follow up with deeds.”
The union BECTU, which is aware that people are afraid to speak out, has asked Marcus Ryder, a visiting professor at Birmingham City University and a former BBC executive, to investigate and suggest how to combat this problem.
“Right now, there isn’t a safe place where those Eastern Eye has spoken to, who have faced racism, to go to have their experiences heard,” said Ryder. “There’s no place which is systematically recording these incidents so that broadcasters can learn from their experiences. The industry can’t exist on the goodwill of editors at Eastern Eye to capture what people are going through.”
BECTU head, Philippa Childs, has written to Davie asking the new BBC head to meet broadcast unions urgently to tackle the problems Eastern Eye has reported.
“We’re past the point where broadcasters can deal with this themselves and we have to have external and independent scrutiny,” said Childs. “I’m shocked that employees feel their reputation will be damaged if they seek help from their union, and I’m surprised by the blatant and casual racism they’re suffering.”
A BBC spokesperson said, “We have a zero tolerance approach to bullying and harassment, of any kind, and that is why we have robust processes in place for staff to raise complaints, which are dealt with the utmost seriousness.”
Eastern Eye has learned that since the death of George Floyd in America at the hands of white police officers in May, the BBC has been holding a series of “listening exercises”.
One south Asian veteran said, “For 20 minutes they go on about what a great place the BBC is, as if it’s fact, that we’re lucky to work here. Then they go into rules of impartiality.
“In one meeting, colleagues asked why it was fine to tweet and go on climate change and pride marches, but they couldn’t openly support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement? The manager replied that climate change and homophobia were real, racism was not.”
The BBC press office did not deny that managers have made these comments. Eastern Eye has spoken to other black and Asian journalists who confirm this has been said to groups in public meetings. They have told this newspaper that white senior managers get very angry and defensive when confronted with concerns from BAME employees.
Two journalists separately complained to Eastern Eye about the inability of white managers at the BBC to listen to BAME concerns. “In one meeting Fran (Unsworth, director of BBC News) was heard entering a lift saying ‘God, they were a braying mob, weren’t they?’” recounted one journalist of colour.
A BBC spokesperson said, “Fran Unsworth has no recollection of the statement. The BBC is absolutely clear that we are an inclusive and welcoming organisation and we are saddened if anyone is experiencing any form of discrimination at work.”
An unwitting lack of cultural sensitivity is not limited to remarks possibly made in the heat of the moment. Some BBC managers have upset south Asians who have been grieving the death of close family members.
“My father died suddenly, and as the only son I became head of the family,” recounted one. “As a Hindu, it’s not as simple as arranging the funeral, hosting a wake and it’s all over. We wash the body, we perform rituals across 12 months, and if your mum is left alone, you make sure she moves in with you.
“After a week, my boss rang me and said I needed to return to work. I tried to explain, but they wouldn’t listen, so I had to go over their head to be left alone. It was awful because my head was all over the place, and here was this person who just didn’t get it. Another Asian would have understood.”
The BBC would not give Eastern Eye its policy on dealing with bereavement.
Even at the highest echelons it appears BAME senior leaders are not immune to racism. Some current and former managers told Eastern Eye that the BBC turns against them once they refuse to ignore racial discrimination or victimisation.
“We keep quiet because we know what’s good for us, and if we don’t play the game then it’s career suicide,” said a senior Asian manager.
“In the past decade I’ve been threatened with redundancy at least twice. I’ve seen white bosses slot in white colleagues into made-up positions to save them, but I’ve had to interview for jobs, with external candidates, with no guarantee of getting them, despite turning a blind eye to the racism that so obviously exists. My advice to any BAME is to forget about loyalty to the BBC, and never trust anything that comes out of their mouths.”
In his speech last week, Davie promised to hold managers to account on their diversity figures.
While some BAME staff within the BBC have welcomed this as proof that a new broom could bring changes, other veterans, who have a combined experience of more than 150 years in the BBC, are more sceptical.
One said, “We’ve been here so often, taken to the mountain top and jumped off without a parachute. It just won’t happen. Davie won’t be allowed to change the ethnic make-up of the BBC at leadership level.
“The gatekeepers want the status quo, they don’t want to see brown or black people with real power.”
In an email after last week’s story, the BBC asked Eastern Eye to reflect that it publishes more diversity data than any other media company and more than is required. Yet that information is not always clear or easy to understand.
Over a six-year period, this reporter sent in several FOI requests, and the responses are telling. Between 2005 and 2010, no black or Asian journalist in BBC News was recruited to the highest “senior manager” (SM) band, while during that same time period, seven white people made the grade.
A former Asian senior manager told Eastern Eye, “Without figures, the BBC can say anything they like. Every step of the way, we had to spin to our teams to make out we were doing brilliantly, we had to toe the corporate line, when the fact of the matter was that we weren’t doing that great at all. What you found out says it all, figures don’t lie. News has always been the problem and it will always be the problem.”
The BBC also stalls on providing transparent data. It took three attempts and the intervention of the Information Commissioner’s Office to find out how many BAME staff there were in the SM grades in BBC News. Eastern Eye can reveal that the number peaked in 2005 at six, but dropped sharply to two by 2010. Even today it is impossible to know how many “senior leader or SL” journalists in BBC News are of colour.
But it is unlikely to be too many, because the BBC’s 2018-19 annual report noted that in the entire organisation, out of almost 21,000 people, only 16 of 224, or 7.1 per cent, in the senior leader band are black or Asian. Put it another way, just 0.08 per cent people of colour in the entire BBC is in the senior leader rank.
“The BBC are very good at these flash announcements, but when you look under the bonnet, you realise it has no engine, and it’s fake news,” said one black member of staff. “What the BBC do is bring in loads of newbies on 12-month contracts, so they won’t speak out, and then they let them go. So, for their annual data, they have magically hit their 15 or 20 per cent targets. No one investigates what really happens, no one scrutinises career paths, how we’re treated or how stifled we are.”
Davie and the BBC are on a mission to return the corporation to its previous reputation of impartiality, which caused consternation when Munchetty was reprimanded for a comment about Trump.
But how far does that zeal run? Davie has made impartiality one of his top four priorities. “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media, then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC,” he said last week.
One south Asian told Eastern Eye, “We know they’re monitoring our tweets, but we’re also fearful about what we’re writing in our emails. I advised one colleague who had written to me that they should delete the email they just sent me. It was about their experiences in the BBC and the racism they had faced, but I thought it was a good reason, during these times, for anyone looking for an excuse to sack someone for that old chestnut ‘bringing the organisation into disrepute’.”
The BBC would not comment on these allegations. Instead it pointed Eastern Eye to its new editorial guideline which can be confusing. It appears to be acceptable to march in certain events under a BBC banner, but “BBC News and Current Affairs staff and some Factual staff, as set out in the guidelines, should not participate in public demonstrations or gatherings about controversial issues”.
It refused to explain what “controversial” meant or whether BBC News employees were banned from supporting anti-racism or BLM marches.
A spokesperson said, “The BBC is not impartial on racism and this is fully consistent with the editorial guidelines. While the BBC is opposed to racism, it is not a campaigning organisation. Campaigns frequently advocate for legitimate social or policy change and the BBC must retain its independence in relation to them.”
Current and former journalists beg to differ. A former BAME executive said, “That’s ridiculous. Of course, the BBC campaigns and it has a proud history of campaigning. BBC One’s That’s Life and Esther Rantzen were responsible for launching ChildLine (the first national helpline for young people in distress).
“Remember their national profile changed the way children were questioned in court through video link. And you just have to search the website. The BBC still has webpages of its education campaigns, social action campaigns and volunteering campaigns.”
- If you are a current or former BBC staffer and would like to share your views, email [email protected]
- If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned here, contact Samaritans free of charge on 116 123 or call Mind charity on 0300 123 3393