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‘Clarity is needed about what can be said on air’


Naga Munchetty (Photo: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images).
Naga Munchetty (Photo: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images).

By Barnie Choudhury
Former BBC Journalist

SINCE 1999, I have had the honour of teaching the next generation of journalists. My former students span every continent, and some are in leadership positions.

So, this week I took a phone call from one working for a national broadcaster. “How could the BBC allow Laura Whitmore to emote and breach impartiality rules, and yet Naga Munchetty was hauled over the coals?” they asked.

For those who are unfamiliar, Laura is an outstanding Five Live radio and ITV presenter. She was also a close friend of Caroline Flack, the former host of Love Island, who sadly took her life after she was charged with assaulting her partner.

The former student was asking me two questions. First, did Laura breach the BBC’s editorial policy on ‘due impartiality’? Second, their premise was that Naga, a south Asian, was targeted by an ‘institutionally racist’ BBC, while it featured a white Laura on the main News at Ten. “Come on,” they said. “You taught us not to comment but to report, and let the facts speak for themselves. So, am I right?”

After a short period, I responded that Laura was not a news presenter but an entertainment and showbiz presenter. Different roles, different rules. That was that. Or so I thought.

My former student rang me 30 minutes later. “Look at section four of the BBC’s editorial guidelines,” they said. Part of me swelled with pride. I always teach my students not to take things at face value, test the thesis and show me the evidence. They had gone back to the original source and were making an argument.

I am not going to bore you with the to and fro over the next 30 minutes. But it came down to section 4.3.10, that says: “News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument. The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality.”

Their argument was that Laura was presenting on a news and sport station. Caroline’s death was news. The fact that Laura was speaking as a friend was immaterial. She was giving her personal views on a news story, taking the tabloids and social media trolls to task in a personal capacity, and Laura freely admitted she was going to use the BBC as a platform to do so.

My former student could not accept that there is one rule for reporters, correspondents and news presenters and another for other programme hosts. They kept returning to one disturbing point – what would the BBC have done if the presenter happened to be black or Asian?

I am not convinced this could be construed as a race issue, but once again, the BBC has not thought through how it looks. The smell test, if you will. I would like to think the BBC had a conversation where it considered post-Naga, how allowing one of its radio presenters to comment and give opinion would look.

I have listened again to what Laura said, and I cannot agree with her more. In fact, I do not think she went far enough. I eschew social media, except for when I do my job, because I have read the awful reaction and petty nature of those using it. While I defend the right to offend, I do so knowing the consequences can be tragic.

I would have been harsher with the trolls, urging Twitter, Instagram, Facebook to police comments much more than they are currently doing. I do not think it is just the tabloids which have agendas that they blindly follow to sell newspapers. I think every media outlet wants to justify itself and sell whatever the view it happens to be peddling that day. Why else would BBC Question Time tweet a clip from a woman with inaccurate comments about immigration than to justify its licence fee and show that it is relevant during a time when the government wants to end the corporation? ‘Clickbait’, pure and unequivocally simple.

But it is clear the uncertainty and ambiguity of ‘due impartiality’ need to be sorted. Few in their right mind will disagree with a presenter who says that Hitler was an evil man or that racism and misogyny in any form are unacceptable, or views advocating the destruction of children born with disabilities and deformities are objectionable.

I am not promoting an era of free-for-all-shock-jocks. But the BBC and [media regulator] Ofcom need to realise that times have changed. Today, audiences expect their presenters to reveal their personal views on issues – but within limits that are set out in clear, unambiguous language.