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HEADLINE STORY

Exclusive: “Investigate BBC bullies”

A view of the BBC studios in London (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

By: Sarwar Alam

MPs call for independent inquiry after BAME producer attempts suicide

By Barnie Choudhury

Asian and black MPs have called for a parliamentary investigation into bullying and racism at the BBC.

It comes after Eastern Eye revealed that a black BBC freelance producer tried to take their life after they complained about being bulled at the Asian Network and 1Xtra. 

As a result of our series of exposés, the Leicester East MP, Claudia Webbe, has written to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, urging him “to embark on a full, public inquiry” into the BBC.

“This is a tragic incident which underlines the need for mental health to be taken seriously and for support to be provided both within organisations and in the community. Nobody working at the BBC, or at any organisation for that matter, should be put through such an ordeal.

Claudia Webbe MP

“It comes after reports and accusations of a culture of bullying and indeed institutional racism at the BBC. I encourage all staff to step forward and share their experiences, and to seek trade union assistance in doing so.”

Since September this newspaper has published a series of exclusive stories about staff who describe a culture of fear, racism and bullying in the corporation.

Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, Apsana Begum, told Eastern Eye that she would be writing to the chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee asking for a “transparent independent inquiry into the BBC”.

Apsana Begum

“It is shocking,” said the MP. “The wider issue is systemic, structural and institutional racism and bullying. The BBC needs to pick up on [its] culture because it’s seen a cultural symbol in this country, so what passes internally exudes externally.

“It’s important to address this as quickly as possible. This is the culture, it’s driving people to try to attempt suicide, so it’s urgent now.”

Her Labour colleague, former shadow women and equalities secretary and MP for Brent Central, Dawn Butler, said the BBC had a duty of care to their employees.

If it did not look after staff properly then the corporation was breaking the law, she said.

“To read that someone had attempted to take their life is shocking and distressing,” said the MP. “There needs to be a thorough investigation into the working practices of the BBC. What’s happened and what needs to be done to address any issues that have contributed to anyone to take their own life?”

Open letter

The producer e-mailed a 1,500-word “open letter” explaining to senior BBC leaders, in excruciating detail, about their suicide attempt.

“On Wednesday evening 25th November I attempted to take my own life,” the BAME [Black Asian Minority Ethnic] producer, whose identity Eastern Eye is not revealing, wrote.

“A direct trigger for this suicide attempt was as a result of continued workplace bullying in the form of passive and micro aggression, covert assertions, antagonistic behaviours and relentless rumours pertaining to my personal life.”

The letter was sent to production teams, management and content editors at Radios 1, 1Xtra and the Asian Network.

Six senior leaders, among them the BBC’s group managing director, Bob Shennan, and the director of creative diversity, June Sarpong, are copied into the email.

BBC director of creative diversity, June Sarpong (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for BOB By Dawn O’Porter)

The producer’s email, sent last Wednesday (9 December), was leaked to this newspaper by a whistle blower.

In it, they explained how the BBC failed to take their complaints seriously.

“This has been going on for some time, mainly within the last two years out of the three years I have been working on the 8th floor [at New Broadcasting House], both as a freelance assistant/producer and contracted member of staff.

“To give context, having previously experienced increased passive aggression after escalating a matter through the appropriate channels while working at BBC Asian Network, I became apprehensive of approaching future occurrences in such a way.

“This made me feel increasingly isolated as previously good working relationships with others became inauspicious. For the simple fear of being labelled “intimidating” or “aggressive” I let a lot of this behaviour slide as going through the official channels did not remedy the situation.”

Bullying and racism complaints

They are not alone in feeling that bosses do not take complaints about bullying and racism seriously.

Since revealing the suicide attempt, current and former staff have contacted this newspaper.

One former Asian Network employee told Eastern Eye that bullying had been taking place for more than a decade.

“People are made to feel small, they are shouted at and they are told they are not good enough,” they said.

“When anyone complained the management buried their heads in the sand and made the victim out to be a troublemaker. Don’t forget that everyone thinks that just because someone is black and we’re Asian, we’ll get on. I can’t speak for 1Xtra, but racism exists at the Asian Network.”

Another current staffer, in another part of the BBC, described how they were “gaslit” or ignored when they complained they were being bullied because they were an ethnic minority.

‘Zero tolerance’

But the BBC maintains that last year the corporation updated its anti-bullying and harassment policy, promoting it to staff.

Last week, a spokesman said, “We take the welfare of our staff extremely seriously and have a wide range of measures in place to support them.

“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 concerns, which are handled with the utmost seriousness.”

When Eastern Eye read that statement to the journalist they said, “You have to be joking, don’t you? You can have all the policies you want, and you can shout zero-tolerance from the roof-tops.

“But it means jack when you go to your line manager, and they say they don’t believe you, and go away or quit. It drove me to needing meds for depression.”

The Leicester East MP, Claudia Webbe, said she was “incredibly concerned” of reports that accusations of racism were not being investigated properly by the BBC.

“These include the denial of career development opportunities, being bullied and then silenced by ineffective complaints procedures, and mental and physical poor health as a result of their racist mistreatment.

“It is vital that the BBC takes these complaints seriously and reviews its internal structures to ensure that all staff feel welcome and secure.”

Few areas of the BBC appear to be untainted by allegations of racism and bullying.

See letter to culture secretary here 

Culture of fear

One current senior Asian BBC News journalist explained how they collected evidence and put in a formal complaint, despite threats from their managers that it would be “career ending”.

“Managers agreed I had been bullied because of my race, but they did not uphold my complaint. When I asked why, I was told they had taken action under the wrong section. This wasn’t my fault. This was entirely theirs, and that meant those bullies and racists still work for the BBC.”

The producer who attempted suicide revealed to colleagues that they were put on medication for depression and anxiety.

“My advice to anyone who is being bullied or facing racial discrimination, don’t bother to file a grievance,” they said. “It screws you up mentally, your career is finished, the unions are useless, the BBC screw up the case, and your career is over.”

The account from several former and current BBC employees who contacted Eastern Eye reinforces the extent of the problem inside Britain’s biggest public service broadcaster.

They told colleagues, “The covert way in which this was done made me feel as though I did not have a voice and I wouldn’t be believed if I chose to escalate the issue. In conjunction with this, I was also very aware of my position as a freelancer fearing that this incident could result in not being offered subsequent shifts- despite not being the aggressor.

“I have never seen a member of production being subjected to such unwavering personal attacks by multiple members of staff and talent. For the fact that I even feel compelled to explain myself in such a way speaks volumes to the areas that we as a collective need to improve on.”

Apsana Begum, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse, told Eastern Eye that the BBC’s language of “zero tolerance” shuts down the debate the corporation needs to have about bullying and racism.

“It’s one thing to say this is one complaint or two complaints, but this is a pattern,” she said. “Ever since I’ve been elected more and more information has been shared with me as to so many cases, so many allegations. That to me points to a culture, it’s not a one-off incident. I think you have problems here”

Industry-wide problem

On Tuesday (15 December) the broadcasting union, BECTU, published its report into bullying and racism in the industry. *

Called “Race to Be Heard”, the report asks the industry to set up an independent body to monitor reports of racism. It recommends that the body should:

  • be the place where anyone who faces racism can turn.
  • be able to investigate whether systemic racism exists in an organisation.
  • offer advice to anyone who believes he or she is a victim of racism.
  • publish an annual report into the “state of racism in the industry, to measure progress” and “build on best practice and learn from mistakes”.

Its author, Marcus Ryder, a visiting professor at Birmingham City University and former BBC executive said, “I was surprised by a lack of a coordinated effort throughout the industry to deal with a problem which universally everyone accepts is there. I wouldn’t say they’re not taking it seriously, but I would say they have failed to take the measures to address it properly.

“These are very difficult issues to address, but I do think there has been a change in attitude at the BBC and others, and that these are things which need to be tackled.”

In its latest 2019-20 annual report, the BBC revealed that it dealt with 82 “formal” bullying and harassment cases, one more than the previous year. With 16 still ongoing, the corporation does not appear to have upheld any of the complaints.

The BBC does not say how many allegations of racism there were during 2019-20, but these include all calls made to its human resources department or external helpline. It also said it encourages to speak up and come forward.

Unable to speak out

But Eastern Eye has heard from black and Asian staff that they are being stopped from speaking out about bullying and racism.

“In this climate of cuts, we’re frightened for our jobs,” said one BAME journalist. “We have mortgages to pay and children to feed and clothe. Who in their right mind is going to raise a grievance?

“Think about the pressure we’re under. We can’t Tweet anything anymore without someone saying we’re breaching impartiality guidelines. It’s OK to go on a Pride march, but we can’t use #BLM [Black Lives Matter], because it’s political. We can’t celebrate publicly the election of the first Asian-Black female US vice-president. That’s how they’re shutting us down.”

Impartiality rules

In October, the BBC issued new social media guidelines to enforce impartiality rules.

We can reveal that last Thursday, during a virtual session with the director general, Tim Davie was asked one question which appeared to throw him.

The questioner said, “With respect, it is easy to say as a privileged white man that you cannot reveal partiality whilst working at the BBC. But do you acknowledge this is not so straightforward if you’re black, Asian or minority ethnic?”

Eastern Eye has heard a recording of the exchange, and Davie struggles to make a coherent response.

BBC director general Tim Davie (Photo credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

But the director general admitted, “Any answer I give can’t really get to the truth of what you guys feel in wrestling with it, and it may well be easier for me where I sit. We can be very vocally anti-racist, I think sometimes we’ve been shy of that.”

Even so, Davie has repeatedly told staff to leave the BBC if they could not adhere to the new guidelines.

One BAME journalist who took part in the session said that meant one rule for white journalists and one rule for those of colour.

“My impression from what he [Davie] said is that guidelines are written by white people. They don’t take into account that we people of colour won’t be silenced any longer when it comes to racism. So where does that leave us? We have to choose, do we keep our job or do we fight injustice? It’s not much of a choice and not the BBC I joined decades ago.”

Eastern Eye understands that on the same call Davie said that he had put aside his past political beliefs, so no-one could ever know which party he voted for now. He expected others to do the same.

But this has angered some people of colour in the organisation.

“He doesn’t understand that being black or Asian isn’t being political,” said one employee. “I can’t park my colour at the door. My race defines who I am, and if I’m not allowed to go on anti-racism marches or take the knee, if I so choose, then I have no choice but to leave. That is just bonkers.”

The BBC described the meeting as helpful and constructive.

Concern over BAME staff leaving

BAME staff have also told Eastern Eye that they are concerned that senior black and Asian employees are leaving the BBC.

Last week the BBC announced that Bal Samra, its group commercial director, was leaving next year.

Brenda Emmanus, BBC London’s arts and culture correspondent for almost 20 years, left in October.

“We’re really concerned that these are only the start,” said one Asian staffer. “I know of at least two others in senior positions who are taking redundancy, and no-one cares. It’s as if management is saying, there’s the door, go.

“The DG was asked by MPs whether he was concerned more experienced and more BAMEs would leave, and he said he didn’t think that it was a problem. What he failed to realise is the impact on the rest of us. These senior people were a voice for us.

“The BBC will recruit compliant ethnics who won’t say anything, and racism and bullying will thrive and go unchecked.”

*For the sake of transparency, Eastern Eye’s Barnie Choudhury gave evidence to the BECTU inquiry.

Eastern Eye

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