By Barnie Choudhury
SENIOR South Asian staff, with more than 200 years of combined experience working for the BBC, have accused the corporation of decades of “systemic, structural and institutional racism”.
Eastern Eye has spent the past week speaking to about 20 current and former south Asian reporters, correspondents, producers and camera crews in confidence.
Their stories back up revelations of racism in the industry made by historian, professor and broadcaster David Olusoga at this year’s prestigious Edinburgh TV Festival’s James MacTaggart lecture.
No one has won a racism case against the BBC. But for the first time, Eastern Eye can exclusively reveal that the broadcaster faced 16 complaints of racial discrimination and victimisation in one recent five-year period, settling five of them.
Within moments of speaking confidentially to one employee, they broke down in tears, recounted what they described as “three years of hell, undermining my confidence, questioning my abilities, making me feel like I’m nothing”.
Olusoga spoke about being “crushed” by his experiences and left “so isolated and disempowered by the culture within our industry, that I have had to seek medical treatment for clinical depression”.
The Asian BBC employee said they were going through a similar experience. “I can’t take any more,” they said. “I’m seeing the doctor to ask for depression tablets. I’m worried about my mental health. I’m close to a nervous breakdown.”
The people Eastern Eye has spoken to stress that their complaints are against the institution. But they fear their white bosses will be defensive and will not understand the damage and hurt the BBC, as an organisation, has caused in creating an institutionally racist culture.
It is a description with which Labour’s Norwich South MP, Clive Lewis, agrees. Lewis, who worked for the BBC for 13 years, told Eastern Eye that he loved the BBC but was sapped by the ups and downs of working there. He also revealed he was bullied by a white colleague and often felt “physically sick” coming into work.
“There are certain stereotypes you attribute to black people which can be antagonistic in terms of how you approach them,” explained the MP.
“This is the insidious thing about systemic, structural and institutional racism. You work cheeky-jowl with good, decent people who would walk alongside you on an anti-racist march, yet
inside the organisation, which have systemic, structural and institutional issues, they could be part of that process and part of the problem.”
Today’s racism, said sources, is more subtle. One Asian described how they have reported for the BBC on and off for 36 months without a contract. When they cannot get work, they do so for free, writing and reporting so they can get their name on air in the hope of getting other gigs. They told Eastern Eye how they volunteer ideas for stories from south Asian communities, only to be told someone else would do it.
“A white manager got in someone they knew to shadow me,” they said. “Their white friend was paid for that shift when I wasn’t. It was clear they wanted them to do what I was doing.
“Every time I go in, I see loads of new faces. All young, all white. Here’s me, a brown person who can’t get a look in, and I’ve proved myself time and again. What more do I need to do to get a contract? If that isn’t racism, I don’t know what is.”
One current employee said, “We can’t speak out. I shouldn’t be talking to you at all because if anyone found out, I’d be
bullied out. We are massively scared, fearful, because they’re making cuts, and they are looking for any excuse to get rid of us.
“But racism is now so ingrained and covert and they are so clever in hiding it. The white people won’t say anything racist, but their actions speak otherwise and put us at a disadvantage.”
The climate of fear in the BBC is so bad that sources currently employed by the corporation would speak only on the condition that Eastern Eye did not identify their location or which department they are working in.
“They are employing younger people with no experience, who don’t want to do BAME stories and be pigeonholed, who are less expensive and won’t cause a fuss,” said one. “We’re out, but what happens when we all go? Who’s going to serve the Asian licence fee payer?”
Olusoga spoke about a “lost generation” of black and Asian professionals who have left the industry. He highlighted the Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees, but could equally have been describing Lewis. Lewis entered parliament in May 2015, and his rise has been meteoric compared to his BBC career. By September of that year he was a shadow minister; the following June he was in the shadow cabinet as Labour’s choice for defence secretary; and a few months later, shadow business secretary. He subsequently resigned from the front bench over his party’s decision to whip members to vote to trigger Brexit’s Article 50.
“There are lots of problems within the BBC, of which institutional racism is one,” said Lewis. “There is a gender issue, there is a class issue, and my problems were race and class. There is definitely an establishment and class in the BBC.”
He also admitted it was a complex set of concepts to prove.
“Racism, gender and class are far below the radar. It eats away at your confidence, your self-worth, it questions your ability to do your job and aspire to be more, and you start second-guessing yourself. No wonder people say it affects their mental health.”
Even when the BBC tries to show its instinctive diverse nature, insiders say, the corporation is “cack-handed”.
Eastern Eye has learnt that in June, in the aftermath of the death of American George Floyd, which triggered the Black Lives Matter movement, hundreds of managers dialled into a weekly meeting for leaders across the BBC. Among the speakers was Miranda Wayland, whose Linkedin page describes her as the head of creative diversity.
Wayland spoke about a “new” £100 million initiative to commission diverse content over the next three years. Two sources on that call have confirmed to Eastern Eye that not only was the money not new, they felt it was also a publicity stunt, with the BBC taking advantage of the current political climate to show off its diversity credentials.
“Miranda was asked by someone on that call to explain exactly where the money would be spent and what differences we would see on air,” said a senior Asian on that call.
“There was a pause, and she replied that it was a good question, but they hadn’t thought about it fully because it was early days. Two months on, and we’re still waiting for an answer.”
The BBC confirmed this was not new money, but that it was “prioritising” an existing commissioning budget.
Sources have also told this newspaper about the huge mistrust between BAME staff and their senior managers. The BBC held a virtual meeting with 400 of its black and Asian staff association, Embrace.
Eastern Eye has learned that during that meeting, staff complained about bullying, the row over [BBC Breakfast presenter] Naga Munchetty and impartiality when it comes to racism, where the director general had to intervene, and misidentifying BAME people on screen by confusing them with other minorities.
They also asked for an inquiry into institutional racism in the BBC, but Eastern Eye understands senior managers on the meeting repeatedly ducked the question.
“We asked time and again,” one veteran Asian recounted. “But time after time they didn’t answer, they simply brushed our concerns aside, as if they were in denial. They’re burying their heads in the sand, and they’re losing us. I’ve been there for 30 years and things have definitely got worse over the past 10.”
Another said, “We’re fed up by the lack of progress, the racism and constantly having to prove ourselves more than white colleagues. They cherry-pick those who are compliant, don’t make a fuss and do what they are told. Loads of us are seriously thinking of getting a pay-off and taking our chances. Enough is enough.”
Eastern Eye is aware of at least one senior Asian who is currently negotiating a voluntary redundancy (VR) package.
The BBC is a complex organisation and Asian veterans have told Eastern Eye that the corporation continually misses opportunities to make generational strides.
“Let’s take the Asian Network,” said a senior south Asian staff member. “It is the perfect place to develop talent. Instead, for almost a decade, we’ve been run by white people. One white colleague asked me why that was and then said, ‘is it because Asians aren’t good managers?’ I was livid, but they had a point.”
At the end of June, the BBC announced its new Asian Network head would be Ahmed Hussain who, one source told Eastern Eye, had to leave the corporation to prove himself before returning. Since lockdown, the Asian Network’s main 15-minute bulletin has been Radio 1’s Newsbeat, a decision which Eastern Eye understands has angered and concerned the newsroom which thinks this paves the way for permanent cuts.
Eastern Eye has shared its evidence with a number of BAME MPs. They are now considering how to examine institutional racism in the BBC, which could include a parliamentary inquiry.
A BBC spokesperson said, “While we would never comment on individual staff matters, we have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment – of all kinds.
That is why we have robust processes in place for staff to raise complaints, which are dealt with the utmost seriousness.
“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.”
Exclusive: The figures behind the stories which make the case for an inquiry
by Barnie Choudhury
Since 2010, this reporter has been monitoring the words and deeds of the BBC as a “critical friend”.
The result has been defensive responses to a series of freedom of information (FOI) requests asking the BBC for data concerning aspects of recruitment, retention and promotion of BAME staff as well as racism cases brought to tribunal. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has had to get involved to force the BBC to give information.
While one tiny aspect of the information was used by Sir Lenny Henry to win a £2.1 million secure budget for a “creative diversity fund”, much of the analysis has never been made public until now.
So, while the BBC has been accused of structural, systemic and institutional racism, what are the chances of someone actually winning a racial discrimination or victimisation case against the BBC?
A former senior Asian employee said, “I’ve heard so many people saying they’ll take the BBC to court for racism, but it’s an expensive process, difficult to prove.
“I know from experience, the BBC will dig up so much dirt on you, you need to have an iron stomach to go through with it. Think of the stress and ask yourself whether it’s not better to walk away. Why would you want to work for an organisation that’s institutionally racist?”
But a FOI request found that between 2005 and the end of 2010, 16 people filed racial discrimination claims. The BBC settled five without an admission of liability, won seven, one withdrew and three were ongoing at the time of the response.
In 2015, the BBC refused to go through its records to update the figures because it would exceed the time limit for searching under the FOI act. Instead it provided figures for “disability discrimination, unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, claim for holiday pay, race discrimination, age discrimination, victimisation, and wrongful dismissal”.
The response showed the BBC faced 208 cases between January 1, 2006, and March 31, 2015, an average of 23 a year. Of the 208 cases, the BBC claimed it settled 101, or just under half. It “won” 100 of the complaints brought against it. The response does not say if the BBC lost any of the cases which went to tribunal.
On January 11, 2011, the former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, won her 14-month battle against the BBC on the grounds of age discrimination, one of the categories it supplied in the FOI response, but it made no mention of this loss. Why did it not acknowledge this defeat, which made national headlines at the time, when it provided the figures?
The BBC did not respond to a request by Eastern Eye to clarify the omission. Even last week, the BBC refused to respond to this newspaper’s request for the number of racism cases and their outcomes over the past decade.
It is also worth acknowledging that during that same period, the BBC had to pay a five-figure settlement to correspondent Gary O’Donoghue, in 2008, ahead of a tribunal after he was prevented from reporting his own scoop on television because he was blind.
The industry acknowledges that it has a problem with retaining BAME professionals. But what is the picture in the BBC’s journalism divisions?
FOI requests show that between 2000 and 2010, 370 (or more than one in nine) BAME staff left the BBC News division, compared to fewer than one in 10 white colleagues. This may suggest parity, but when an organisation lacks BAME staff, to have experienced people leaving after investing in them causes even bigger headaches for the BBC in trying to reach and maintain racial diversity targets.
Another BBC staffer said, “It’s no longer worth the pain. I guarantee more of us will seek VR [voluntary redundancy] than white people. The managers don’t give a damn, as long as they and their white mates are OK. They say they will carry out an equality impact assessment, but they pay lip service to diversity. It’s all a box-ticking exercise.”
In his MacTaggart lecture, BBC presenter, Professor David Olusoga, complained about the “30 years of failed initiatives”. Eastern Eye can reveal that Olusoga was part of a £750,000 failed scheme called the mentoring and development programme (MDP) in 2008.
This was an 18-month scheme where candidates underwent a two-day selection process which included a psychometric test, role playing, group exercises and a presentation to external consultants.
Those who passed were offered five developmental days, a mentor – from the then director general Mark Thompson to other senior managers – and “action learning sets” where candidates helped one another with challenges they faced.
A FOI request by this reporter in 2014 produced a confidential document on that scheme. Entitled MDP Review and discussed by the BBC’s diversity board in September 2010, it revealed, “Despite a number of individual successes, representation of diverse staff on the MDP has significantly declined in the second and third years. Self-nomination has led to a mismatch between those who get on to the MDP and those individuals that the business consider are high performing and have high potential.”
This explains one reason for the lack of progress among ethnic staff, said one former senior BBC staffer.
“So, by the end of this scheme the number of BAMEs had dropped not by a little, but significantly. Not only that, there’s this tussle because we black and Asian people thought we were capable while our white managers didn’t. How did they think they would ever succeed?”
But how did the BBC measure success? In a 2011 review of the MDP obtained under FOI. it was defined as “the presence on the ‘rising radar’ of staff who have been through the programme. At least two high-profile BMED (black minority ethnic disabled) appointments from each programme.”
The same document reveals that 78 candidates, of which 22 – or 28 per cent, under one in three – were BAME, entered the programme during the three years. For the scheme to be heralded a success it needed just six “high-profile” minority or disabled appointments.
After suspecting that the BBC was unfairly withholding data about the MDP in its FOI response, this reporter asked the ICO to intervene. The BBC’s new answers revealed that by 2014, four years after the MDP ended, eight minority staff had been promoted to “higher grades”, and one to “senior manager”, compared to 19 white colleagues.
“The BBC is very clever and disingenuous,” said a senior BBC Asian employee. “What does ‘high-profile’ even mean? As far as I know, not one single person of colour became stellar or ‘high profile’, the whole point of the MDP.
“It was a complete and utter waste of time for me. That a scheme meant to promote BAME staff ends up promoting more than double the number of white people, says it all. Not only that, the BBC repeated a similar course a couple of years later, expecting different results.”
Another graduate of the MDP scheme who still works for the BBC at the same grade said, “It’s been 10 years since I took part, and whatever I’ve achieved is despite the mentoring development programme. No one who matters, those white managers who hire and fire, took it seriously. So what was the point of those 18 months and being told by the then director general we were the ‘brightest and the best’? It was nothing but BS.”
This may explain why Olusoga said that BAME employees had lost trust and was sceptical about new diversity initiatives. This appears to be borne out by FOI response concerning the MDP where, by the end of 2014, eight BAMEs left the BBC after completing the initiative.
Eastern Eye can reveal through FOI requests that between 2000 and 2014, the BBC created or took part in 42 diversity schemes. Yet it is still looking for nirvana, said one another senior BBC Asian member of staff, “These diversity schemes are useless. We go on them, but we never get promoted. They choose people who are in their own image, who went to their Oxbridge college and have cosy dinners with them outside work.”
In 2018, the new director general, Tim Davie, published a “landmark report on career progression and culture for staff from a BAME background at the BBC”. One of his nine recommendations was “all development and leadership programmes to have significant BAME representation as part of their overall cohort.”
This is remarkably similar to the conclusion from the failed MDP scheme, said another senior Asian employee.
“They are still making the same mistakes. They don’t understand that the gatekeepers are those who hire, and if you don’t look like them, speak like them, think like them or act like them, you don’t stand a chance.”
That same report also stated, “This is why in 2016 when we launched our Diversity and Inclusion strategy we set a BAME target of 15 per cent for our workforce and our leadership.”
The latest annual report (2018/19) showed that the BBC had missed its 2016 targets. In Nations and Regions, which encompasses local radio and regional TV in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, BAME leadership stood at 4.4 per cent, while in News and Current Affairs it was 10.9 per cent.
A BBC spokesperson said, “We have already achieved our end 2020 target on 15 per cent BAME staff across our workforce. We know there is more work to do on improving diversity at leadership levels across the BBC and we are fully committed to achieving this.”
Eastern Eye understands that the BBC is currently carrying out another consultation exercise to produce a diversity report two years after the one by Davie.
“We don’t need another report,” said a veteran. “We need half-decent BAMEs who get it and have the power to hire and fire. The reason why they screwed up on Naga [Munchetty] and the ‘n’ word is because they don’t have any senior editorial BAME figures. Those who are there are either Oxbridge, don’t live in those communities or don’t have a clue how to engage with them. They’re scared to say anything in case it’s career ending.”
A spokesperson said, “The BBC is not impartial on racism. We have said we got it wrong on the … n-word in the Points West news story and we are very sorry. In recent weeks we have announced a four-point plan to improve our approach on the use of racially insulting language.”
Eastern Eye understands that not one of the main news sequence programmes, such as Radio 4’s Today or main bulletins on BBC One, has ever had a BAME editor. The paper asked the BBC for data on senior black or Asian programme editors with strategy and budgetary control, but it refused to supply figures, and did not confirm if any of its high-profile daily news shows has ever had a BAME editor.
The BBC has appointed the first south Asian controller of Radio Four, but Mohit Bakaya has no editorial control over the news sequence programmes, which is the purview of the director of news, Fran Unsworth.
Dr Samir Shah, who is part of the government’s new race commission, was a former head of political programmes and head of current affairs. But again he was never an editor for a radio news programme or TV news bulletin.
The consequences of a lack of BAME senior programme editors is stark.
“David (Olusoga) touched on the problem with not having someone who understands instinctively why a story from communities of colour is important,” said one black employee. “You have to explain everything through a white lens. So, if I wanted to do a story about a house where a black family lived, I would have to say something like, imagine the black version of Downton Abbey. Why should I have to do that?”
Another Asian worker with more than 25 years’ service gave a recent example. “When Amitabh Bachchan went into hospital with Covid, I had to say to colleagues, this guy from Bollywood is revered as a god. People literally turn up at his house every week asking for his blessings, like the Pope. When they still didn’t get it, I said, imagine Boris (Johnson) and what we did when he got the virus, it’s 100 million times more significant. The penny finally dropped.”
The BBC has also been criticised for gender equality when it comes to pay, and the landmark equal pay tribunal victory by Samira Ahmed this January dented its reputation yet again. While this was a sex discrimination case, Eastern Eye has learnt that the BBC has historically paid BAME workers less than their white colleagues for doing the same job.
The paper has seen a leaked document from 1997 that Asian camera crews in TV news were paid substantially less per day than some of their white colleagues.
Speaking for the first time, the BBC’s first Asian employee to work for TV news, Bob Prabhu, said he is not surprised by allegations of systemic racism.
Prabhu said he put his life on the line several times while at the BBC. He was sent to Belfast at the height of the Troubles, to Beirut, the Gulf and Rwanda during the different wars. Prabhu also covered the aftermath of the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s as well as the Indonesian riots in Jakarta. In the UK he filmed the Brixton, Birmingham and Toxteth riots of the 1980s.
Despite this, Prabhu was paid £44 per day less than the top white cameraman.
“I didn’t know how I could fight it, and when you raise anything, they lie to you and nothing happens,” said Prabhu. “It is still a hideously white organisation. It left me completely demoralised. I used to be top category. I did everything for the BBC and, in the process, I lost my marriage. Now they were making my life hell.”
Soon afterwards, Prabhu realised his bosses wanted him out. The BBC tried to pressure him to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but he refused and is currently writing about his experiences.
“Towards the end, they couldn’t give a monkey about me or my health. I was under so much stress, I felt so depressed and the doctor put me on sick leave. It was an 11-year ploy to get me to resign. I just wouldn’t play their game. In my view, the BBC is institutionally racist.”
The pay gap, in today’s terms, is £80 per day. So that would mean an Asian cameraman would earn £19,200 less a year for doing the same job as his white colleague. Prabhu left BBC TV news in March 2011, after 40 years of service.
A BBC spokesperson said, “We have a rigorous approach to ensuring all staff are paid fairly… by running regular fair pay checks and ensuring a high level of transparency around pay.”
In July, the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, whose chair is the former chief executive of the Royal Television Society, Simon Albury, wrote to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to ask it to investigate BBC for racism.
A BBC spokesperson said, “We have absolutely been implementing our 2016-20 diversity and inclusion strategy, which is currently being reviewed and we will use staff feedback in developing our new plan for 2021-23.
“It is true that we have implemented other initiatives on diversity during the period of the current strategy and we have refreshed our approach – this is the right thing to do to ensure we are making an impact. We currently have a strong focus on the internal culture at the BBC and we know this is an area that staff want us to address. This is an issue affecting the whole media industry, and beyond.”
The BBC has responded to Eastern Eye’s exclusive front page story this week on a “Culture of racism” in the BBC.
A spokesperson for the broadcaster clarified that Miranda Wayland has the first draft of definitions ready (relating to a meeting announcing a £100m investment is diverse programming over the next three years).
The spokesperson added, “She also said we were not going to rush this process as it’s critical that we get it right due to its impact and longevity. She also didn’t say she didn’t know when we would announce.”