The Opinion vs Expert Faux pas of the BBC amidst Racism and Calling it out.
By now, if you’re a news follower, culturally attuned, or work in diversity, it’s more than likely you will have heard about the judgement of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) that BBC Breakfast show host Naga Munchetty breached its impartiality rules.
It stems from this exchange above with her co-host.
You’ll also be aware of the opprobrium it’s caused to many people concerned about its implications, including, and this is not to downplay others’ sufferings, but people from minority backgrounds particularly within the BBC. This is a developing story.
For a forensic dissection of why the BBC got this wrong and the collateral damage this may cause, not least that senior BBC execs who are part of ECU got this woefully wrong, I urge you to read Marcus Ryder’s layered exegesis and delineation of the affair, Donald Trump, the BBC and what happens when a woman of colour speaks her truth”.
Ryder is a former senior BBC exec who has direct experience of the ECU and has a wealth of knowledge and occupied leadership positions in several areas including diversity. The attention on Naga, and there should be consideration given about how she might be feeling with this judgement, and texts likes Marcus’s, has catalysed a conversation, and a particular seizable one at that.
I have broadly nothing to build on Marcus’s piece. Like many who’ve seen it, I am full of admiration for its clarity. It’s the stuff of lawyers at work in sense making and transitive logic.
However, there was one section I sought to focus upon, which was one of the three points from the BBC when he was drawing up his conclusion from its guidelines that :
From Naga’s response it would seem the audience can now tell her “personal opinion” on a matter of “political controversy”.
However the guidelines also make three important clarifications:
1. Due impartiality, “does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the rule of law.”
2. We should take account of the different political cultures and structures in different parts of the UK, and different cultural views in other communities.
3. Presenters “may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence”.
Point three within the BBC makes reference to professional judgement for which I responded below and now want to build on that.
Professional judgements, rooted in evidence
What is opinion and what is professional judgement? It’s an intricate one in which the borders can be fuzzy, but by way of a thought experiment some clarity in this case might emerge. And by the way, this is not to sideline the fecundity of “Donald Trump, the BBC and what happens when a woman of colour speaks her truth”
Every day across the BBC, journalists will be asked to report on an issue, which often is sensitive, complex and possesses multiple interpretations and thus could be contestable, and all the while the reporter will look to be impartial. They will do so with aplomb relying on evidence and their training. BBC’s Today Programme regularly has its specialist reporters geared to offer their opinion after a politician’s interview.
To do their job, they will examine, synthesis and offer what is their opinion, however it’s more than this. What if you were to put a novice in the position of an experienced reporter, say a correspondent, and I use their location to easily frame my purpose. How might the novice reporter fare?
I’d wager the novice would try to make sense of the issue and deliver their exposition, but what generally would be the quality of that and reception from audiences? It would not be unreasonable to suggest it would be an opinion insipid in its expertise.
What you’re getting from the BBC reporter, matured in their field, is less an opinion in the colloquial sense, and more professional judgement.
I draw an analogy with the texts of Richard Sambrook a Professor of Journalism and Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University. Professor Sambrook, previously a senior BBC executive, writes in Delivering Trust: Impartiality and Objectivity in the Digital Age.
Impartiality does not have to strip reporting of professional judgement (as distinct from personal opinion) as long as there is evidence to support it. That judgement may include a moral assessment based on what has been witnessed, and as long as the connection between eyewitness evidence and the conclusion drawn is clear, it is unlikely to offend the audience.
Professor Sambrook’s framing leads to him taking a professional view on the work of a BBC correspondent in the field and how it constitutes professional judgement.
The first sentence: “Impartiality does not have to strip reporting of professional judgement (as distinct from personal opinion) as long as there is evidence to support it” elides with sense making in point three earlier. That is Presenters “may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence”. BBC news presenters are professional journalists.
I would contend that Naga Munchetty’s views equally were consistent with professional judgement, no less different to a matured reporter or say correspondent. Why?
Her experience of racism; she touched upon in her exchange with her co-presenter combined with her standing as a respected award-winning journalist frames her professional judgement. She would also be careful weighing up her words, as illustrated with her caveats. Note also her presenter drives the conversation, not her. But here too we can invite a wider point. Can you equivocate on something that is racist? Are there shades?
Does that mean anyone who’s a minority automatically fulfils the role of expert too when addressing an issue to do with racism? There’s a spectrum of views that can be adopted, but in so far as there’s an exhibition of deep knowledge, affect, embedded knowledge of racism, you could argue persuasively, yes.
My late dear mother would, once in a while, speak about her experience in the 1970s with dad as she was building a career as a NHS nurse. Her voice mattered.
Yet something else begs consideration. In academia we might refer to it as the reflective practitioner. In his book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, scholar Donald Schön writes about the individual whom acquires skills in their practice and shows self awareness in actively analysing their work or themselves.
Practitioners do reflect on their knowing in practice. Sometimes, in the relative tranquility of a post mortem… but they may also reflect on practice while they are in the midst if it.
This describes Naga, though I’m aware it doesn’t directly correlate with the BBC’s criteria. Nonetheless the expert who reflects, who can be judged as weighing their comments could be taken into account in updating the BBC guidelines.
So, back to Marcus’s text, now what then? This view came to mind too from his tweet
The BBC’s guidelines show they a) require re-examination b) they require people of diverse background sitting on committees to shed authoritative light on issues, where knowledge/experience of minorities is required.
Many will wish for this case to be resolved in a way that reflects the measured, reasonable views taken by external authoritative voices and their expertise. The longer damage this may cause, and the lack of accountability in mmeting and talking to parties is one that you fear could have depressing consequences of, not least, in trust. Trust to get it right. Trust to do what journalism does, hold those in power accountable, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Trust not to fudge, when sometimes language is being used to obscure a point — though not in this case. Trust that the BBC accepts and adheres to inclusiveness.
The fluidity of society and changes in cultural dynamics should also reflect changes in guidelines, interpretation and the composition of those in positions to judge what is acceptable and isn’t. This issue illustrates a need to urgently address this, and like many rescind the decision, and start to examine how to move forward and build unity.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer at the Cardiff School of Journalism and an international award-winning innovator in journalism and journalist. He’s worked for BBC Newsnight, BBC GLR, World Service, BBC Radio 4 and Breakfast in the 1990s, generally as a reporter or producer. More on him here.