NEWS
28/08/2020 05:01 BST | Updated 28/08/2020 20:31 BST

Exclusive: BBC Staff Accuse Corporation Of Being 'Institutionally Racist'

Dozens of current and former Black employees – including those in BBC Africa – have spoken out about alleged bullying and a "glass ceiling" at the corporation.

The BBC has been labelled “institutionally racist” by its own staff members, HuffPost UK can reveal.

Dozens of current and former Black employees from departments across the corporation gave worrying accounts ranging from being denied career development opportunities to being bullied and then silenced by an ineffective complaints procedure.

Current staffers with total experience spanning over 100 years have called out a “toxic working environment” that, they say, has long been endemic within the culture of the world’s biggest broadcasting corporation. 

In a series of startling revelations, some Black employees have described the BBC’s approach in BBC Africa as “colonial” and likened working there to “being on a plantation”.

When approached by HuffPost UK, the BBC did not initially refute the allegation that it is institutionally racist, but a spokesperson later said: “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.

“That is why, as an organisation, we have put so much effort into ensuring that we have robust processes in place for staff to raise complaints which will be dealt with the utmost seriousness.”

One source, B, has worked at the organisation for upwards of three years and says it has a real “issue” with its treatment of Black staff.

Sure enough, the BBC has been steadily haemorrhaging Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) talent. The number of BAME staff leaving the BBC jumped from 173 in 2014 to 379 a year later, an increase of 120%,according to data obtained from a Freedom of Information request.

In 2016 14.6% of people leaving the BBC were BAME – in 2017 this figure rose to 14.9%, then to 16.4% in 2018 and 18.4% in 2019.

Recent figures indicate that some 15.2% of BBC staff are from BAME communities. But Sir Lenny Henry – who runs diversity watchdog The Lenny Henry Centre for Diversity at Birmingham City University –has previously cast doubt on the BBC’s diversity targetsbecause they do not take into account off-air production staff.

A BBC spokesperson said executives are clear that the corporation has further to go on increasing diversity at senior leadership level at the BBC.

“How can you advise on racism and impartiality if you’ve never faced it?,” one staff member asked on a June staff Zoom call.

During the private Zoom call, leaked to HuffPost UK in June, staffers openly discussed concerns about racism within the BBC.

Another source, M, told HuffPost UK: “Of course there is an issue with systemic racism in the BBC; look at how many Black staff are in leadership roles, how many Black producers there are, how many shows that have a BAME perspective yet don’t have BAME producers.

“Even when you’re in a senior role with the BBC, as a Black person, you’re not trusted with your own judgement. You’re ‘helicopter checked’ by white managers more often than not, who have final say over how stories are told.”

Source M described newsrooms as unwelcoming environments for Black staff. 

“You see the system of racism as soon as you enter the newsroom,” the source continued.

“You open that door and all of the faces – apart from people you know – look up at you in a questioning way. It’s almost like you’re encroaching on somebody’s living room. If I weren’t a confident person, I wouldn’t go to the newsroom. They’re not overtly hostile, they’re questioning as if to say: ‘What are you doing here? This is not your space.’

“I think the most horrendous form of racism is covert, because you can’t put a finger on it. You can’t say: “She called me the N-word,” “He said: ‘You don’t belong here,’” or: “She said I’m not having the job because there’s no space for Black people in the role.” It’s the most hurtful kind of bigotry because you know you’re being overlooked, passed over, left out because of the colour of your skin.

“Management equate the colour of your skin to having low intelligence.”

In 2001, Greg Dyke, the then director-general of the BBC,condemned the corporation as “hideously white” and said its race relations were as bad as those in some police forces.

One employee, Source C, says very little has changed in the two decades since. 

Glass ceiling

whitemay via Getty Images

A number of Black BBC employees described to HuffPost UK an “alarming” lack of career development opportunities, contributing to why so many decide to leave the corporation.

“If people go to work and apply for roles and don’t get it – one of us might not be very good, 10 of us might not be very good, but when you see scores of people applying for promotions and not getting through, you’ve got to ask questions. Why is that happening?” Source C said.

“This isn’t us hating on our employer; we’re saying we’ve had our dreams dashed and expectations crushed. A lot of good people have left the BBC feeling that they can’t get through the glass ceiling.”

Source B said training schemes leave Black staff fed up.

“The BBC creates traineeships and the bulk of the trainees are Black but they use them for a year, there’s no job for them afterwards, and they abandon ship. That’s a problem.

“Some people get here through nepotism and within a few months they’ve got a big job, they’re broadcast journalists or senior broadcast journalists – but why does it seem like when you’re a Black journalist it’s a lot harder to progress despite the good work that you do?

“For a young journalist of colour to come into the BBC and navigate that culture is flipping hard. We get a lot of talent through the door but within a couple of years they’re disillusioned because they’re not given the dues or respect they deserve. 

“This culture of taking people’s stories, unique attributes, access to Black audiences, all of that wealth of talent and ability, and using it – that’s a cultural problem.”

The BBC has refuted allegations that some white staff members had been given roles within the corporation through what amounted to nepotism, saying all roles are appointed on an open and fair competition basis

Source A added: “Although they may let some Black people in through the door they keep them at junior level, at the bottom rung of the ladder, and management are white.”

The BBC told us it had launched a “senior leadership advisers programme” at the beginning of the year that invites staff from diverse backgrounds to join senior leadership teams to “help shape the organisation’s vision and be part of decision making”.

The corporation said it monitors progress constantly on this and is “moving firmly in the right direction” but recognises that there is more to do.

Another source, X, said they know many Black colleagues who have years of experience in their current positions, or are even overqualified but have been constantly unsuccessful when going for promotions and remain in junior roles on a basic wage. X is now considering leaving.

“I’ve spoken to colleagues and wondered if there’s any point working here myself – I’ve worked here for over 10 years,” Source X said. 

“Working at the BBC is like a case of dealing with somebody who doesn’t realise that they have a serious problem. Though every department works slightly differently, I think every Black staffer – wherever they work in the BBC – has the same issue with reconciling with racism. But what keeps you going at times is knowing that, if you’re not there, certain stories that affect diverse communities won’t be covered properly.”

They added: “As a Black journalist, all too often you have white colleagues telling you what’s right, how to go about reporting. 

“Managers are happy to have Black presenters being the voice of shows but they’re generally produced by white people. And you’re constantly having to justify why stories that speak to diverse audiences are a story; it’s like they close their ears to other perspectives and you just don’t have a voice.”

The BBC did not deny this claim when it was put by them by HuffPost UK.

“The BBC is institutionally racist,” Source X added.

A number of staff members told HuffPost UK that they are actively thinking about leaving the BBC, though some are dubious about finding better journalistic prospects elsewhere.

Bullying

Christian Rummel via Getty Images

“There’s a climate and culture of fear at the BBC,” a former BBC HR specialist, Source T, told HuffPost UK.

This source’s role involved advising on and supporting bullying and harassment grievances. What they didn’t realise was that they too would find themselves at the sharp end of a “toxic” working environment that, they say, included racist microaggressions and managerial gaslighting within the corporation.

Not long after the source began working at the organisation, they said they were taken aside by a colleague who shared concerns about the organisation with them. Source T initially dismissed these, thinking they couldn’t be true at such a reputable, large organisation. 

“There was a series of red flags that I ignored; it ended up being a very hard environment to work in as a Black person, harder than I expected, harder than I was even warned,” they said.

Source T handled a number of cases involving bullying claims made by predominantly BAME journalists. Several complaints came from staff based within BBC Africa’s division. 

The source said there were instances where Black staff members would loudly speculate about which employee of colour was next in line to be dismissed from the organisation, painting a bleak picture regarding workplace prospects for non-white members of staff.

Source A said: “I myself have also put in grievances over the years. I don’t know anyone who’s put in a race grievance wherein the BBC found in their favour. 

“I even know someone who went as far as tribunal and they managed to knock her out of the tribunal – not based on the evidence of her case but on a technicality. That’s how they do it. They will use their might to block you or try and destroy your case.”

Bullying is endemic, staff say. 

The BBC told HuffPost UK it has a “zero-tolerance approach” to bullying and harassment of all kinds.

One employee said on the private Zoom call: “When I started, my manager introduced me to a colleague and when I stretched out my hand to shake a white colleague’s hand, they refused to shake my hand. No, they were not sick, and, no, their hands were not dirty. 

“They basically said I didn’t need to know them, therefore I didn’t need to shake their hand. I didn’t think it was a joke; it was a terrible first impression to make and it happened around several white people who all laughed at my expense. I was very uncomfortable with that interaction and I’m still uncomfortable with that colleague today.”

Source L, who works for BBC Africa, told HuffPost UK: “I’ve struggled with my mental health. I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been in a daze – finding different ways to cope emotionally because the place where I work is completely hostile.

“I really don’t trust the company I’m working for because I don’t trust the people; the highest ranks of management know the problems going on here but no one’s prepared to do anything about it.”

The BBC said it had updated its anti-bullying and harassment policy last year with “clear” guidance for staff on how to raise a complaint under a new simplified system.

The corporation has rolled out “respect at work” training and is promoting “inclusive culture training” and “unconscious bias training” across the organisation. 

A spokesperson said the BBC encourages staff to “speak up and come forward about bullying and harassment,” adding: “We treat all complaints seriously and investigate thoroughly in accordance with the anti-bullying and harassment policy.” 

BBC Africa 

Screenshot
BBC Africa

HuffPost UK has been told that most senior managers at the London hub of BBC Africa are white. They oversee a newsroom of predominantly Black, junior level staffers.

The BBC said “roughly half” of the BBC Africa managers in London, and more than two-thirds of the management across the whole of BBC Africa, are Black or Asian.

It also said all BBC Africa staff were employed “on the basis of their experience and ability”, and that the overall majority of its journalists – most of them in Africa itself – are Black Africans.

“The editor of BBC Africa is a Black Kenyan journalist,” said a spokesperson. “His senior team is made up of four managers, one of whom is white. All of our sub-Saharan African language services are edited by Black African journalists based in Africa and the UK.”

But sources say that, in London, the leadership is not representative of the 120m audience members served by the continent’s leading international broadcaster.

“I was shocked that things were this bad,” said Source L. “It became apparent to me that the mere fact that you’re white means that you don’t have to justify your qualifications, experiences, knowledge [...] whereas I’ve had to justify my worth, day in and out.”

They added: “And when the promotion comes, managers make snide comments to you as the Black staff member, discouraging you from putting yourself forward.”

According to multiple sources, the team’s make-up affects the way that African stories are told, with narratives invariably being altered, and tainted with racial bias, in alignment with the perspectives of white editors and managers.

“Ignorance would seep through – the subconscious biases would affect how stories were being told,” Source L explained. 

“When concerns are raised around these issues, managers gaslight Black staff and victimise them. This is not what I signed up for. When you raise grievances and suggest witnesses, they don’t speak to all witnesses and when they’re giving feedback, they’ll side with other managers.

“Bullying would take place day in and out, openly, and nothing was done about it by managers.”

BBC Africa journalists are treated like second-rate journalists, multiple sources told HuffPost UK.

“What we’re doing at BBC Africa is producing propaganda – a colonial view of how white people see the continent. Working here is like being on a plantation,” said Source L.

“The BBC is institutionally racist. The institution was never built for us but we were allowed to come in. There’s only a small amount of space we’re allowed to manoeuvre through while saying ‘thank you’, not asking for much. We’re expected to be happy just having a job and being in that space. 

“If you understand the structure of the BBC, you’ll know it’s a microcosm of the world in terms of how racism works. Are they prepared to change that? I don’t believe so because it’ll mean having to give away some of their powers.”

Campaigners are now calling for an external investigation into racism at the BBC by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC goes further than any other broadcaster by publishing diversity data annually, including for leadership positions. We have already achieved our 2020 target on 15% Black, Asian and minority ethnic 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.

“This summer we set a new mandatory 20% diverse off-air talent target in all new network commissions from April 2021, and a prioritisation of £100m of our existing commissioning budget over three years towards diverse and inclusive content, with £12m for radio.

“The BBC is not impartial on racism and this is fully consistent with the BBC’s editorial guidelines. In recent weeks we have announced a four-point plan to improve our approach on the use of racially insulting language. We will continue to listen and learn.”

Part two of HuffPost UK’s exclusive investigation into allegations of “institutional racism” at the BBC will be published on Saturday.