Exclusive: Black BBC Staff Morale At 'All Time Low' After N-Word Scandal

Corporation banned staff from openly supporting Black Lives Matter, but spent days refusing to apologise for use of the N-word on air.
A file image of the exterior of BBC Broadcasting House.
A file image of the exterior of BBC Broadcasting House.
Leon Neal via Getty Images

Morale is at an “all-time low” among Black BBC staff who were banned from publicly supporting Black Lives Matter but watched on as their employer defended its use of the N-word.

The latest revelation regarding Black staff at the corporation follows a string of worrying accounts of “institutional racism”, bullying and a “glass ceiling” published by HuffPost UK on Friday after dozens of interviews.

As a result of our investigation, Bectu, the largest union at the BBC with thousands of members, said it would be taking up the matter with incoming BBC director general Tim Davie.

Responding to claims of “institutional racism”, the broadcaster has 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.”

We spoke to workers in the wake of the corporation’s eventual apology for the July 29 N-word use, which racked up 19,000 complaints in days.

Social affairs correspondent Fiona Lamdin used the slur while quoting a racist attacker in Bristol.

The BBC eventually bowed to public pressure and apologised after first claiming the use of the word was “editorially justified”. By this time popular 1Xtra presenter DJ Sideman publicly resigned in protest and a string of other journalists and broadcasters had publicly condemned its employers’ use of the word and refusal to apologise.

Just three days after the incident, the BBC aired a repeat of a 2019 documentary in which historian Lucy Worsley also used the slur uncensored as she quoted the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

Worsley later apologised on Twitter and the BBC, after receiving more than 100 complaints, said in a statement: “We understand and we are sorry for any distress caused to any of our audience by language included in the programme.

“We recognise it is an offensive term and one that is rarely included in our output.”

In the wake of both incidents, the broadcaster promised that it will be “strengthening guidance on offensive language“.

A file image of the exterior of BBC Broadcasting House on February 5, 2020.
A file image of the exterior of BBC Broadcasting House on February 5, 2020.
Leon Neal via Getty Images

Black Lives Matter backlash

The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of US police officers in May, and the subsequent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, have amplified concerns about racism and lack of diversity within workplaces in both Britain and America.

The BBC tailored extensive programming to discussions around Floyd and racism via special editions of 1Xtra Talks, re-runs of popular Black shows on television and £100m worth of funding to reflect more diverse audiences.

“Like George Floyd, Black BBC staff feel like management’s knee is on our necks.”

- A BBC source.

But in an email to staff, the broadcaster told its employees not to publicly back Black Lives Matter on social media or at protests in case “it undermines public trust”. The organisation also warned TV presenters and guests not to wear the Black Lives Matter badge.

In a private Zoom call, leaked to HuffPost UK in June, staffers expressed concern about being banned from attending Black Lives Matter protests.

One employee said: “Last year I went to Manchester Pride and there was a huge BBC cohort on a float and, to me, that’s a campaign. LGBTQ Pride is a campaign and I could go to Pride with my lanyard and my BBC shirt and be proud of who I am. But if I go to a Black Lives Matter protest, I could be sacked.

“I really don’t get the disconnect – either we do campaigns or we don’t. And in my opinion a Black Lives Matter campaign is just as important as an LGBTQ campaign.”

Someone else said: “Recently there have been quite a few sessions involving senior management and the use of the hashtag Black Lives Matter. Some of the criticism coming from senior management was that it’s connected with a specific movement and compared it with Extinction Rebellion. Honestly I find that comparison very myopic and narrow minded; ER is a disruptive fringe movement which appeals to a very specific crowd while Black Lives Matter has now gone way, way beyond a specific route – it’s become a universal theme.”

Staff also told HuffPost UK the BBC’s diversity funding and early show of sympathy with the Black Lives Matter campaign were superficial and that the reality for Black staff within the organisation remained grim.

The BBC maintains it is not impartial on racism but also insists it is “not a campaigning organisation”.

A spokesperson said: “Opposition to racism is a fundamental democratic principle, reflected, for example, in the fact that incitement to racial hatred is a criminal offence in the UK. It is therefore fully consistent with the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

“While the BBC is opposed to racism, it is not a campaigning organisation. Campaigns frequently advocate for legitimate social or policy change. However, the BBC must retain its independence in relation to them. This is why BBC presenters cannot wear campaign badges or insignia on air – and this is nothing new.”

One source, A, who has worked there for more than a decade, told HuffPost UK: “Like George Floyd, Black BBC staff feel like management’s knee is on our necks and they’re stopping us from exposing the rot that’s going on inside these walls.

“Staff are scared because we’re in a position wherein we’re not allowed to bring the organisation into disrepute. We aren’t allowed to talk about the news and the scandal that’s going on in our building. That’s scandalous.

“If you look at the way the BBC deals with claims of racism and the way that the staffing is – there aren’t that many people of colour in key departments or at senior levels – then without a doubt the BBC is institutionally racist.”

Naga Munchetty saga

Source A said staff morale was at rock bottom following the scandal last year of BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty being sanctioned for criticising racist comments made by US president Donald Trump.

Complaints had been made about both Munchetty, who is of Asian descent, and her white co-host Dan Walker. But only Munchetty was penalised, prompting accusations of racial bias against the BBC.

BBC director general Tony Hall eventually stepped in to overturn the ruling against Munchetty, who had been found to have broken the broadcaster’s editorial guidelines.

Prior to the U-turn, more than 50,000 people signed a petition calling for the organisation to reverse its judgement.

“Morale is as low as it can get. Since George Floyd’s death, staff are now speaking up about their experiences of racism at the BBC more than they used to – but outrage has been felt since the Naga Munchetty saga last year and that’s when to a large extent Black and brown people started speaking like never before,” Source A said.

“There was scepticism around measures such as BBC spending £100m on diverse programming.

“The sad thing with the N-word is that Black and brown staff are saying nothing has been learned; the BBC had all of these listening sessions after George Floyd’s death where staff were invited to talk to management to tell them how they were feeling about racism.

“It seems like everybody had a story to tell about racism at the BBC. The outpouring was unbelievable – there were tears. The stories you heard behind closed doors – staff were sharing these not just in WhatsApp groups, but in listening sessions with other staff, and telling management what they’ve been through.

“So, we thought there was going to be a change moving forward. Management were saying for the first time: ‘We hadn’t realised things were so bad.’

“Then the N-word has now shown us that those were just words.”

The source said further angst was created when staff were informed in email from Kamal Ahmed, editorial director at BBC News, that all use of racially insulting language in news and current affairs would mean a mandatory referral to Fran Unsworth, the director of BBC News.

A spokesperson told us: “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.”

Diversity crisis

Source B is another Black BBC staffer. They told us: “When the big issues like Naga-gate and the N-word happen, the one thing you find yourself wondering is: ‘Why have I not heard from my line manager?’

“Why is Kamal Ahmed always the one to apologise or make the speech when these things happen? He doesn’t make the decisions which led to those scandals.

“I want the real power brokers to come and give us an account for why they made those decisions. And that’s a really big problem; they get the person of colour to be an apologist for all the decisions they make around Black audiences.

“I can’t speak for Kamal but if I was in that position I’d feel like an idiot. I’d feel like I’m being used for that agenda of pacifying when it comes to issues affecting Black audiences.”

On the other hand, June Sarpong, the corporation’s new head of diversity, has faced criticism for not commenting at length on the N-word issue. In a tweet on August 13, Sarpong wrote: “FYI: News does not fall under my remit.”

Marcus Ryder, acting chair of the Lenny Henry Centre for Diversity and former BBC executive, said: “Every Black person thought there needs to be somebody at the BBC who has diversity in their title who should be speaking out and representing them when it comes to the N-word. People assumed that was June. Now we’re floundering around, we don’t know whose position that is.”

Ryder said the BBC’s figures show it fails to promote and retain Black people – and the corporation should welcome outside scrutiny in order to make improvements.

“The BBC at its best is brilliant at self analysis,” he said. “I remember really clearly when George Entwhistle, who had only been director general for 50 odd days, went and got interviewed on the Today Programme. They had an approach of holding power to account irrespective of if the power was the BBC.

“The BBC to its credit was like: ‘If we want other powers – like the government and other public bodies – to be liable and held to account, we must do the same.’ Entwhistle subjects himself to be interrogated by the BBC’s journalists; hours later, he resigned because of that interrogation. That’s the BBC at its best; holding power to account without fear nor favour, the BBC realising it needs to be held to account.

“What you have here with the N-word is the BBC saying: ‘We will not be held to account. We will not subject ourselves to our editorial reasoning. We will not be questioned.’ This is the BBC at its worst. I say this as a massive fan of the BBC.”

Another source added: “The audience are going – not just the young but even the middle aged Black and brown audiences are going elsewhere for their news and entertainment.

“Places like Netflix, YouTube – you’ll find programmes that reflect people that look like you.”

They added: “I’m sad to say that in five to 10 years from now, the BBC will be on its back foot even more so and in steep decline.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “We have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment – of all kinds – at the BBC and have recently strengthened our approach to ensure staff can come forward.

“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.”


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