A couple of weeks ago there was an outburst of public indignation after it emerged that the BBC had censured their presenter Naga Munchetty. As reported by the Independent, in July BBC Breakfast reported on comments made by President Trump to four US congresswomen, none of whom was white, whom he told to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came." Naga commented "Every time I've been told as a woman of colour to 'go home', to 'go back to where I've come from', that was embedded in racism."
Most of the commentary at the time focused on whether or not Naga had behaved unprofessionally in making the comment, or whether she was justified in describing Trump's comment as racist. The public outcry has been heard: the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, has since overturned the decision to censure her.
There is, however, another concern about the BBC's action, which is why did they choose to act on this matter in the first place. All accounts of the story talk of 'a complaint'. The BBC complaints website explains that they can get as many as 200,000 complaints every year, which averages out at 547 a day. Now, I would have thought that they might have some guidelines in place about which complaints to act upon. In particular, they would be expected to take most seriously issues about which there were a large number of complaints. So it seems curious, to say the least, if they had decided to act on a single complaint, and I started wondering whether it had been made by someone with political clout.
The complaints website allows you to submit a complaint or to make a comment, but not to ask a question, but I submitted some questions anyhow through the complaints portal, and this morning I received a response, which I append in full below. Here are my questions and the answers:
Q1. Was there really just ONE complaint?
Q2: If yes, how often does the BBC complaints department act on a SINGLE complaint?
Q3: Who made the complaint?
BBC: We appreciate you would like specific information about the audience member who complained about Naga's comments but we can't disclose details of the complainant, but any viewer or listener can make a complaint and pursue it through the BBC's Complaints framework.
Q4: If you cannot disclose identity of the complainant, can you confirm whether it was anyone in public life?
Q5: Can you reassure me that any action against Munchetty was not made because of any political pressure on the BBC?
I guess the BBC are so used to politicians not answering questions that they feel it is acceptable behaviour. I don't, and I treat evasion as evidence of hiding something they don't want us to hear. I was interested to see that Ofcom is on the case, but have been fobbed off just as I was. Let's keep digging. I smell a large and ugly rat.
8th May 2020
Well, I had complained again, to say the original complaint did not address the points raised. Nothing happened until today, 7 months later, when out of the blue I received another email. The evasion continues. The answers provide a masterclass in what is known as paltering - here's an article by the BBC explaining what that is. The story, of course, is now so old it will be buried, but I'm minded to conclude that the continuing failure to answer my questions means that this case was escalated on the basis of one complaint by a Very Important Person.
From BBC Complaints, 8th May 2020
Dear Ms Bishop,
Thank you for getting back in touch with us and please accept our apologies for the long and regrettable delay in responding.
Our initial response didn’t address all of the specific concerns you raised, so we’d like to offer you a further response here addressing your four other questions.
1) Was there really just ONE complaint?
As widely reported in the media, one complaint was escalated to our Executive Complaints Unit (ECU).
2) If yes, how often does the BBC complaints department act on a SINGLE complaint?
Anyone can proceed through the BBC Complaints Framework and take their complaint to the ECU. Ultimately what matters is whether the complaint is justified and each complaint is judged on its own merit - sometimes complaints that go to the ECU are individual, sometimes more than one audience member will make a complaint about the same broadcast.
However, it is worth noting that the number of complaints are not the key factor and our main concern is whether the BBC acted wrongly. Full detail of the ECU’s findings can be found via the links below:
Recent ECU Findings:
Archived ECU reports:
3) If you cannot disclose identity of the complainant, can you confirm whether it was anyone in public life?
For reasons of confidentiality, and our responsibility to protect the identity of an individual who complained, we won't be providing any information about them.
4) Can you reassure me that any action against Munchetty was not made because of any political pressure on the BBC?
We can assure you of this. The BBC is independent, and the ECU came to their judgement based on the merits of the case before them, not as a result of any pressure or lobbying.