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How not to change your mind: BBC backflip becomes face-plant

Michaela Gray

Four months on from the broadcast that prompted a complaint against Naga Munchetty, the BBC’s response to her comments on Donald Trump are still making headlines.

The media watchdog has now weighed in on the saga, saying it has “serious concerns around the transparency of the BBC’s complaints process”. In particular, Ofcom pointed to Auntie’s failure to share the reasoning behind the original decision to uphold part of the complaint and the subsequent change of heart.

What took place in the interim was an outcry of public support on social media, an open letter signed by 44 stars and blanket coverage in national publications.

Without any explanation from the BBC, observers are left to draw their own obvious conclusion; the weight of popular opinion forced the publicly funded institution famed for objectivity and fairness to completely change its mind. The about-face has left the BBC red-faced.

The issue is not whether the BBC was right or wrong in its first decision or even its second, but whether the public can trust how the BBC is reaching those decisions. On an issue that is quite literally black and white, the BBC’s opaque response has been the greatest concern.

Many organisations will get a judgement wrong in the eyes of the public and be left with two options: acknowledge and reverse, or, defend and resist. The BBC has flip-flopped somewhere in between, changing its mind while championing its guidelines – vague as they appear to be.

Had it taken either of the above options the issue would have been resolved much more quickly and with far less public commentary. By contrast, the apparent one complaint that has fuelled this debate pales in comparison to Ofcom’s worst offending programmes of 2018. Complaints against competitor programme Good Morning Britain totalled 548 while fellow Beeb show Loose Women received 8,002. There will be few viewers who can now recall what had prompted those rebukes and yet the BBC racism row of 2019 will remain fresh in our minds for time to come.

What we can be sure of is the lasting impact; BBC director general Lord Hall has asked editorial and leadership teams “to discuss how we manage live exchanges on air around these topics in the future” – which surely means more tip-toeing to come.