Musa Okwonga considers what the BBC’s mistake following the basketball star’s death reveals about deeper problems with its mindset on race and class.
The news of basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash, alongside his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people, was the dominant story of the weekend. Unfortunately for the BBC, its coverage of this tragedy has drawn unwelcome scrutiny.
In a short segment looking back at Bryant’s career, a report by BBC News at Ten instead screened footage of the basketball player LeBron James.
Matthew Champion, the deputy world news editor at BuzzFeed, shared the video on Twitter, accompanied by the remark: “I genuinely cannot believe that the actual BBC News at 10 just did this”.
The programme’s editor, Paul Royall, apologised for this “human error”.
It would be tempting for many to move past this mistake, to regard it as a regrettable moment and one of these things which just happens every now and then to a team constantly under pressure to deliver. Yet, there are two problems with doing so.
The first was the scale of the misstep, which will hopefully lead to internal reflection about processes and about how footage is signed off before it is broadcast. The second was that it did not surprise many people and felt like a symptom of a sometimes casual attitude towards race by the BBC’s senior management.
Whether the BBC likes it or not, this event was a lightning-rod for resentment against what is often seen as its careless treatment of this subject.
The journalist Yomi Adegoke has recently written of her frustration with BBC shows which seem more concerned with entertainment than education; with provoking a controversy, rather than interrogating a grave social issue. Adegoke observes that “lecturers, authors and professors for whom this is their life’s work and personal experience, are pitted against talking-heads whose qualifications to discuss racism appear to be the fact that they’re white, pissed off, and more often than not, perpetrators of the very racism they’re discussing.”
There is a sense when viewing some of the BBC’s programmes that any discussion about racism is a useful discussion. From long and frustrating experience, that is not the case. Debating whether the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” is racist, as I was once asked to do, would have been a waste of everyone’s afternoon.
There are many times when I wish that those who devise these debates thought more like members of the legal profession in some countries, where certain cases are barred from going before the court because they are considered too frivolous to be worthy of serious debate. These courts are concerned primarily with the establishment of truth. From the nature of these debates, it appears clear that enlightenment is not the public service broadcaster’s priority.
Having worked with the BBC on several occasions, I know that there are people within the organisation who despair at the choices made at some of its higher levels. I remember concerns over the appointment of Stig Abell as host of one of its flagship culture programmes following his tenure as managing editor of the Sun – a place where he oversaw the rise of Katie Hopkins. Abell has now taken a post on BBC Front Row where he will provide “an antidote to the polarising atmosphere of much public debate” – debate which, for many years, he has been paid to polarise.
The mistake with the Kobe Bryant footage may be dismissed as a one-off – to which the answer is: yes. But so is dropping the cake on someone’s wedding day and there is a reason that has never happened at any wedding I have attended: because the person in charge is desperate that it will not.
Diversity of employees within newsrooms – in terms of both race and class – isn’t something which is needed to appease the charge of the woke brigade, or whatever weary people may call us behind closed doors. It means that problems like this wouldn’t arise. It means that every single person in that room, not just most of them, would be determined that this stuff does not go wrong.
It means that, if something like this does go wrong, then we are reassured that it did not come from a culture that too often feels flippant on this issue – and not from the kind of place, where every now and then, we fully expect them to drop a wedding cake.