Following a fierce backlash, the BBC has reversed its decision to censure presenter Naga Munchetty for comments that were critical of US President Donald Trump.
BBC director general Tony Hall emailed the British network’s staff on Monday, saying the organisation’s complaint unit had made a wrong decision in finding Munchetty in breach of editorial guidelines on impartiality for her remarks during a show.
The original ruling said Munchetty, who presents the BBC Breakfast programme, had broken impartiality guidelines during her discussion on Trump’s comment in July that four female American congresswomen of colour should return to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came”.
Co-anchor Dan Walker asked Munchetty for her opinion on the July 17 programme, and she responded: “Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism … I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.”
“I’ve been told as a woman of colour to ‘go home’…”@BBCNaga shares her experience as we discuss the reaction to comments made by President Trump. pic.twitter.com/u0HL5tEdgt
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) July 17, 2019
Questioned further by Walker, she said she was “absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that”.
Commenting on its initial decision on finding Munchetty in breach of impartiality, the BBC said in a statement that their editorial guidelines “do not allow for journalists to give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so – in this case President Trump – and it was for this reason that the complaint was partially upheld. Those judgments are for the audience to make.”
However, after the BBC’s editorial standards chief David Jordan doubled down on why disciplinary measures were directed at Munchetty, a woman from a minority background, and not at Walker, her white male co-host, the Guardian newspaper said the viewer complaint had explicitly called out both Walker and Munchetty.
‘Racism not a valid opinion’
Journalists and celebrities had demanded that the BBC overturn its decision, and expressed support for Munchetty.
Across social media, there was disquiet over the broadcaster’s decision. That sentiment was plainly put in a letter to the Guardian newspaper on Friday, in which some 40 locally prominent celebrities offered support to the presenter.
“Racism is not a valid opinion on which an ‘impartial’ stance can or should be maintained,” the signatories said in the letter.
“For communities and individuals who experience racist abuse – including Munchetty – being expected to treat racist ideas as potentially valid has devastating and maybe illegal consequences for our dignity and ability to work in a professional environment, as well as being contrary to race equality and human rights legislation,” they wrote.
The letter added that to “suggest a journalist can’t talk about her own experiences of racism while withholding a critique on the author of racism [in this case President Trump] has the ludicrous implication that such racism may be legitimate and should be contemplated as such.”
Following the BBC’s u-turn, several commentators demanded the network issue a full apology.
Krishnan Guru-Murthy, a Channel 4 News anchor, said on Twitter: “The BBC needs to admit it was wrong, withdraw the finding and apologise.”