BBC bosses have said they are not impartial on racism after the decision to rebuke Naga Munchetty for criticising Donald Trump provoked a fierce backlash.
Director-general Lord Tony Hall and other executives sent a letter to corporation staff assuring them that ‘racism is racism’ and that ‘diversity matters hugely’.
Staff at the broadcaster have been told that the impartiality of the BBC does not extend to racism, which is not a matter of opinion or debate.
The corporation drew criticism for upholding a complaint against Ms Munchetty, who said in a July 17 BBC Breakfast broadcast that President Trump’s call for a group of female Democrats to ‘go back’ to their own countries was ’embedded in racism’.
Sir Lenny Henry and Krishnan Guru-Murthy were among a group of black and Asian journalists and broadcasters who called for the BBC to reverse its ruling over Ms Munchetty’s criticism of the US president.
A letter signed by a group of 150 black broadcasters, celebrities and actors said that requiring journalists to ‘endorse racism as a legitimate “opinion”’ was an ‘abrogation of responsibility’.
And after fierce criticism, including from Carrie Gracie and other BBC staff, the Executive Committee of the broadcaster sent a message to employees making clear its stance on Ms Munchetty’s case and racism.
The message states: ‘You will have heard a lot of comment over the past few days about the BBC and the reporting of racism.
‘The BBC is not impartial on racism.
A group of 150 black broadcasters, including Lenny Henry, pictured, have written a letter to the BBC to defend Ms Munchetty
Chancellor Sajid Javid also backed Ms Munchetty, claiming the BBC’s decision was ‘ridiculous’
Actor Adrian Lester, left, and Sky News presenter Gillian Joseph, right, are both among the signatories to the letter
‘Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism.
‘Naga Munchetty – one of our stars – was completely within her rights to speak about the tweets of Donald Trump which have been widely condemned as racist.
‘We completely back her in saying ‘as a woman of colour, to go back where I came from, that was embedded in racism’.
‘She was speaking honestly and from the heart about her own experiences. We admire her for it and she was completely justified in doing so.
‘The very limited finding was not about Naga’s comments on racism. That part of the complaint was rejected.
‘Diversity matters hugely. The success of the BBC is built on the quality and diversity of our people. That is not negotiable.’
The message has been sent to all BBC staff on behalf of the Executive Committee, which includes Lord Hall.
And the BBC said in a statement: ‘President Trump’s comments that a number of female Democrat members of Congress should ‘go back’ to the ‘totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’ were widely condemned as racist, and we reported on this extensively.
‘The BBC’s editorial guidelines do require due impartiality, but the Editorial Complaints Unit’s ruling is clear that Naga Munchetty was perfectly entitled to give a personal response to the phrase ‘go back to your own country’.
‘She understandably feels strongly on this issue, and there was nothing wrong with her talking about her own experiences of racism.
‘However, our editorial guidelines do not allow for journalists to then 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.’
It followed a decision by the corporation to uphold a complaint, in part, for an on-air conversation following the controversial comments by Mr Trump directed at politicians Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
Homeland star David Harewood, pictured, also supported Naga Munchetty by signing the letter, branding the BBC’s position as ‘ludicrous’
The letter was organised by journalist Afua Hirsch, who accused the BBC of ‘legitimising racism’ while appearing on the Victoria Derbyshire programme this morning, pictured
It was ruled that Ms Munchetty crossed the line when she commented on statements made by Mr Trump.
She told her co-presenter Dan Walker: ‘Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism,’ adding: ‘I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.’
Questioned further by Mr 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’.
The BBC initially commented saying: ‘Overall her comments went beyond what the guidelines allow for.’
Sir Lenny Henry and Gillian Joseph from SkyNews were also among stars angered by the BBC’s decision to criticise Ms Munchetty.
Actors Adrian Lester and David Harewood and comedienne Gina Yashere also signed the letter.
Meanwhile Chancellor Sajid Javid also backed the presenter, calling the decision ‘ridiculous’ and adding Ms Munchetty’s reaction was ‘perfectly understandable’.
The letter, released to the media this morning, said: ‘We, the undersigned group of black people who work in the media and broadcasting in the UK, strongly condemn this finding and assert that it amounts to both a misunderstanding of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and a form of racially discriminatory treatment towards BAME people who work on programming.’
It added: ‘Racism is not a valid opinion on which an ‘impartial’ stance can or should be maintained;
‘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;
‘To suggest a journalist can ‘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.’
Who signed the Naga Munchetty letter?
The signatories of the Naga Munchetty letter include:
Aaron Roach Bridgeman
Katrina Marshall Beharry
Dope Black Dads
Jordan Jarrett Bryan
The signatories also said the BBC decision sets a dangerous precedent for BME employees in the future.
It said: ‘We believe that in addition to being deeply flawed, illegal and contrary to the spirit and purpose of public broadcasting, the BBC’s current position will have a profound effect on future diversity within the BBC.
‘To suggest that future BAME broadcasters will be hired at the corporation on the premise that they remain ‘impartial’ about how they feel about their experiences of racism is ludicrous.
‘To require journalists of all ethnicities and races to endorse racism as a legitimate ‘opinion’ is an abrogation of responsibility of the most serious nature.’
Former Channel 5 News presenter Marverine Cole also signed the letter and today tweeted her support for Ms Munchetty.
She wrote: ‘Together we stand. I signed this letter. Racism should be called out. It’s ridiculous when someone calling out racism is reprimanded.’
Marcus Ryder, Chief international editor of Chinese broadcaster CGTN Digital, added: ‘Proud to be signatory, along with over 150 other BAME broadcasters and journalists, demanding change following the Naga judgement that she broke BBC editorial guidelines.
‘Important that people know what we’re demanding: 1. BBC’s complaint unit reviews its judgement
‘2. BBC management come out in support of Naga, its BAME staff & commitment to diversity
‘3. All broadcast complaint bodies ECU, Ofcom etc should be represntatively (sic) diverse & transparent.’
Speaking on the Victoria Derbyshire programme today, journalist Afua Hirsch, who organised the letter, said the BBC could not expect BAME staff to remain impartial on racism.
She said: ‘It’s ludicrous to say it’s fine for a presenter to express her own experience on racism but that she should not cast judgement on the person who is being racist.
‘That is suggesting that, as people of colour who have experienced racism, we can talk about this experience but must remain impartial on if we think this is good or not. It’s completely absurd.’
Ms Hirsch added: ‘When you are a professional broadcaster the last thing you come on air to do is talk about the very painful experiences of racism in this country.
‘I have been in the same position and have tried to hold debates about current affairs and in doing my job have been drawn into sharing my personal experience. It’s not something done lightly or enthusiastically.
‘To be invited to share that experience but to refrain from casting judgement about whether it was good or not is actually the worst position the BBC could come to. It’s saying ‘Share you experience and then leave it for others to decide if it is a legitimate experience or not’.
Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy, left, and comedienne Gina Yashere, right, also gave their support to Ms Munchetty
Former Sky and Channel 5 News presenter Marverine Cole also confirmed she had signed the letter and said it was ‘ridiculous someone calling out racism was reprimanded’
‘Racism is not an opinion, like whether Brexit should happen or if austerity is good. Racism is a fundamental ideology that removes the humanity of people because of their race. It should be treated as if there are two sides up for debate.’
Ms Hirsch also said the BBC is risking losing BAME employees in the future if it ‘thinks racism is a matter for impartiality’.
She said: ‘If the BBC takes that position it will find that people of colour will not be able to fulfil their professional roles because they cannot in good conscience come on air and say that racism is something we can debate and that if people want to suggest that we do not belong in our own country, that we can treat that impartially.
‘The real slippery slope here is that BME staff have been warned not to sign up to internal and external letters condemning this judgement and I’m very concerned about the atmosphere of fear in this organisation and that people who feel in the most powerful and profound way that their legitimacy and humanity is on the line here are not being allowed to express themselves.’
ITV News presenter Charlene White, left, and former CNN journalist Isha Sesay were also among the signatories
Chinese broadcaster CGTN Digital intrnational editor Marcus Ryder also signed the letter and said the BBC had to change its guidelines
But veteran broadcasters Andrew Marr and Alastair Stewart have backed the BBC and said TV newsreaders and reporters should not give their own views on topics they cover
But some other high profile broadcasters have supported the BBC and said impartiality is crucial for newsreaders when it comes to informing the public.
ITV presenter Alastair Stewart said: ‘It becomes increasingly difficult for the public to get their heads around what is happening in our politics if supposedly independent TV reporters keep giving us their views rather than the facts. In the ‘papers, it is fine; from broadcasters, it is wrong.’
BBC political presenter Andrew Marr added: ‘I agree with Alastair. Analysis fine, hard questions essential, but our views? Not wanted on voyage.’
‘Deeply flawed, illegal and contrary to the spirit of public broadcasting’: BME celebrities’ response to the BBC over its decision to reprimand Naga Munchetty
On 16 July 2019, President Trump tweeted that four congresswomen should ‘go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’.
All four congresswomen are people of colour, all four are US citizens and only Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was born overseas.
These comments were widely acknowledged as racist in a broad spectrum of reputable international news outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Sky News and the Guardian.
On 17 July 2019, Dan Walker, a host on BBC Breakfast, commented that a woman had shared a similar experience of being told to ‘go home’ and that he found that remark ‘telling’.
Walker added that the person in question had never been told that by the ‘man sitting in the Oval Office’.
Walker asked his co-host Naga Munchetty how she felt, inviting personal commentary.
In response to these remarks, Munchetty shared her own experiences of being told ‘as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from’ and added, ‘That was embedded in racism. Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.’
When asked by Walker how she felt about Trump’s remarks, she replied ‘furious’.
‘Absolutely furious and I can imagine lots of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that.’
On 25 September, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) found Munchetty had breached the corporations guidelines in issuing this remark.
In a clarification of its decision-making, in response to widespread public criticism – including from an unprecedented number of black British entertainment and broadcasting figures – on 26 September it said: ‘[Munchetty] understandably feels strongly on this issue, and there was nothing wrong with her talking about her own experiences of racism.
However our editorial guidelines do not allow for journalists to then give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so … and it was for this reason that the complaint was partially upheld. Those judgments are for the audience to make.’
We, the undersigned group of black people who work in the media and broadcasting in the UK, strongly condemn this finding and assert that it amounts to both a misunderstanding of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and a form of racially discriminatory treatment towards BAME people who work on programming.
The BBC’s editorial guidelines allow for ‘professional judgment, rooted in evidence’, and require ‘cultural views in other communities’ to be taken into account.
The ECU – which we believe does not reflect the diverse cultural views in the BAME communities in the UK – has failed to acknowledge the following:
- Racism is not a valid opinion on which an ‘impartial’ stance can or should be maintained;
- 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;
- To suggest a journalist can ‘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.
While we stand in support of Munchetty, the consequences of this decision are widespread with implications for the entire media landscape in the UK and those who work within it.
The scope of its effect is already evidenced in the unprecedented number of BAME media figures who have openly and publicly voiced their condemnation on social media.
In addition, we note the number of BBC journalists who have contacted us privately to express their concern at the climate of fear at the organisation, their feeling of being censored and their apprehension at the consequences of their speaking out in support of this statement.
We demand that:
1. The ECU revisits and takes seriously overturning its decision;
2. BBC management issue their support for journalists and acknowledge there can be no expectation of ‘impartiality’ over expressions and experiences of racism;
3. The bodies that oversee complaints about broadcasting, including the ECU and Ofcom, address their own levels of diversity and increase transparency as to how they reach their decisions, and how that process takes place in a manner reflective of the diversity of the population.
We believe that in addition to being deeply flawed, illegal and contrary to the spirit and purpose of public broadcasting, the BBC’s current position will have a profound effect on future diversity within the BBC.
To suggest that future BAME broadcasters will be hired at the corporation on the premise that they remain ‘impartial’ about how they feel about their experiences of racism is ludicrous.
To require journalists of all ethnicities and races to endorse racism as a legitimate ‘opinion’ is an abrogation of responsibility of the most serious nature.
This letter is signed by: Afua Hirsch, Lenny Henry, Adrian Lester, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Gina Yashere, Hugh Woozencroft, Gillian Joseph, Michelle Matherson, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Elaine Dunkley, Amal Ahmed, Charlene White, Lina-Sirine Zitout, Marverine Cole, Tsedenia Skitch, Jayson Mansaray, Rabiya Limbada, Aaron Roach Bridgeman, Holly Henry-Long, Diana Evans, Anjana Ahuja, Katrina Marshall Beharry, Yemi Bamiro, Claire Clottey, Ayshah Tull, Shaista Aziz, Patrick Younge, Jamal Osman, Catherine Baksi, Liliane Landor, Bethel Tesfaye, Girish Juneja, Daniel Henry, Eno Adeogun, Dope Black Dads, Marvyn Harrison, Warren Nettleford, Nels Abbey, Henry Bonsu, Nisha Lahiri, Jordan Jarrett Bryan, Rowena Twesigye, Alex Murray, Asif Kapadia
The BBC had earlier justified its reprimand of Ms Munchetty for criticising Donald Trump for perceived ‘racism’, saying that she is not allowed to share her personal opinion.
Speaking earlier today, director of editorial policy Daniel Jordan told the Today programme: ‘If racist language is used, regardless of who said it, it should be described as such.
‘I think they [critics] need to understand the judgement and what it did say and did not say.
‘What it emphatically did not say was that Naga Munchetty was wrong to react to what is clearly a racist form of language and to the effect it would have had on people like her; people of colour in the UK.’
The revelation of the letter came as the hashtag #IStandWithNaga was trending on Twitter, with members of the public supporting Ms Munchetty, claiming she should be able to ‘call out racism’.
The BBC has been accused of double standards by allowing other presenters to express their opinions such as veteran presenter John Simpson who said British people ‘must take a stand’ against the ‘hate and anger’ in the nation just two days ago.
The BBC’s reprimand of Ms Munchetty has led to an outpouring of support for her on social media, with the hashtag #IStandWithNaga trending on Twitter today
He wrote on Twitter: ‘Things are so bad, so worrying, so filled with hate & anger that we must take a stand for who we are as a nation. We must support the rule of law, & demand decency & respect from our politicians.
‘We must moderate the language of debate. And we must condemn anyone who doesn’t.’
BBC officials appear to have taken no action over those comments.
BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, right, was been criticised by BBC executives after she expressed her opinion on racism following a highly controversial tweet by Donald Trump
His tweet led to Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy mock the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) over their response to such opinions.
Mr Guru-Murthy wrote: ‘Hello John? John! Executive Complaints Unit here. The viewer must not know whether or not you support the rule of law, decency or respect…..What? Yes I know these are universally held values but on the other hand they may be bad things. John? Hello? Are you still there…?’
‘We were always different from other Asian families’: Naga Munchetty on her upbringing in Britain
The BBC said they had not disciplined Ms Munchetty for the guideline breach
Naga Munchetty has previously spoken of how important her identity is to her.
She was born in London in 1975 to a father from Mauritius and a mother from India.
Both moved to Wales in the 1970s to study, with her mother learning dentistry and her father training as a nurse. The pair fell in love but had to keep their relationship a secret from their parents initially because they had ‘come to learn, not find a partner’.
She has previously spoken of her strict upbringing and not being allowed to go to sleepovers at friends’ homes, although they were always welcome at her’s.
In a 2016 interview, she told the Guardian they were ‘always different’ from other Asian families because her parents were from different countries, but that the family would speak English at home because her mother felt they should ‘be part of the country’.
Ms Munchetty did not visit India until she was eight, or Mauritius until she was 12, and revealed she brought her English culture with her to her Indian grandmother, who learned how to cook chips for her when she turned down bhajias.
Although her mother was skeptical when she did a degree in English Literature, hoping she would become a doctor or lawyer, she says she is now her ‘number one fan’ and records her programmes daily.
MailOnline has contacted the BBC for comment.
The ECU ruled that the BBC Breakfast host breached editorial guidelines when she condemned comments made by the president after he told female Democrats to ‘go back’ to their own countries.
In a July 17 broadcast, Munchetty said that ‘every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism’, adding: ‘I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.’
After being probed by her co-host Dan Walker for her thoughts, Munchetty said she was ‘absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that’.
The BBC ruling has been widely criticised, notably by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said that Munchetty ‘stated a fact’, and urged the BBC to ‘explain this astonishing decision’.
Ms Munchetty had earned plaudits for her decision to speak about her struggles and share her experiences of being told herself to ‘go back to your own country’.
The BBC’s former China editor Carrie Grace and Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan were among those who criticised the BBC decision and voiced support for Munchetty.
Ms Gracie tweeted: ‘#nagamunchetty Unease among #BBC journalists for whom ‘go back’ = racist. If power trumps or bends meaning then no point in journalism, just print propaganda.
‘There is no #BBC journalism worth the name without #BBC values. Accountability is one. Explain @BBCNaga reprimand please.’
Morgan said: ‘Since the BBC will gag my breakfast show rival #BBCNaga from saying anything about this, allow me: It’s bloody ridiculous.
‘Her words were powerful & necessary. Shameful censorship.’
Labour MP David Lammy called the BBC decision ‘appalling’.
‘If the BBC won’t let its journalists call blatant, unashamed racism what it is, it is complicit in that racism,’ he tweeted.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has said the BBC ‘has got it very wrong’ over its ruling.
‘All broadcasters, and in particular the BBC a public service broadcaster, should call out racism. It is not a matter of opinion – it is wrong,’ NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said.
‘Of course, (Munchetty) was right to say she was furious with the President’s language and what it meant.
‘The BBC has got it very wrong – BBC journalists should not be prohibited from commenting on evidently racist language, especially at a time when racist rhetoric is having a real impact on people’s lives.’
Ms Munchetty has not commented on the row.