Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie slams BBC 'ambush' with Trump supporter

The novelist has hit out at the way she found herself pitched into an adversarial encounter on Newsnight with American Spectator editor

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has received an apology from the BBC, after she accused Newsnight producers of “sneakily pitting” her against a Trump supporter in a live TV interview.

Footage of Adichie’s appearance on the TV programme two weeks ago was shared widely online, particularly because of her comments. When R Emmett Tyrrell, Jr, the editor of the American Spectator, claimed president-elect Donald Trump wasn’t racist, Adichie retorted: “I’m sorry, but as a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is. You really don’t.”

The author took to Facebook on Friday to accuse the show’s producers of not telling her manager that she would be appearing with someone else, or that she would be asked so much about the US election, leaving her feeling “upset and ambushed” when she found out after arriving at the BBC studio.

The author wrote: “When I arrived at their studio in Washington DC, the show’s producer casually said, ‘You’ll be on a panel with a Trump supporter. A magazine editor who has supported Donald Trump from the beginning.’

“At no time had I been told that there would be anyone else in the interview, never mind being pitted against a Trump supporter. I felt upset and ambushed.”

Adichie said she wanted to leave at that point, but did not as she was feeling emotional about the election result. “I wanted to walk away, but decided not to. I was already there. And I did want to talk about the election, which I had experienced in a deeply personal way. I was still stunned and angry and sad. I still woke up feeling heavy. Not only because I am an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton but also because, with Donald Trump’s win, America just didn’t feel like America any more. The country that grew from an idea of freedom was now to be governed by an authoritarian demagogue.”

A producer told her that Tyrrell had been invited on the show alongside her to maintain balance. “But sneakily pitting me against a Trump supporter was not about balance – we could have easily been interviewed separately,” she said. “It is a deliberately adversarial strategy that news organisations use in the pursuit of what is often called ‘good television’. It is about entertainment.”

The author said she did not feel adversarial towards Tyrrell until he said “I do not respond emotionally like this lady.”

“To say that I responded ‘emotionally’ to the election was to say that I had not engaged my intellect,” wrote Adichie. “‘Emotional’ is a word that has been used to dismiss many necessary conversations, especially about gender or race. ‘Emotional’ is a way of discounting what you have said without engaging with it.

“No way was I going to ignore that. Which, predictably, led to an interview in which I found myself, rather than talking about misogyny and populism, responding to a man who claimed that an anti-Nafta, China-bashing, America-First Donald Trump would be an internationalist rather than an isolationist.

“Who presumed that he, a white man, could decide what was racist and what was not. And who insisted that Donald Trump is not a racist, even though the evidence is glaring, even though the House majority leader of Donald Trump’s own Republican party condemned Donald Trump’s racism. So much for responding ‘emotionally’ to the election.”

She said she left the interview “still feeling upset. But it made me better see why America no longer feels like America.”

The BBC later issued an apology to Adichie on her Facebook page, saying they felt “terribly sorry [she] felt ambushed by the encounter” and that not informing her of the nature of the interview was “an honest mistake”, but emphasised that it was not strategic.

“It’s simply not the case, though, that the casting was part of an adversarial strategy as you suggest. It would have been bizarre not to reflect the views of the half of America which had just voted for Donald Trump in the live segments of the programme,” the statement reads.

“And as a general rule, we think it seems odd to viewers when live guests do not engage with each other’s arguments. We’d always rather have light than heat, but we think a lot of people will have found your encounter with R Emmett Tyrrell quite revealing. More than anything, we’re sad and sorry you had a bad experience with us. We hope you’ll come back for a one-to-one interview some time.”


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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