Journalism 101 tells us that if someone says it’s drizzling outside, and another that it’s dry, the job of the journalist is not to quote both but to find out which is true. But this week, the BBC upheld a complaint against the breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty for stating a truth as obvious as “water is wet”. Munchetty was found to have breached the BBC’s impartiality policy for her unscripted response to President Trump’s tweets telling four congresswomen of colour to go back home. “Every time I have been told as a woman of colour to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism.” She said she felt “absolutely furious” about it.
The BBC’s misguided response suggests that reacting to racism is worse than racism itself. All I saw was another woman of colour calling out racist remarks for what they were, and describing her own experiences. The clear message sent by this ruling is that whether or not something is racist is purely subjective.
This isn’t the first time that the BBC has framed racism as a conversation with two legitimate sides. It’s not even the first time this month – last Friday, a complaint was upheld against the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis for being too “persistent and personal” in confronting Rod Liddle on his back catalogue of blatantly racist columns. Maitlis didn’t do anything more than quote Liddle’s writing back to him – including one clipping that joked about Islamophobia and bombings, and another that implied the MP Kate Osamor was only in her job because of her race. This fits into a broader climate where short, fraught, “for and against” interviews are equated with fair coverage on a given topic, which often just looks like asking a person of colour to debate a racist. I’m bored of seeing all-white panels stacked against one person of colour to discuss whether blackface is “actually offensive”.
Any approach to impartiality needs to clearly acknowledge that racism – particularly of the blatant “go home” variety – is a violent and illegitimate standpoint. A head of state telling people of colour to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came” is intrinsically intertwined with growing racist and anti-immigrant sentiment. A news presenter shouldn’t be punished for observing this fact, and bringing her lived experience to the conversation. This is especially important considering standards don’t always appear to be applied evenly – the white male BBC journalist Nick Bryant directly referred to the tweets as racist but didn’t face the same consequences, perhaps because viewers didn’t complain about what he said. This puts people of colour, who I suspect are more likely to face viewer complaints, at a double disadvantage.
The way Munchetty incorporated her personal experience of racism into the discussion also serves as a reminder that “inclusion” in a media context requires effective structural reform. This incident is a perfect illustration of why diversity isn’t enough. While the BBC has improved the number of people of colour on screen, across the industry we are all too often used as visual signifiers of progress without organisations being fully prepared for what that means. We may bring different perspectives, and occasionally (gasp) will even speak about the racism we face. But if anything, this should be encouraged. A “diversity” that is only concerned with having black and brown faces in the room fundamentally misunderstands representation as about good optics rather than platforming marginalised voices in the media. Bringing people of colour into newsrooms is purely tokenistic if the industry asks women like Munchetty to leave their perspectives at the door.
We shouldn’t underestimate how pivotal moments like this can be in establishing attitudes to race within an organisation – and in the case of the BBC across the British media more broadly. In response to the broadcaster’s decision, the BBC correspondent Sangita Myska wrote on Twitter: “Many of us are worried about showing our concern in case we are reprimanded.” This feels eerily reminiscent of the way that many staff said they felt after an episode of Question Time debated whether it was “moral” for children to learn about LGBT relationships, with the BBC even later reprimanding its staff for publicly criticising the decision.
The BBC should revoke its decision and issue an apology to Munchetty, and it should reassess its self-described “inclusive” policy on impartiality. It should also bring people of colour into its executive complaints unit to weigh in on how policies are implemented, which internal BBC documents suggest might only have two women on its panel of seven.
In the current political climate, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment are rife, and the line between fact and opinion feels like it’s becoming increasingly contested in the media. But racism is racism, and when people of colour are silenced, it sets a worrying precedent as to which experiences are seen as objective, and what is left up for debate.
• Micha Frazer-Carroll is opinions editor at gal-dem.com