You can’t be ‘impartial’ about racism – an open letter to the BBC on the Naga Munchetty ruling | Afua Hirsch, Lenny Henry, Adrian Lester, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and others

The BBC has upheld a complaint against its Breakfast presenter. As British broadcasters and journalists of colour, we demand it reconsiders

Dear BBC,

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 corporation’s guidelines in issuing this remark.

In a clarification of its decision-making, in response to widespread public criticism – including from an unprecedented number of British entertainment and broadcasting figures of colour – 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 people of colour 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, Claudia-Liza Armah, Antoine Allen, Symeon Brown, Lynda Smith, Ayo Akinwolere, Reya El-Salahi, Warren Haughton, Anne Alexander, Ria Chatterjee, Natalie Morris, Seren Jones, Hila May, Sejal Karia, Jasmine Dotiwala, Toyin Amusan, Colin Salmon, Angela Saini

Contributors

Afua Hirsch, Lenny Henry, Adrian Lester, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and others

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