‘Go back to where you come from.” It’s a standard racist taunt, one that I’ve heard since my first day in Britain. When Donald Trump used the phrase against four Democratic congresswomen in July, few could doubt his implication that they did not belong in America.
So when the BBC presenter Naga Munchetty discussed the issue with co-host Dan Walker on breakfast TV, her condemnation of the tweets as racist, and her anger at the racism she has faced, seemed both honest and stating the obvious.
Not to the BBC. Last week, its complaints unit generated a storm by ruling that while it was “legitimate” for Munchetty to have “reflected her own experience of racism”, it was wrong “to comment critically” on the president’s “motive” or the “consequences” of his words. David Jordan, the corporation’s director of editorial policy and standards, subsequently clarified that it was fine for Munchetty to have called the tweet racist, but not Trump.
There are three problems with this. First, Munchetty did not call Trump racist. She said she was “furious” that he “thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that”. Second, other BBC journalists have called the president racist. Its New York correspondent, Nick Bryant, for instance, tweeted about Trump’s “racial demagoguery”. And, third, the BBC’s distinction is specious. If I can offer an opinion on the racial nature of a tweet, why not on the person tweeting?
There are indeed real issues about reporters blurring the line between reportage and personal viewpoint. Munchetty, however, was not reporting on the topic but expressing her opinion. Ruling her comments inappropriate not only reins in the calling out of racism but makes it more difficult to draw the line between news and opinion.
• Kenan Mailk is an Observer columnist