Growing backlash against BBC in Naga Munchetty race row

Corporation faces staff revolt over response to presenter’s Donald Trump remarks

The BBC is facing a growing crisis over its decision to censure the presenter Naga Munchetty over comments she made about Donald Trump, amid a furious backlash inside and outside the corporation.

The BBC Breakfast presenter was found to have breached her employer’s editorial guidelines when she told viewers she felt “absolutely furious” about the US president’s language, shortly after he told four Democratic congresswomen of colour, all US citizens, to “go home”.

The corporation’s executive complaints unit partially upheld a single complaint from a member of the public, leading to a staff revolt and growing anger at how the BBC balances its duty to staff and audiences when it comes to issues of race.

As the row developed:

  • Dozens of prominent black British media figures – including Sir Lenny Henry and Adrian Lester – wrote to the Guardian to protest against the decision and call for increased representation for BAME individuals in the BBC’s complaints process.

  • Serving BBC journalists defied warnings from their bosses to stay quiet on the issue and publicly expressed their support for Munchetty.

  • More than 40 Labour MPs wrote to the BBC director general, Tony Hall, in protest, with the backing of party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

  • The media regulator, Ofcom, took the unusual step of launching its own parallel assessment.

BBC employees are circulating petitions demanding the decision is reconsidered, with one journalist saying it had galvanised staff in a way that few issues have before. “People are dismayed by the decision and I don’t think the upper level [of management] saw it coming. I saw people who are usually quite shy of engaging in any kind of dissent rallying for signatures.”

Embrace, the BBC black and minority ethnic staff network, which has 500 members, said it had written to BBC bosses to “convey the strength of feeling of both black and minority ethnic staff and non black and minority ethnic staff” about the decision. “This action will destroy trust and damage the reputation of the BBC, and needs to be reversed. We await an urgent response,” it said.

In the letter to Hall, organised by Labour’s Seema Malhotra, the MPs called for an urgent meeting with the director genera. They said: “It is of particular concern that this decision has been reached when we are facing a rise in hate crime.”

The BBC’s editorial standards director, David Jordan, attempted to defuse the situation on Friday, telling Radio 4’s Today programme that people may have “wilfully” misunderstood the nature of the ruling against Munchetty.

He said there was no doubt that Trump’s original comments were racist, agreed that it was entirely within Munchetty’s right to describe those comments as racist on air, and said the presenter was allowed to provide analysis to viewers about how a person of colour felt when they were told to “go home”.

However, Jordan insisted she had breached editorial guidelines because she appeared to make a judgment on Trump’s personality, saying it is not the BBC’s job to be “calling out people for being liars or racist”.

He added: “In the politics of the present, when we are in a politics of name-calling and insult, I think it’s probably unwise of the BBC to be calling out people for being liars or racist. What is really important is that we look at the things people say, we analyse them, we describe them objectively.”

Late on Friday afternoon in an email to all BBC staff, Hall and the BBC executive committee said: “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 email ended by saying that diversity was “not negotiable”.

One prominent black on-screen presenter said there was “bafflement” that Munchetty had been admonished when the likes of recently departed Today programme presenter John Humphrys were often perceived to have expressed personal opinions.

They said the incident had led to discussions among some BAME journalists that they are used as “window dressing” by the corporation’s news bosses, despite the BBC having one of the most diverse workforces in British media.

In a letter published in the Guardian, the actors Lenny Henry, Adrian Lester and David Harewood, and presenters Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Gillian Joseph, are among signatories describing the decision as “racially discriminatory treatment”.

The letter’s signatories, who also include the broadcaster and writer Afua Hirsch and the science journalist Angela Saini, say that BBC journalists have contacted them privately to express concern about the “climate of fear” at the organisation and concerns over the consequences of their speaking out in support of the statement.

Among those who have also backed the presenter is the chancellor, Sajid Javid, who called the decision “ridiculous” and added that Munchetty’s reaction was “perfectly understandable”.

Senior BBC news staff have raised concerns about the decision at the daily editorial management meetings.

“People pointed out that Dan Walker encouraged that discussion,” said one insider, who said there were real concerns among staff about how complaints system is not capable of dealing with members of the public acting in bad faith. “If Tommy Robinson is reading all of this he can just start complaining about BBC presenters day-in-day-out until one of the complaints lands.”

There have been particular concerns within parts of the BBC that have large numbers of journalists of colour, such as BBC World and Asian Network, where managers say they have struggled to explain the nuance of the corporation’s own decision to confused staff.

BBC sources suggested the corporation is now backed into a corner, with no easy way to undo the ruling given the quasi-independence of the complaints unit, leaving management essentially unable to defuse the situation. The ruling did not come out of the blue but followed discussions with programme chiefs at BBC Breakfast, which has been in the process of transferring to a new editor this summer.

In an unusual move, Ofcom has agreed to assess Munchetty’s exchange against its own broadcasting code after a request from the Labour MP Chi Onwurah. Its team are already reviewing the footage and a verdict on whether to launch an investigation is expected next week.

This would potentially undermine the BBC’s own complaints process and heighten calls for the corporation’s complaints procedures to be entirely outsourced to Ofcom, which has responsibility for enforcing standards in the rest of the broadcast media. At the moment the BBC has a special opt-out for early-stage complaints.

Munchetty has so far declined to comment on the row, which has focused attention on the editorial complaints unit, the seven-strong arbiter of BBC values that is dominated by older, white men.

Many BBC journalists of colour have called for increased clarity on who works for the unit and greater diversity in the complaints process.

The official finding of the complaints unit found that Munchetty was wrong to comment critically on the possible motive for, and potential consequences of, the president’s words: “Judgments of that kind are for the audience to make, and the exchange fell short of due impartiality in that respect.”

At no point did Munchetty directly accuse Trump of being a racist in the brief exchange, which took place in response to questions on her personal feelings from her co-host, Walker.

The Labour MP Clive Lewis has also filed an early day motion to allow members of parliament to object: “You can’t be ‘impartial’ on racism. There are certain values in democratic society which transcend impartiality, and we’re entitled to call them out.”

Lewis added: “It also goes to show that the level of BME representation at the BBC is only skin deep. It doesn’t feel to me that there are enough people of colour in positions of editorial influence.”


Jim Waterson, Caroline Davies and Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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