The Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis says the BBC is in danger of looking “massively out of touch with the real world” as a result of its critical verdict on Naga Munchetty’s comments about Donald Trump.
Speaking on Saturday in support of Munchetty, who presents BBC Breakfast, Maitlis said the corporation’s executive complaints unit (ECU) was wrong to censure any member of staff who publicly called out racism.
In July, Munchetty suggested on air that Trump’s tweets attacking four US Congresswomen of colour and urging them to “go home” were likely to be “embedded in racism”, according to her own experience. When pressed by her co-presenter she added that the US president’s remarks made her “furious”.
Last week, Munchetty was judged to have broken the public broadcaster’s editorial guidelines on impartiality.
Maitlis told an audience at Cliveden literary festival in Taplow, Berkshire, that the BBC had set “a semantic and linguistic conundrum” for itself by ruling that, while Munchetty was within her rights to describe Trump’s tweets as typical examples of racism, she had been wrong to imply the person who wrote them was racist.
“She [Munchetty] was very careful in her language. She said she herself had been told to go home. From what I understand, the BBC ruling said it was fine to call out racism, but not to call Trump a racist,” said Maitlis.
“Now, I’ve tried to practise that in the comfort of my own home. I think it’s complicated. The point is that the BBC, the complaints body, is trying to work its way through a semantic and linguistic conundrum, that they end up looking as if they have their heads down in this Dickensian ledger of for and against, or good and bad.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “The statement from the executive team is clear, the BBC is not impartial on racism. Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism.”
Maitlis’s criticism comes after high-profile writers and journalists wrote to the Guardian urging the BBC to reconsider. The ECU’s findings have also now been referred to Ofcom, the national media regulator.
This weekend the novelist Philip Pullman and the former children’s television presenter Floella Benjamin joined the angry response to the BBC’s decision on Munchetty.
Pullman, 72, tweeted: “The BBC is being timorous in the Naga Munchetty case. She’s right and they are wrong.”
Benjamin, 70, who was one of the first black women to appear regularly on British television in the 1970s and 1980s, said she was dismayed by the ECU’s decision.
Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, attempted to clarify the situation on Friday in an email to staff. He said the corporation “was not impartial on racism” and that he and his fellow executives admired Munchetty for speaking out.
Maitlis said this highlighted the confusion. “My worry is that the complaints body looks as if it’s massively out of touch with the real world,” she said.
“You have a woman of colour in a prominent position in a main news outlet, who is a presence, but not allowed to be a voice. That’s a difficult place for a complaints body to be. It shouldn’t be my colleagues and people of colour who are having to come out and say this, it should be anyone and all of us.”
Earlier this month the ECU upheld a complaint about Maitlis “sneering and bullying” during a Newsnight discussion with the newspaper columnist Rod Liddle.