During a July broadcast of BBC Breakfast, host Naga Munchetty took issue with a now-infamous Trump tweet, in which he called on congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib to “go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Following a discussion of the president’s remark, Munchetty said: “Every time I have been told, as a woman of color, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism.”
Asked by co-host Dan Walker how it made her feel, she added: “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.” You can watch the exchange here.
The BBC is bound by strict broadcasting impartiality rules in the UK, meaning presenters are not allowed to take positions on topical issues like in the U.S., where Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity are known for their partisan rants on air.
As a result, the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit ruled that Munchetty’s comments “fell short of due impartiality” because she responded “critically on the possible motive for, and potential consequences of, the president’s words.”
But the conclusion has been widely condemned by politicians (Britain’s home secretary Sajid Javid tweeted that it was “ridiculous”), BBC staff, and prominent figures from diverse backgrounds who work in the UK’s television industry. Some 40 black, Asian and minority ethnic broadcasters and journalists wrote to the BBC on Friday asking it to reverse its ruling.
Published in The Guardian, the letter said: “We, the undersigned group of black people 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 letter, signed by figures including BAFTA-winning Broadchurch star Lenny Henry, added: “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.”
The BBC has, however, shown little intention of backing down. David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards for more than a decade, effectively said on Friday that a presenter can describe a tweet as racist but not a president.
“The issue here is when Naga went on further to discuss Trump himself and his motivations,” he told the corporation’s Radio 4 Today show, adding: “I think it’s probably unwise for the BBC to get ourselves in a position where we’re calling out people for being liars or racist.”