Naga Munchetty: BBC not impartial on racism, senior bosses say

Image caption,

Naga Munchetty has been a presenter on BBC Breakfast for the last 10 years

The BBC has said it is not impartial on racism, after a backlash over its decision to uphold a complaint against Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty.

In an email to staff, director general Tony Hall and other bosses said: "Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism."

It said the part of the complaint about her comments on racism was rejected.

Earlier, dozens of black actors and broadcasters called on the BBC to overturn its decision.

On Wednesday, presenter Munchetty was found by the BBC's Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) to have breached the corporation's guidelines by criticising US President Donald Trump's motives after he said four female politicians should "go back" to "places from which they came".

The corporation said its editorial guidelines "do not allow for journalists to... give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so - in this case President Trump".

She was not found in breach for "calling out racist comments, which is perfectly acceptable where things are clearly framed in racist language", the BBC's head of editorial standards has said.

Munchetty is not facing any disciplinary action or reprimand.

She received messages of support from both inside and outside the BBC following the ECU's ruling.

'We admire her for it'

The email from the BBC's Executive Committee - which includes director general Lord Hall and director of news and current affairs Fran Unsworth - tells all staff: "You will have heard a lot of comment over the past few days about the BBC and the reporting of racism.

"The BBC is not impartial on racism. Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism.

"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 very limited finding was not about Naga's comments on racism. That part of the complaint was rejected."

The email added: "Diversity matters hugely. The success of the BBC is built on the quality and diversity of our people. That is not negotiable."

Video caption,

Writer Afua Hirsch: "The ruling legitimises racist opinion."

Earlier, an open letter was published from 44 stars including Sir Lenny Henry and Gina Yashere, demanding the broadcaster "revisits and takes seriously overturning its decision".

They called for BBC management to "issue their support for journalists and acknowledge there can be no expectation of 'impartiality' over expressions and experiences of racism".

The writer Afua Hirsch, who helped organise the letter, said she was "shocked and horrified" by the BBC's ruling.

She added: "It's ludicrous to say it's fine for a presenter to express her own experience of racism but she shouldn't cast judgment on the person being racist."

Meanwhile, on Twitter the hashtag #IStandWithNaga was one of the top trends on the UK site on Friday, with Chancellor Sajid Javid and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn criticising the BBC's decision.

What did Naga Munchetty say in the first place?

Video caption,

This exchange, broadcast on 17 July, sparked the complaint

Munchetty and BBC Breakfast co-presenter Dan Walker had the exchange after an interview with a supporter of Mr Trump on 17 July.

Walker: It's the president. That was the most telling quote for me last night. I can't remember who said it, but she said, 'I've been told to go home many times to go back to where I've come from many times in my life, but never by the man sitting in the Oval Office'.

Munchetty: Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism. Now I'm not accusing anyone of anything here but you know what certain phrases mean.

Walker: Do you hear that quite regularly?

Munchetty: Yes. Not regularly, but I've been told it.

Walker: You're sitting here not giving an opinion, but how do you feel as someone when you've been told that before, and when you hear that from him?

Munchetty: Furious. Absolutely furious. And I imagine a lot of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious that a man in that position feels it's OK to skirt the lines with using language like that.

Walker: Do you feel his use of that then legitimises other people to use this…

Munchetty: Yes. Yes.

Walker: As our guest was saying there, it feels like a thought-out strategy to strengthen his position.

Munchetty: And it is not enough to do it just to get attention. He's in a responsible position. Anyway I'm not here to give my opinion.

Speaking on BBC Newswatch, the BBC's head of editorial standards, David Jordan, said that Munchetty's co-presenter, Dan Walker, did not help the situation by leading the conversation into the sphere of opinion.

"Dan Walker's contribution was not, as it were, helpful in the context. It could be said that Dan Walker kind of led Naga Munchetty to the conclusion that she eventually made," he said.

The BBC did not take action against Walker because he was not the subject of any complaints.

"I'm afraid the Executive Complaints Unit deals with the complaints it gets, so some people say why isn't Dan Walker being singled out in the same way.

"The simple fact is we haven't had a complaint."