Prominent black and ethnic minority figures have signed an open letter demanding that the BBC reconsider its decision to uphold a complaint against presenter Naga Munchetty.
Actors Lenny Henry and Adrian Lester, and broadcaster-journalists Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Afua Hirsch, are among the 44 signatories of the letter, published the same day as a senior BBC figure defended the Corporation’s stance on the issue.
On 17 July this year, BBC Breakfast host Dan Walker, on-air, referred to people of colour being told to “go home” in the context of President Donald Trump’s comments about a group of women in the House of Representatives. Munchetty, responding to Walker’s invitation to share her experiences, said she also had once been told to “go back where I came from”. She said such a remark was “embedded in racism” and that people understood what it meant.
Walker asked her how she felt about Trump’s remarks to which she said she was “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.”
Attitudes to racism
On Wednesday this week, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit found Munchetty had breached the corporations’ guidelines by making these remarks. It explained yesterday that “[Munchetty] understandably feels strongly on this issue, and there was nothing wrong with her talking about her own experiences of racism. However, our editorial guidelines do not allow for journalists to then give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so … and it was for this reason that the complaint was partially upheld. Those judgments are for the audience to make.”
The BBC had received several complaints from the public over the incident but only one person chose to dispute the initial response and elevate the case to the highest level arbiter of BBC standards: the Executive Complaints Unit.
There were no complaints from the public about Walker’s comments, which was why his observations were not examined.
David Jordan, BBC director of editorial policy, today defended the verdict on Radio 4 saying “The line is not about calling out racist comments – which is perfectly acceptable when things are clearly framed in racist language – it’s about how you go on to discuss the person who made the comments and make assumptions or remarks about that.”
He said that in the current atmosphere it was unwise for the BBC to call out people for being liars or racists and that the audience should not be able to discern the personal opinions of presenters on matters of controversy.
The signatories to today’s open letter wrote that they condemned the finding which constituted a form of racially discriminatory treatment towards black people.
There were several grounds, they said, for disputing the BBC’s judgment. Firstly, “racism is not a valid opinion on which an ‘impartial’ stance can or should be maintained.” They argued that for Munchetty and all people who experienced racial abuse “being expected to treat racist ideas as potentially valid has devastating and maybe illegal consequences for our dignity and ability to work in a professional environment, as well as being contrary to race equality and human rights legislation.”
This sort of thing happens in organisations on a daily basis and is the reason why people are afraid to complain about the discrimination they experience” – Binna Kandola
Any suggestion that journalists could discuss their own experiences of racism while withholding a critique on the author of racism (here, Donald Trump) carried the “ludicrous” implication, the signatories argued, that such racism was legitimate.
The letter demanded that the BBC’s complaints unit must revisit the decision and address its own levels of diversity and transparency. It concluded that to demand journalists to endorse racism as a legitimate opinion was deeply irresponsible.
For Professor Binna Kandola, senior partner at Pearn Kandola and author of Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference, the case is indicative of the pernicious rise of modern racism, a form of prejudice that HR and all senior staff at organisations need to be aware of. He said: “Overt racist activities in modern society are greeted with widespread disapproval and there is comfort to be found in the belief that we, collectively, are now more enlightened; more inclusive.
“The truth, however, is that racism still very much exists. It has evolved into what psychologists refer to as modern racism, which is more subtle and nuanced than the typical representations of racism. Modern racists, furthermore, do not necessarily express nor endorse racial stereotypes.
“However, modern racists also believe that racism is a thing of the past. This notion that racism no longer exists may help to explain the uproar that Naga Munchetty’s comments caused. She is, to modern racists, complaining about something that is ‘no longer an issue’ and, as a result, she must be out to cause trouble. It is a very neat and clever inversion which then makes her the problem rather than the racism itself.
“This sort of thing happens in organisations on a daily basis and is the reason why people are afraid to complain about the discrimination they experience.”
Kandola added: “The criticism that Naga Munchetty has received is a clear sign that we are not prepared to look these facts in the face.”