The BBC on Monday backtracked on its decision to censure one of its anchors for breaching its editorial guidelines on impartiality after she made comments that were critical of US President Donald Trump.
BBC Breakfast anchor Naga Munchetty was discussing Trump’s remark that four female American lawmakers should return to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Her co-anchor, Dan Walker, asked Munchetty for her opinion on the comments on the July 17 program, and she responded: “Every time I have been told, as a woman of color, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism… I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.”
Questioned further by Walker, she said she was “absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that.”
The BBC found that Munchetty had gone too far.
“She understandably feels strongly on this issue, and there was nothing wrong with her talking about her own experiences of racism,” the BBC said in a statement. “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 — in this case President Trump — and it was for this reason that the complaint was partially upheld. Those judgments are for the audience to make.”
Munchetty did not face any punitive action.
BBC director general Tony Hall on Monday emailed all of the broadcaster’s staff to say that, upon review, he had determined that the company’s complaints unit had erred by sanctioning Munchetty.
“I don’t think Naga’s words were sufficient to merit a partial uphold of the complaint around the comments she made. There was never any sanction against Naga and I hope this step makes that absolutely clear. She is an exceptional journalist and presenter and I am proud that she works for the BBC,” Hall wrote, according to the Guardian newspaper. He did not apologize to Munchetty, however.
The move came after the Guardian published a leaked report that cast doubt on the company’s claims that Walker had not been similarly censured because he was not singled out in an initial viewer complaint about the discussion.
The leaked complaint from a member of the public however showed that it had targeted both Walker and Munchetty, and blamed Walker for leading the discussion.
The revelation angered BBC employees, stoking concerns about how the broadcaster treats minority and female journalists.
There had been widespread disquiet about the decision to sanction Munchetty on social media. That sentiment was plainly put in a letter to the Guardian on Friday, in which some 40 locally prominent celebrities offered support to the presenter.
“Racism is not a valid opinion on which an ‘impartial’ stance can or should be maintained,” the signatories said in the letter. “For communities and individuals who experience racist abuse — including Munchetty — 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.”
It added that to “suggest a journalist can ‘talk about her own experiences of racism’ while withholding a critique on the author of racism (in this case President Trump) has the ludicrous implication that such racism may be legitimate and should be contemplated as such.”
The BBC was later forced to clarify that “Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism.”