Emma Hussain writes about recent events involving complaints made against BBC’s Naga Munchetty and how this reflects the problems of impartiality faced by presenters.
Impartiality is a hot topic at the BBC following the corporation’s decision to partially uphold a complaint made against Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty. Following US President Donald Trump’s 16th July Tweet that four Congresswomen of colour should “go back to the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”, BBC Breakfast ran a feature on how it feels to be treated like an outsider in your own country. After the segment, co-presenter Dan Walker invited Munchetty to share her own experiences of racism. The resulting conversation led to complaints that Munchetty had breached the BBC’s guidelines by going beyond reasonable presentations of her personal views. The ruling against Munchetty has since been overturned by BBC Director-General Tony Hall, but the incident ignited debate over how impartial presenters should be on issues of inequality.
Following the decision to partially uphold the complaint, 44 actors and broadcasters of colour signed a letter published in The Guardian which called on the BBC to overturn this ruling. The letter draws attention to the paradox of Munchetty and other broadcasters being expected to explain their lived experiences of racism without expressing a judgement on these experiences. In 1984, feminist writer bell hooks [sic] wrote about her attempts to bring Black women’s experiences to the centre of the women’s movement: “white women expected us to provide first-hand accounts of Black experience, [but] they felt it was their role to decide if these experiences were authentic.” The BBC seems to be doing much the same in their handling of the complaint against Munchetty. One of the letter’s senders, writer Afua Hirsch, told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire that the decision “sends a message that our presence on the BBC is conditional on us acting as if we do not have a stake in overtly racist comments.”
Apart from the 44 stars who penned the open letter, critics of the BBC’s decision have included politicians from Jeremy Corbyn to Sajid Javid. Many have taken issue with the way the corporation’s response appears to treat racism as a legitimate opinion, with two plausible sides to be debated. BBC guidelines state that audiences should not be able to deduce presenters’ personal views “on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.” However, exceptions are supposedly made where fundamental democratic principles are being questioned. It is interesting that in this case, Munchetty’s comments on President Trump’s overt racism – widely acknowledged as-such across the media – were not seen as defence of a fundamental freedom. The BBC would appear to be placing racism in the “controversial subject” category, rather than seeing it as an unacceptable position.
“Our presence on the BBC is conditional on us acting as if we do not have a stake in overtly racist comments.”
The BBC has been similarly criticised in the past for failing to strike an appropriate political balance on panel shows – fairly moderate left or centre-left spokespeople are often expected to debate far-right figures in the name of impartiality. Notoriously, Nigel Farage has appeared on Question Time a record 33 times, despite the fact that the parties of which he has been a member have always represented minority views.
Back in July, the way Munchetty phrased her remarks was noticeably careful – she did not directly state that Donald Trump is racist, specifically commenting that she was “not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean”. Her handling of coverage of a topic which is naturally personal to her showed sensitivity to her role as an objective journalist. Despite the fact that it was Dan Walker who invited Munchetty to discuss how she felt about Trump’s comments, he has received substantially less backlash than she has; it only became common knowledge that the complaint in question was made against both Walker and Munchetty days after the BBC announced their decision to uphold it. Here, we see how the onus constantly falls on people of colour to make themselves vulnerable by explaining their experiences of discrimination. Backlash against Munchetty highlights that there is still risk involved in calling out racism, even though it should surely be an uncontroversial thing to do.
Striking a balance between objectivity and lived experience is never a simple task for journalists. While they must separate themselves from the stories for the sake of fair reporting and integrity, no journalist is an island – they are people, affected by the issues they report on. Personal experience inevitably colours certain issues, and when the issue is as pressing as racism in the White House, the BBC’s stance on impartiality is perhaps beginning to show signs of wear.