The Director-General of the BBC, Lord Hall, has personally stepped in to reverse a decision to uphold a complaint against BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty over her criticism of comments made by Donald Trump.
Munchetty had been found to have breached the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, which prohibit journalists from giving opinions about an individual or their motives, but an outcry over the decision led to Hall becoming involved.
The episode began with inflammatory tweets by Trump referring to Democrat politicians Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he wrote on Twitter on 14 July.
During a discussion about Trump’s language with co-presenter Dan Walker on BBC Breakfast three days later, Munchetty said: “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 said that “it feels like a thought-out strategy to strengthen his position” to which Munchetty replied “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.”
A viewer complaint was received in relation to both presenters, but then only focused on Munchetty at the final stage of the complaints process.
The complaint was partially upheld by the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit, which found that the 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”.
A groundswell of support for Munchetty included an intervention from 44 British broadcasters and journalists of colour, who asked the BBC to revisit the ruling in an open letter published in the Guardian.
Writer Afua Hirsch, who helped organise the letter, said: “The ruling legitimises racist opinion.”
The BBC’s Executive Committee published a letter of its own on the same day in which it defended its position. But within a few days, Hall executed a U-turn, writing in an e-mail to staff that “It was only ever in a limited way that there was found to be a breach of our guidelines. These are often finely balanced and difficult judgements.
“But, in this instance, I don’t think Naga’s words were sufficient to merit a partial uphold of the complaint around the comments she made.”
The furore highlights the difficulty for the BBC, and the media generally, in maintaining impartiality in an increasingly febrile and partisan media landscape, in which younger viewers have come to expect a less detached approach from journalists.