by Kat Smith
After Donald Trump told female congresswomen to “go back” to the countries they “came from” on the 14 July, BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty expressed her discontentment at the US president’s comments. In discussion with her co-host Dan Walker, she stated that as a woman of colour, any comments telling her to “go home” or “go back” were always “embedded in racism”. The BBC declared on the 25th of September that Naga Munchetty had breached the company’s editorial guidelines by making the comment. The media coverage surrounding the case has been vast to say the least, with uproar at the BBC’s decision to condemn Munchetty’s comments spreading across the internet. On 30 September Director-General of the BBC, Lord Hall, “personally” reviewed the case and reversed the decision.
I have little to add to the debate over whether Munchetty’s comments were viable or not; I am entirely on her side and strongly believe racism is something we cannot be impartial about. I am relieved, along with the majority of the British population, that the decision has been reversed. But though this case may have enjoyed a relatively happy ending, I worry about the implications on us as journalists.
While the news should certainly be impartial, there are instances whereby journalists should speak up when things are objectively bad. This is definitely one of those cases. As expressed by many, racism is not something we can be impartial about. If an LGBTQ+ BBC presenter said that the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016 was embedded in homophobia, would they be jumping to conclusions and being biased? No. In fact, it would be irresponsible to deny that it was an attack motivated by prejudice and to not accuse the shooter of homophobia. This is exactly why Owen Jones famously walked out of that Sky News interview. Are we supposed to purely report facts and never understand the undercurrents? This is a whole lot more irresponsible than acknowledging the political and social climate in which situations occur.
And a big part of being a journalist is holding power to account. If the investigative reporters leading the original exposure of Harvey Weinstein by The New York Times in 2017 refrained from acknowledging him as a predator, It would not have been an act of impartiality, but an act of weakness. While we need journalists to be dependable sources of news, we also need journalists to question those in power. I’m worried that the BBC may have now instilled an apprehension to do so. It would not have been an act of impartiality, but an act of weakness.
Fundamentally, Naga Munchetty was not expressing a distaste for Trump himself, she wasn’t expressing a political affiliation on-air and she was not expressing an opinion. She never even explicitly called him, as an individual, racist. She hedged her comments by saying “I’m not accusing anyone of anything here.” In spite of the history Trump has of bigotry and racism, she did not comment on him as an individual other than in the context of his comments. It’s worrying that no matter how much our commentary is based in fact, we have to keep our mouths shut in the context of news. This is not something I’m remotely comfortable with, but I am a Comment Editor after all.
I’m unsure where this leaves journalism. I hope that as a reputable, generally fantastic source of news, the BBC learns from this and acknowledges that with some issues, journalists can’t just stand by and watch.