BBC Claims ‘Misunderstanding’ Over Naga Munchetty Trump Comments Ruling

Top director says issue was not with presenter calling out Trump but her implications about the president’s motive.

A BBC executive responsible for editorial policy and standards has clarified the corporation’s decision to rebuke Naga Munchetty over her comments about Donald Trump’s use of racist language.

Earlier this year, Naga made headlines when - during a live broadcast of BBC Breakfast – she referred to tweets Trump had posted, in which he suggested four Democratic politicians should “go back” to their home countries.

Saying she was “absolutely furious” to hear the US leader making such comments, she told co-presenter Dan Walker: “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.”

Naga Munchetty
Naga Munchetty
SIPA USA/PA Images

On Wednesday, the BBC confirmed that a complaint made about the incident was being upheld, and that Naga breached their guidelines around impartiality with her remarks, which sparked a backlash.

Appearing on Friday’s episode of Radio 4’s Today programme, the BBC’s Director of Editorial Policy and Standards, David Jordan, explained this decision was not because of Naga calling out Trump’s language, but because of the implication that he himself was a racist.

Suggesting there had been “a lot of misunderstanding” about the ruling, he told Nick Robinson: “The Executive Complaints Unit did not suggest that Naga Munchetty was wrong to describe that term as racist. It’s clearly racist.

“Telling people to go back to where they came from, whether they’re an ethnic minority or an immigrant community, in my experience, it’s always been a racist comment, and Naga was absolutely right to say what she said about that comment being clearly racist.

“The issue on which the finding was made was not her responding to that clearly racist comment, or responding personally as to what it’s like as a person of colour to have that comment directed against yourself. All of us, I’m sure, can understand how it would feel if we were told that by somebody when we come from an ethnic minority or an immigrant community.

“The issue is about when she went on further to discuss President Trump himself, what his motivations were for that, and that breached our impartiality requirements, because it says very clearly in our guidelines that our audiences should not be able to tell from the BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political industrial controversy.

“So the line is not about calling out racist comments, which is perfectly acceptable when dealing with clearly racist language, it’s about how you go on to discuss the person who made them and make assumptions or remarks about that. And I’m afraid she was led down that by path, unfortunately, by her co-presenter [Dan Walker].”

Jordan went on to say the line between calling Trump’s comments racist versus calling the man himself a racist was a “fine” but “important” one, stating: “I think in the present we are into the politics of name-calling and of insults, I think it’s probably unwise for the BBC to get ourselves into a position where we’re calling out people for being liars or being racists.

“What is really important is that we look at the things that people say, that we analyse them, that we describe them, objectively, and we call them out for what they are as analytically as possible.”

Responding to the backlash surrounding the ECU’s decision, Jordan suggested there had been some “perhaps willful misinterpretation”, concluding: “If racist language is used by anyone, whether it’s Trump or anyone else, and it’s clearly racist language, it should be described as this.

“To be honest, I think [people] need to understand the judgement on what it did say and it didn’t say, and it emphatically didn’t say that Naga Munchetty was wrong to respond to what is clearly a racist form of language, and also to the effect it will have on people like her, people of colour in the UK.”

He also clarified there had been a “large number of complaints” made to the BBC after the conversation, but only one reached their Executive Complaints Unit.

Later in the day, an email was sent to BBC employees clarifying the corporation’s stance on racism, co-signed by director general Tony Hall.

The email reads: “You will have heard a lot of comment over the past few days about the BBC and the reporting of racism.

“The BBC is not impartial on racism. Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism.

“Naga Munchetty – one of our stars – was completely within her rights to speak about the tweets of Donald Trump which have been widely condemned as racist. We completely back her in saying “as a woman of colour, to go back where I came from, that was embedded in racism”. She was speaking honestly and from the heart about her own experiences. We admire her for it and she was completely justified in doing so.

“The very limited finding was not about Naga’s comments on racism. That part of the complaint was rejected.

“Diversity matters hugely. The success of the BBC is built on the quality and diversity of our people. That is not negotiable.”

Naga herself has remained silent on the issue thus far, but a number of her BBC colleagues have voiced their support for her, including Radio DJs Trevor Nelson and Greg James.

The Trump tweets in question had been written about US politicians Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. All four are US citizens, and three of them were born in America.