Minority staff and presenters at the BBC have been told by the corporation not to join in any form of protest supporting presenter Naga Munchetty, according to the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Trevor Phillips claims the BBC has instructed staff to not sign any petition or letter supporting the BBC Breakfast presenter, a move he says could lead to claims of harassment.
His comments come after stars including comedian Sir Lenny Henry complained to the BBC, in a letter published in the Guardian, over its rebuking of Naga for saying US president Donald Trump’s call for a group of female Democrats to go back to their own countries was “embedded in racism.”
A petition calling on the BBC to reverse its judgement on Ms Munchetty has attracted more than 7,000 signatures.
“BBC minority staff are being told not to sign the letter or any petition and to stay clear of this one,” Mr Phillips told The Sunday Times.
He added such warnings would breach the 2010 Equality Act, meaning staff could have a claim for harassment.
“The first thing the director-general has to do is tell managers to back off,” he told the paper.
A letter to the corporation, signed by Sir Lenny, Gina Yashere, Adrian Lester and dozens of other high profile BAME stars, told the BBC its position in rebuking Ms Munchetty was “deeply flawed” and “illegal”.
It also said certain signatories to the letter had been contacted separately by a number of BBC journalists to “express their concern at a climate of fear” at the organisation.
In a statement, a BBC spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “The BBC is fully committed to complying with the Equality Act, and we’re not aware of any failure to do so.
“We know there has been a lot of debate on the issues raised last week, but the statement from the executive team on Friday is clear, the BBC is not impartial on racism. Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism. Naga has the very clear support of the top of the organisation.”
In upholding a complaint against Naga, the BBC ruled she had crossed a line when in a July breakfast broadcast she commented on the statements directed by Mr Trump towards politicians Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
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,” adding: “I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.”
Questioned further by her co-host, she said she was “absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that”.
In upholding the complaint the BBC said: “Overall her comments went beyond what the guidelines allow for.”
Subsequently, the BBC’s Executive Committee was moved to send a message to employees clarifying its stance on the case and on racism – saying Naga was justified in saying that telling someone to go back home was racist.
“The BBC is not impartial on racism,” he wrote. “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.”
Many figures from the world of broadcasting and politics have spoken out on the decision – and broadcasting watchdog Ofcom will also assess what was said against its own broadcasting rules.
A BBC spokeswoman said: “The BBC is fully committed to complying with the Equality Act, and we’re not aware of any failure to do so.
“We know there has been a lot of debate on the issues raised last week, but the statement from the executive team on Friday is clear, the BBC is not impartial on racism.
“Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism.
“Naga has the very clear support of the top of the organisation.”