The BBC has got itself into “deep, deep trouble” after publicly reprimanding one of its top presenters for expressing her views about a Donald Trump tweet that was widely decried as racist.
That’s the view of Marcus Ryder, a prominent campaigner for diversity in British broadcasting, who rallied against the BBC’s decision to censure Naga Munchetty, a host of BBC One’s flagship Breakfast show. He helped organize an open letter from high-profile figures including actors Lenny Henry and Adrian Lester slamming the ruling.
Munchetty, who has Indian and Mauritian heritage, was told last week she broke BBC policies on impartiality when she said on air in July that she was “furious” with Trump for tweeting that Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
The ruling prompted uproar, with BBC staff, politicians, and members of the British TV industry’s black, Asian and minority ethnic community hammering the corporation. It dominated the pages of British newspapers for days and senior BBC executives were sent out to defend the decision on TV and radio.
But such was the intensity of the outcry, that BBC director general Tony Hall dramatically intervened to overturn the ruling against Munchetty on Monday. Munchetty returned to Breakfast on Thursday morning, the first time she has appeared on the show since the debacle kicked off last week.
Now, with the dust settling on the crisis, Ryder thinks the BBC has some serious questions to answer about the way the Munchetty decision was handled – and what it says about the corporation’s approach to diversity.
For a start, Ryder is agitated that BBC has declined to reveal if its Executive Complaints Unit – which was responsible for the ruling against Munchetty – is staffed by anyone from a diverse background.
Deadline understands that it is a seven-strong team, including two women. It is run by editorial policy director David Jordan, a privately-educated white man in his 60s. Ryder thinks the unit does not reflect the diverse cultural views of British people.
He has also questioned why the BBC’s Executive Committee, made up of the broadcaster’s most senior executives, doubled down on the original ruling in an all-staff email last week, only to be overruled three days later by director general Hall, who chairs the same committee.
Ryder explained: “We’ve got an Executive Committee whose decision is being overridden by the director general, without any consequences for the Executive Committee. That’s not a functional organization. We have an Executive Complaints Unit that the BBC is not confident [enough] to release the diversity of. That’s not a confident organization. Both those things point to an organization which is in deep, deep trouble.”
Ryder said the BBC should do a number of things to put right the Munchetty debacle. These include:
- Make sure there are “public consequences” for members of the Executive Committee, such as editorial policy chief Jordan, who have demonstrated “serious flaws in judgement.”
- He wants the BBC to publish diversity figures for teams tasked with making big decisions about the corporation’s content, such as the Executive Complains Unit.
- He said the BBC must hire a director of diversity with “real power,” who sits on the Executive Committee. The BBC is yet to replace head of diversity Tunde Ogungbesan, who left in March.
Over the course of the past few days, the BBC has been consistent on one thing: that racism can and should be called out by its top presenters. “Racism is racism and the BBC is not impartial on the topic,” Hall said in an email to staff on Monday.
A timeline of the BBC’s Naga Munchetty crisis:
14 July: US President Donald Trump tweets that Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
17 July: Naga Munchetty, a presenter on BBC One’s flagship morning show Breakfast, calls out the tweet as “racism” on air. Asked by co-host Dan Walker how she felt reading the tweet, she said: “Absolutely furious and I can imagine lots of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that.”
26 September: After one viewer complained about Munchetty’s remarks, the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit reprimands the presenter. Her comments “fell short of due impartiality,” it said, because she responded “critically on the possible motive for, and potential consequences of, the president’s words.”
27 September: Amid backlash against the Executive Complaints Unit decision, the BBC doubles down. David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards, goes on BBC shows Today and Newswatch to defend the ruling.
Outrage builds, and the same day more than 40 black, Asian and minority ethnic broadcasters and journalists write to the BBC on Friday asking it to reverse the Executive Complaints Unit ruling, saying it is a “form of racially discriminatory treatment.” Even Trump’s friend and Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan calls the decision “bloody ridiculous.”
But the BBC holds its line. In an email to staff, signed by the Executive Committee, made up of the BBC’s most senior executives, they say it was a “very limited finding.”
30 September: The Guardian reports that the original viewer complaint was about both Munchetty and her co-host Walker, raising questions about why the BBC singled out Munchetty.
The Guardian report also appeared to contradict what Jordan told Newswatch days earlier, when he said “we haven’t had a complaint about Dan Walker’s role.” The BBC says there were three iterations of the viewer complaint, the last of which centered on Munchetty and formed the basis of the Executive Complaints Unit investigation.
Hours after the Guardian report, the BBC performs a spectacular U-turn. BBC director general Tony Hall steps in to reverse the decision against Munchetty, overruling both his Executive Committee and the Executive Complaints Unit.
“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,” Hall says in an email to staff.
3 October: Munchetty returns to work hosting BBC Breakfast. She does not mention the controversy.