In a segment, broadcast on 17th July, the BBC news anchor Naga Munchetty passed comment on Trump telling four women of colour to ‘go back’ to ‘places from which they came’ on Twitter. On reading the story, she drew on her own experience, commenting, “Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism.” She further added, “Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean…[I am] furious, absolutely furious, and I can imagine that lots of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious that a man in that position feels it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that.” Trump was referring to four congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, all of whom are American citizens and three of which were born and grew up in the United States.
News anchors tend to be the channel between headlines and the public. With such wide reach comes a duty to deliver information with care. To appear too emotive or opinionated has the ability to impact many individual ways of understanding stories. In this case, some believed Ms Munchetty to be non-objective, suggesting that she hadn’t remained impartial in implying that Trump was racist. The phrase ‘go back to where you came from’ is associated with the stereotypical White American racist who is uncomfortable with increased diversity in their local proximity. The comment is inherently racist, suggesting that those of a minority don’t belong and are not welcome. Its origins are entrenched in American history as waves of immigrants came to the country, with the phrase stemming from that coined by the Ku Klux Klan, ‘Go back to your country’. Some might argue that Trump did not mean it in that way. However, it is a palimpsest: a text that has been erased or overwritten but with levels to its meaning.
My friends and I dwelled on the irony that an exceptional journalist was being held to a higher standard than the President of the United States, who has a staggering 65.6 million twitter followers as opposed to Ms Munchetty’s still respectable 157,000. His comments would allow those who are racist to justify their beliefs and allow these kinds of remarks and beliefs to become part of the acceptable mainstream. A figurehead like Trump has identified as a non-racist, passed these comments and therefore they might believe that they have the right to also. By comparison, we can question why Trump has not been more thoroughly investigated. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in America explicitly cites that comments like ‘go back to where you came from’ are examples of ‘potentially unlawful conduct’. A person who said it in the workplace could be fired for such language.
The organisations Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) had ruled that Munchetty’s comments breached editorial guidelines but has since overturned its original decision to uphold the complaint. Lord Hall, director general at the BBC, has “personally reviewed” the complaint and has said that “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 Guardian also reported that co-host Dan Walker was mentioned in the initial complaint but the BBC argued that the focus was on “Ms Munchetty’s comments rather than Mr Walker’s, which is why this was the focus of the ECU investigation”.
The BBCs own editorial guidelines state that “audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.” Undoubtedly then, when faced with questions over their impartiality, it is understandable that they would have investigated further. Yet, as put by Lord Hall, “Racism is not an opinion and it is not a matter for debate. Racism is racism.” Fundamentally, Ms Munchetty was reflecting and drawing from personal experience. In this, she used her position to highlight an important issue in how statements can be interpreted. Quite rightfully, Ms Munchetty has been restored in her position and thankfully, we can once again expect to wake up and watch her in the morning.