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Opinion

Lets be honest, attacks on Naga Munchetty aren’t all about impartiality

There are clear double standards at work in both the BBC and external critiques of its presenters, writes Mic Wright.

At the end of an interview between cabinet minister Robert Jenrick and BBC Breakfast presenters Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt on Thursday,  Stayt noted the Union Flag visible behind the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government.

“I think your flag is not up to standard size, government interview measurements,” Stayt joked. “I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really. It’s just a thought.”

In the clip, Jenrick can be seen smiling at the comment, a riff on the increasing prominence of Union Flags behind ministers during press appearances. 

With the interview concluded, Naga Munchetty, added, “There’s always a flag. They had the picture of the Queen there as well though. In the Westminster office I am assuming.” Stayt noted that politicians ensuring the flag was behind them during interviews has become “a stock thing” and that the BBC Breakfast presenters “saw it everyday”.  

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Despite the BBC saying that the dialogue between the presenters was “light-hearted and not intended to offend”, the prospect of framing the pair — but especially Munchetty — as flag-disparaging, Britain-hating, metropolitan sneerers was irresistible to the right-wing press.

That Munchetty made the unwise decision to like tweets in support of Stayt’s comments (which said things like “the flag shaggers will be up in arms” and “[this] should be done every time the Tories roll out one of their talking head ministers”) only provided more ammunition. 

Munchetty’s ‘likes’ were flagged up by the right-wing rabble rousers at Guido Fawkes before making their way into stories by The Sun, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and many others. It’s a familiar pipeline for culture war controversies.

It was Stayt who triggered the gentle ribbing about the size of Jenrick’s flag, but Munchetty’s Twitter activity gave tabloids and broadsheets alike an excuse to focus their fire on her. 

There are double standards at work in both the BBC and external critiques of its presenters. Women — especially women of colour — and those on the left are subjected to far greater scrutiny than those on the right. 

It’s not the first time that Munchetty has been attacked more vigorously than her white male co-host. In September 2019, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) ruled that Munchetty had breached impartiality guidelines by criticising then-US President Donald Trump over racist comments he made.

That July, Trump had said four ethnic minority congresswomen — all US citizens —should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came…”. The segment about the comments on BBC Breakfast prompted Munchetty to say:  “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.”

The BBC was fiercely — and rightly — criticised for its decision to uphold the complaints against Munchetty. An open letter, published by The Guardian and signed by a long list of British broadcasters, actors, and journalists of colour, noted: 

“The BBC’s editorial guidelines allow for ‘professional judgment, rooted in evidence’, and require ‘cultural views in other communities’ to be taken into account. The ECU – which we believe does not reflect the diverse cultural views in the BAME communities in the UK – has failed to acknowledge the following:

  • Racism is not a valid opinion on which an ‘impartial’ stance can or should be maintained;
  • For communities and individuals who experience racist abuse – including Munchetty – being expected to treat racist ideas as potentially valid has devastating and maybe illegal consequences for our dignity and ability to work in a professional environment, as well as being contrary to race equality and human rights legislation;
  • To suggest a journalist can ‘talk about her own experiences of racism’ while withholding a critique on the author of racism (in this case President Trump) has the ludicrous implication that such racism may be legitimate and should be contemplated as such…” 

On 30 September 2020, The Guardian revealed that the original complaint had also included Walker’s comments but that the ECU had not considered his role in the segment. On the same day, then-BBC Director General, Lord Hall, reversed the ruling, saying that her words “did not merit a complaint against her”. But the damage was already done. 

The latest ‘controversy’ — and I’m loath to use that word as the ‘outrage’ and ‘upset’ is largely a confection whipped up by right-wing commentators and columnists — illustrates just how thin-skinned those who obsess over ‘snowflakes’ truly are.

It’s hardly surprising that BBC presenter and current GB News hypeman Andrew Neil tweeted that, “Sometimes the BBC forgets what the first B stands for.” The storm in a (thoroughly British) teacup plays right into his rhetoric about the BBC being an out-of-touch hive of metropolitan leftie elitists, despite it having paid him handsomely for years to front its politics shows. 

Naga Munchetty has apologised for her misjudged Twitter ‘likes’, tweeting: “I ‘liked’ tweets today that were offensive in nature about the use of the British flag as a backdrop in a government interview this morning. I have since removed these ‘likes’. This does not represent the views of me or the BBC. I apologise for any offence taken.” 

In 2018, when Andrew Neil — at that point still a high-profile BBC employee — tweeted then deleted a message that called the journalist Carole Cadwalladr “a mad cat woman”, the corporation’s press office defended him. In a tweet to Cadwalladr, it wrote: “Hello Carole, Andrew has deleted what he recognises was an inappropriate tweet.” That was it. No investigation. No apology from Neil himself. 

There are double standards at work in both the BBC and external critiques of its presenters. Women — especially women of colour — and those on the left are subjected to far greater scrutiny than those on the right. 

‘Impartiality’ is used as a weapon against those the right-wing press want to target while high-profile men at the BBC like Andrew Marr and Justin Webb can contribute personal and political pieces to likes of The Daily Mail and the right-wing comment site UnHerd without questions about their impartiality. It’s qwhite a conundrum. 

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