The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been let off the hook on racial discrimination, but the deeper implications of the Naga Munchetty affair bear inquiry, not because the BBC’s impartiality is suspect but because of what the episode reveals of Afro-Asian complexes regarding white people. It’s a deadly insult with grave racial, political and civilisational overtones to tell an Afro-Asian to go back where he came from. Yet, telling a white to make the reverse journey has no sinister overtones because he doesn’t need to regret his origins.
When Enoch Powell, the right-wing British Conservative politician who sought to end Afro-Asian immigration, was ranting in the 1960s about repatriating “foreigners” to their home countries to avoid “rivers of blood” in race riots, the weekly New Statesman published a cartoon of Queen Elizabeth II packed for despatch with a “To Germany” label. The same tag would suffice for Donald Trump, whose tirades against four outspoken Democratic Congresswomen — Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — invited criticism in the House of Representatives, a reprimand from Theresa May, who was then Britain’s Prime Minister, and provoked the Munchetty controversy.
Under the pained heading, “I know how it feels to be told to go back where I came from”, Britain’s ethnic Pakistani chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, recently described in the Daily Telegraph some of the racist attacks he had suffered. He felt “angry and confused” when told by white racist thugs “to go back where I came from”. No one has ever said the Queen felt “angry and confused” because of the New Statesman cartoon.
Subha Nagalakshmi Munchetty-Chandriah, to give her little-used full name to the attractive and vivacious host of the BBC Breakfast show who looks younger than her 44 years, was condemned for breaching editorial propriety by interjecting personal opinion when criticising Mr Trump’s diatribe against the four Congresswomen known on Washington’s Capitol Hill as “the Squad”. According to him, they “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe”. He tweeted that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” Three of the women were born in New York City, Detroit, and Cincinnati; the fourth came to the US as a child refugee from Somalia and, as American commentators have pointed out, has been a US citizen since she was a teenager, longer than Mr Trump’s wife, the US first lady.
The controversy erupted over Ms Munchetty’s comment on Mr Trump’s comment. We old time journalists were brought up on the rule that readers or viewers should not be able to discern our personal views from what we write or say, except when we are admittedly pontificating, as in a signed column. It’s called the difference between reporting and editorialising. But the dividing line is not very clear when it comes to an emotive subject like race, and Ms Munchetty stepped into this dangerous grey area.
“Every time I have been told as a woman of colour, to go back where I come from, that was embedded in racism,” she said during a broadcast chat with her co-host Dan Walker on the famous red sofa on which these highly illuminating and often entertaining morning conversations take place. “Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.”
When Mr Walker asked how she had felt when she heard Mr Trump say what he did, Ms Munchetty replied at once, “Furious. Absolutely furious, and I can imagine lots of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious that a man in that position thinks its okay to skirt the lines by using language like that.” Perhaps then, remembering the golden rule of journalism, she added, “Anyway, I’m not here to give my opinion.”
Of course, she had done exactly that. A viewer complained, and the BBC ruled that Ms Munchetty had indeed broken the rules. Of course, Mr Trump’s comment about the Congresswomen was “widely condemned as racist” — of course, Ms Munchetty was “perfectly entitled to give a personal response” — and of course, there was no question of punishing her with a reprimand or any other disciplinary action. But there was no doubt that her comment went “beyond what the guidelines allow”.
All hell broke loose at that condemnation. Ms Munchetty’s colleagues and several BME (black and minority ethnic) celebrities rallied to her defence. More than 40 well-known actors, journalists and broadcasters sent an open letter to the BBC warning that its decision had “implications for the entire media landscape in the UK and those who work within it”. The organiser was quoted saying, “This ruling legitimises racist opinions by suggesting that they should be treated impartially. By saying that Naga Munchetty breached the guidelines of impartiality by clearly expressing an opinion on the author of these remarks, the BBC is suggesting that we should take comments like President Trump made — which are acknowledged throughout the mainstream media worldwide as racist — and not express a view.”
Lord Hall, the BBC’s chairman, has since reversed the condemnation. But there would have been no row if someone was sent back to New Zealand or Norway.
The agony and anguish are reserved only for those who must suffer repatriation to Pakistan or Somalia. Movement from Afro-Asia to Europe or the US is promotion. Movement from Europe or the US to Afro-Asia is demotion. That’s not a white view: it’s what most Afro-Asians think. The London-born Ms Munchetty would no doubt regard it as a severe deprivation if she were threatened with a return to Mauritius where her Indian parents settled. Disraeli called race the “ultimate reality”. Today, he would have said colour....