A row has erupted at BBC Woman’s Hour after a booked guest refused to appear after overhearing comments about her made by its presenter. The actor Kelechi Okafor cancelled the planned discussion about the MeToo movement, describing her treatment on Twitter as “absolutely degrading and vile”, after presenter Emma Barnett inadvertently left her microphone on during a conversation with her producers where she questioned antisemitic comments attributed to Okafor in 2017.
Other Woman’s Hour guests, including Sarah Brown from the End Violence Against Women coalition, were also on the Zoom call. Quoting Okafor’s statement on Twitter, where she said if the programme had “a genuine concern”, they should have addressed it with her directly, Brown said Woman’s Hour should apologise for its appalling treatment toward Okafor. “It was really unfair and then led to a #MeToo discussion with no black woman’s voice.”
The controversy Barnett was referring to erupted in 2017, when, according to the Jewish Chronicle, Okafor responded to comments from the BBC presenter Reggie Yates claiming that grime stars had often been managed by “some random fat Jewish guy from north-west London”. She is understood to have said on her podcast: “Are these Jewish managers not from north-west London? I want to know where the fallacy is.”
Later on the same podcast she reportedly added: “What is happening now is people demanding their pound of flesh and I’m very specific about the reference I just made. If you’re familiar with the Shakespearean play you’ll know where I’m going with this” – a reference to the antisemitic portrayal of Shylock in Merchant of Venice. The podcast episode has since been removed from SoundCloud.
In an Instagram live video posted after Wednesday’s events, Okafor said the concerns raised by Barnett were the “same stupid rumour or furore that started a couple of years ago that I have addressed since”. She did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.
Barnett issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying that Okafor had overheard a discussion “with my producers in light of her allegedly antisemitic comments”.
She said that she had then addressed the matter with Okafor directly, “standing by my queries, and said she could put her response across in the programme”. Okafor then denied the claims and hung up from the call, Barnett said.
She said she would have been happy to have Okafor on the show, “but equally it is my duty to ask people what qualifies them as a leading voice in a space. And about any previous issues which may influence their views”.
A BBC spokesperson said: “During an off-air conversation ahead of the programme Emma Barnett and the production team talked about a guest’s role in the discussion, and how to reflect some of the guest’s alleged previous comments and the issue of antisemitism as part of the Woman’s Hour discussion on the role of minority voices in the MeToo movement. This was also raised directly with the guest before going on air.”
This is Barnett’s first week on Woman’s Hour after she succeeded Jane Garvey and Dame Jenni Murray as presenter. She took up her new role having previously been a host on Radio 5 live’s mid-morning programme.