Comment: Continued LGBT discrimination at the BBC would let down a new generation

David Mason April 2, 2012
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As a public service broadcaster, the BBC is failing to meet some important obligations, and if things don’t change a new generation may be forced to suffer the consequences.

A recent article dealt with tendentious news reporting and its potential negative impact on support for marriage equality.

But that the BBC is not impartial with respect to LGBT people and issues is also evident from a consideration of programmes and services popular with young people.

The Past

There was a time when the BBC led the way in LGB diversity and equality. At least as far back as 1996 their guidelines advised programme makers that lesbian, gay and bisexual people, make up a significant minority entitled to be served and treated fairly by the BBC. Producers were told that programmes must not be vehicles for prejudice. “Lesbians and gay men can be particularly subject to thoughtless and offensive stereotyping.”

The 1996 producers guidelines were fine in theory, but what about the reality?

In the 1990’s children’s TV was, in broad terms, progressive and inclusive. Almost 20 years ago Grange Hill saw no difficulty portraying gay teacher, Mr Brisley, in a positive light. However, in the early 2000’s inclusivity began to evaporate. The pace of regression accelerated when Mark Thompson became Director-General in mid-2004. Within a year new guidelines were published, with all mention of lesbian and gay people absent.

Another important change took place soon after Mark Thompson took over. Greg Dyke’s legacy of a separate BBC Diversity Centre – with specialist staff and a newly appointed Head of Diversity – could not perhaps be trusted to deal with issues in the way senior management wanted. In 2005 a new Diversity Board was set up, chaired by Mark Thompson himself. “Diversity Strategy” was said to be seen as a “creative opportunity for the BBC to engage the totality of the UK audience.”

With the revised guidelines and specially created Diversity Board, everything was in place under new management to implement the discriminatory practices which we see today.

Children’s programmes and services are a kind of barometer, indicating where the Corporation as a whole stands on LGBT equality.

Programmes which had a reputation as LGBT-inclusive, such as Byker Grove and Grange Hill, were axed in May 2006 and February 2008 respectively. Website help and advice about growing up issues was shut down completely, as were many kids’ message boards. I had discovered that in the two-year period between July 2006 and July 2008 there were no messages relating to homophobic bullying on a message board intended for discussion of bullying problems. Feedback from older kids was being covertly discarded. And in 2010 Mark Thompson attempted to hive off all teen services to Channel 4. His plans were rejected by the BBC Trust, which said that no audience group should be underserved by the BBC.

The Present

The character of Ben Mitchell on the BBC flagship soap Eastenders gives grave cause for concern. After years of employing stereotypical characteristics to tease audiences with “is-he” or “isn’t he” scenarios, eventually we find out for sure that he self-identifies as gay. And just when we become sure of his sexual orientation, Ben becomes more horrid than ever before.

Am I being just a bit too touchy about what is, of course, nothing more than a fictional character? I can just hear the detractors now: “It’s a soap, it’s not real!” But read on.

This isn’t the first time an LGBT character from Eastenders has gone off the rails. Steven Beale, anyone? In 2008 Guardian blogger, Gareth McLean wrote: “Homosexuality = mental illness. Discuss.” The Vatican, of course, has another way of putting it: Homosexuality = tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil. Eastenders could hardly do more to engender those negative sentiments. Tweets during the current Ben Mitchell storyline prove just how much gay hate his character elicits. It would be surprising if this did not also translate into higher levels of homophobic prejudice, and possibly even violence.

What about all the well-balanced lesbian and gay teen role models on BBC TV? How about Josh Stevenson from Waterloo Road? Yes – a nice enough boy – who’s managed to kick his drug habit. He does, however, have mental health problems. as we’ve recently discovered.

Things are no better on children’s TV. True there aren’t any nasty LGBT characters, but only because there isn’t any LGBT portrayal, period. Also, today’s factual children’s programmes rarely, if ever, acknowledge LGBT existence and issues. In marked contrast, other groups in society are properly represented. Newsround, celebrating its 40th anniversary, interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury to complement their survey into how attitudes have changed over the years since it started in April 1972.

4 O’Clock Club is a CBBC series with a black teacher and his brother as central characters. Its message of racial equality is combined with a teacher romance between Mr Carter and Miss Poppy. As things stand, I can’t imagine an equivalent children’s series with a gay teacher as central hero. Even when presented with an ideal opportunity, BBC children’s TV bottled it: episode 5 of Leonardo depicted the historical teen hero, da Vinci, as falling head-over-heels in love with Valentina.

A girl with a crush on another girl at school, or maybe a boy with a crush on his best mate get little enough support to help them cope with these feelings at a difficult age. They need some context to appreciate they’re not unusual. Furthermore, kids with heterosexual inclinations aren’t getting a modern diversity message, which would serve to help combat homophobic bullying in schools.

The British Psychological Society is clear about the importance of tackling prejudice before it takes root. The fight against racism and homophobia needs to start by the time kids begin primary school – Key Stage 1.

So is there anything to be done to turn things around?

The Future

Surprising as it may seem, there are some hopeful signs.

Firstly, the BBC has promised to set new standards of openness and transparency.

The BBC Trust will shortly appoint Mark Thompson’s successor. Where will that successor stand on diversity? How will the Corporation promote equality and tolerance on its radio and TV channels? These are among the questions which the public should be permitted to put to applicants for the post. An open and transparent BBC Trust would publish the full responses given by each applicant.

Another encouraging sign is that the Creative Diversity Network has broadened its remit to include all aspects of diversity, including sexual orientation. Most broadcasters and independent production companies have signed up to some or all of their 4 part diversity pledge.

Finally there was a very important development in December. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report entitled “Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity”

The Commissioner says that the media can help counter homophobia and bullying. Her Report states (inter alia):

“Confronting this kind of prejudice and intimidation requires concerted efforts from school and education authorities and integration of principles of non-discrimination and diversity in school curricula and discourse. The media also have a role to play by eliminating negative stereotyping of LGBT people, including in television programmes popular among young people.”

So, if the new Director-General intends to comply with the above UN human rights recommendation, we should be able to look forward to more realistic portrayal in continuing dramas and, broadly, an end to all discrimination. Whether or not these changes materialise remains to be seen, but we are entitled to nothing less.

More: BBC, Discrimination, entertainment, Television

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