UK

Queer BBC staff past and present debate whether it’s even worth saving: ‘Hate is not impartial’

Josh Milton January 19, 2022
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The BBC has weathered crisis after crisis. But can it survive the latest? (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has long been one of Britain’s most revered and trusted institutions.

But the media titan has increasingly become a punching bag for the Conservative Party, with culture minister Nadine Dorries regularly sparring with the BBC.

On Monday (17 January), Dorries froze a vital source of funding for the BBC – a license fee charged each year to households with a television set. The fee funds eight national TV channels, 10 radio stations as well as countless local ones, on-demand services and educational programming.

Her move, which would force BBC bosses to slash budgets to keep in up with rocketing inflation rates, has raised questions over the BBC at a time when it has faced persistent criticism for its askew coverage on LGBT+ topics.

Some senior opposition lawmakers have accused the Conservatives of using threats to the BBC’s funding as a “distraction” from ongoing scandals consuming the party, chiefly a series of alleged parties during lockdown.

But some have begun to ask: Is the BBC even worth saving?

Queer BBC staffers and contributors past and present seemed divided on the question in interviews with PinkNews.

To some, the broadcaster’s repeated bungles when it comes to LGBT+ rights have left them burned. So much so that it became a large factor in why they are quitting the BBC.

For others, the BBC, the world’s oldest national broadcaster, must be preserved. It is not beyond repair, they stated, and must be shielded from threats of privatisation and budget chokehold – as long as the BBC changes how it covers trans lives in particular.

‘Why should LGBT+ people stand up for the BBC?’ asks outgoing queer worker

In October, the BBC dealt what some considered an attempted death blow against Stonewall, the biggest LGBT+ campaign group in Europe.

Alongside quitting the group’s workplace diversity scheme – remaining a part of it could raise charges of “bias”, bosses said – it launched a 10-part podcast that “investigated” Stonewall’s scope of power.

After all, it came at a time when the BBC’s news output had been blasted by senior lawmakers, activists and viewers alike for what they saw as anti-trans angles.

A yardstick for this, activists warned, was an October article on lesbian women being “pressured into sex by some trans women” which relied on a survey of 80 people by an anti-trans group and an interviewee who once called for the mass “execution” of trans women.

This, one anonymous queer staffer told PinkNews, became the final straw in their decision to leave the organisation altogether.

“The BBC is a paradox of an institution,” the outgoing employee said, “and its coverage of LGBT+ issues is kind of a microcosm of the wider problem.”

They added that as a public service, rather than a business, the BBC produces a kaleidoscopic range of LGBT+ programming, from teen drag in the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 to most recently Four Lives, which explores the real-life murders by Stephen Port.

“But more recently,” they said, “I think everyone has noticed a slide towards transphobic talking points across much of the BBC’s news services – an amplification of dangerous rhetoric that is directly harmful to our community.”

An exit poll projected on the outside of the BBC building in London during the 2019 general election
An exit poll projected on the outside of the BBC building in London during the 2019 general election. (OLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

According to BBC guidelines, the broadcaster has a responsibility to “do all we can to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy”, adding: “But we go further than that, applying due impartiality to all subjects.”

Tucked away in these guidelines, the staffer said, is a loophole in the BBC’s steadfast commitment to impartiality. “Fundamental democratic principles” don’t demand neutrality – such a principle should include LGBT+ rights.

But the BBC doesn’t see it that way, they said.

“The BBC’s existence has led to some truly outstanding content that serves our community better than anyone else could,” they added.

“But their current interpretation of their own guidelines when it comes to trans rights is an act of violence against LGBT+ folks, and if they don’t address that, why would we ever stand up for them?

“It’s terrifying because society really needs the BBC – it is absolutely worth saving. But I think their recent actions have disillusioned our community and they need to win us back before we’ll fight for it.”

Laura Dale, a gay trans woman, was once a video gaming expert regularly roped into BBC discussions.

Now she’s helped organise a string of protests against the BBC as part of her work for the grassroots group Trans Activism UK.

“The problem with the BBC, at its core, is that as an institution it has always used the idea of impartiality as a shield to deflect from attempts to look closely at its editorial choices,” she told PinkNews.

With the BBC’s director general only recently saying that, in the name of impartiality, the channel would platform flat-Earthers, the author said its controversial reporting of trans rights being treated by readers as neutral is harmful.

“Platforming hate is not impartial, it is taking the side of hate,” she said. “The BBC cannot pretend it is impartial, it simply makes editorial choices it believes most people will see as impartial because they already believe in them.

Demonstrators attend the Trans Activism UK's 'British Bigotry Corporation: Platforming Hate Is Not Impartial' protest at BBC Broadcasting House
Demonstrators attend the Trans Activism UK’s ‘British Bigotry Corporation: Platforming Hate Is Not Impartial’ protest at BBC Broadcasting House. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

“People see political beliefs they agree with as neutral, and as such the BBC claims impartiality while ignoring that its stances are all editorial choices being made.

“Every time the BBC platforms a transphobic hate group, or a transphobe who claims to have been silenced, or won’t let a trans person speak without opposition, they are taking a stance.”

Broadcaster should be ‘changed and bettered’, not binned, said LGBT+ employee

Is the BBC worth saving? “Of course, it is,” another anonymous queer staffer told PinkNews. “It shouldn’t go anywhere or we will be f**ked. We will be royally f**ked if we lose it.

“There are issues around BBC News that need to be unquestionably resolved, but with a 100 years of broadcasting now, I do think on a regular basis it informs, educates and entertains. A huge amount of people are reliant on it, from local radio to BBC News.”

A seasonal freelancer, they said that they “struggle” with the concept of working for the BBC again – concerns and grievances around its internal politics and coverage of trans issues looming over them.

“I do still believe in my heart that it is a good corporation,” they added, “it’s a force for good in Britain and we need it. We will suffer without it.”

Nadine Dorries secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The BBC as a media service is worth saving, the second staff member stressed, but changes in its coverage of LGBT+ rights must be set out first.

“There’re always conversations around the license fee,” they explained. “There’re always conversations on how the BBC needs to be ‘abolished’. And the BBC survived it all.

“Ultimately, when there are issues with a thing, do we just get rid of it so it’s gone forever, or do we try and change that thing and try to make it better?

“I think, with the BBC, we do the latter.”

For Laura Dale, questions of reforming the BBC come against a backdrop of claims of deepening hostility from the programmer towards trans people that can’t be ignored.

“This has been a long time issue and is not going to change without a major look at what the BBC’s role as a national broadcaster of news actually means,” she said.

“What do we want from the BBC as a nation? Because I know I want a national broadcaster that is forward-thinking enough they don’t have to look back on their own reporting with shame decades later.”

More: BBC, Conservative Party, Nadine Dorries, Trans Activism UK, transphobia

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