The BBC has a lot to learn about impartiality and its gay staff

Marcus Ryder
·4 min read
The new BBC guidelines are problematic for minority groups (Getty Images)
The new BBC guidelines are problematic for minority groups (Getty Images)

Predominantly white, heterosexual, able-bodied men from privileged backgrounds get together to draw up guidelines on how staff from underrepresented groups can celebrate their group identities or talk about how society treats them.

What could possibly go wrong?

On Thursday morning the BBC issued new editorial guidelines over how its journalists should behave in their public lives and on social media to safeguard perceptions of the corporation's objectivity and impartiality. This soon became an issue around censorship of its minority staff.

According to inews, BBC journalists were told at an internal meeting that depending on how the new guidelines are interpreted they could be banned from attending certain LGBTQ+ events if the events were deemed too political or “controversial”, and I quote: especially when it comes to the “trans issue”.

Within 24 hours the BBC’s director-general had sent out an email to staff “clarifying” the new guidelines, saying the rules only applied to some senior staff and journalists and there was no problem with even these staff “attending community events that are clearly celebratory or commemorative and do not compromise perceptions of their impartiality.” But they “should not participate in public demonstrations or gatherings about controversial issues”.

The problem is that for many “minorities” in the UK our very existence in the UK and how we express our identities is “controversial”. The clarifications risk being perceived as censorship of how minority staff can talk about and explore their place in society.

The new guidelines make sense if the corporation is trying to stop its staff tweeting their views about Brexit or the latest vote in parliament. On the other hand, they fail if it means people from under-represented groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, women, people of colour and disabled people can not talk about their lives or attend public events where these realities are discussed.

We saw this vividly played out last year when Naga Munchetty talked about her lived experience of being told to “go home” and how she saw the expression as racist when President Trump tweeted that four politicians of colour should “go home”.

After initially stating that Naga Munchetty had broken the editorial guidelines the BBC then reversed its decision. The new guidelines issued this week seem to vindicate Munchetty’s position. But it remains very unclear if the Breakfast presenter would now be allowed to attend an anti-racist event deploring the use of the same phrase as this might be seen as a matter of “political controversy”.

Similarly, it would seem the new guidelines would allow gay journalists to go to a Pride event and dance to the LGBTQ+ anthem “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, if they are “celebrating” progress in gay rights, but not if they were dancing to it next to a float using the song to highlight the rights of trans-women to be called women.

So why does this matter?

It matters because journalism is not simply a nine to five job. There is an ongoing debate about the need to increase diversity in UK newsrooms because it is recognised that different people have different experiences and perspectives and this enriches journalism and our understanding of the world. Journalists and the BBC play an important role in our society for us to understand “the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom” (a quote from the BBC Charter).

Our journalism is poorer if it all comes from the same homogenous perspective.

At the same time, for instance, my rights and perspective as a black man and my place in British society are a constant negotiation, from looking at my mother’s generation and worrying about the Windrush Scandal to thinking about what kind of education system my son will be raised in.

These are not issues I can conveniently park to one side, they make me who I am and inform my journalism.

So what can the BBC do?

Although I understand the arguments that impartiality and objectivity are flawed journalistic concepts I applaud the BBC’s efforts to strive towards achieving them.

I do not want to see a news reporter standing on a political platform one minute and reporting on it the next.

But the fact is, racial identity and sexuality are different. It is precisely why the 2010 Equality Act recognises nine protected characteristics age disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex. Politics or views on Southern Rail are not. The BBC guidelines need to find a way to make this distinction.

The BBC’s guidelines have always been a leading example of how to transparently strive towards ensuring impartiality in journalism – setting the bar not only in the UK but worldwide. The recent challenges to the guidelines make that task even more important. The BBC needs to go back to the drawing board, and consider how the guidelines pertain to “minority” identities and protected characteristics.

It would almost certainly help if there was more diversity in the room when the guidelines are next drawn up.

Marcus Ryder is the Chair of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity

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