Gay Times March 09 - Issue 366
The BBC is one of the last bastions of casual homophobia – and it’s not good enough, argues serial-complainer Simon Edge
The offence has become so routine it almost washes over you. In a low-budget clips show on BBC Three called Most Annoying People of 2008, a couple of gruesome straight blokes decided that Lindsay Lohan qualified for the list because her partner is a woman. “Let the munters and mingers get each other. That’s cool. No-one really wants them ones,” said a BBC Radio 5 Live presenter called DJ Spoony. “But when they’re hot and fit … they should be saved for guys.”
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That may not be the worst thing anyone has ever said about lesbians, but it’s pretty backward, particularly for a broadcaster whose statement of values says portrayal of sexual orientation “should not perpetuate the prejudice that exists in our society”.
It’s a classic case of what Stonewall, in its scathing Tuned Out report three years ago, called “the low-level homophobia almost endemic in [BBC] television and radio outputs”, and it shows why OutRage! has called it “the British Bigotry Corporation”.
I was once a big complainer to the BBC duty office, but nasty gay references have become such a staple of the corporation’s entertainment that you could spend your life on the phone. I am still irritated by throwaway homophobic banter in programmes I otherwise like – Gavin and Stacey, Have I Got News For You, Jonathan Ross – but these days I try and tune it out. It’s easier to turn a deaf ear than live in a constant state of rage.
Peter Tatchell is made of sterner stuff. “I know it was meant as a light-hearted review of the year, but the BBC didn’t offer an even half-way convincing reason to justify Lindsay Lohan and her girlfriend’s inclusion in this programme,” says the tireless campaigner, who was one of 17 viewers to lodge formal complaints. “The remarks by DJ Spoony and straight porn actor Ron Jeremy” – who made references to ejaculating on the couple – “were gratuitously sexist and homophobic. A public apology is due from the BBC. DJ Spoony should be suspended.”
After that widely-publicised Stonewall report (which found that Britain’s 1.5 million lesbian and gay licence-paying households receive “astonishingly poor value for money” from the BBC) you might think the corporation would be sensitive to accusations of homophobia. But time after time, its official response is to raise two fingers to gay complaints (most notoriously when its governors ruled that the word “gay” was an acceptable synonym for “crap”). They seem to revel in being one of Britain’s last great bastions of homophobia.
The stock response to the Lindsay Lohan complaints was no exception. “The contributors to the programme are expressing their own views and opinions, which are meant in a light-hearted way, with no malicious intent,” was the official defence. In other words, it wasn’t offensive, and if you think it was – tough.
Matthew Linfoot, an award-winning former BBC producer who is now senior lecturer in radio at the University of Westminster, says it’s harder than ever to get our message across in the current media climate. “The row over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand shows that viewers now see complaints as an extension of reality TV,” he says. “In effect, you’re invited by the tabloid press to cast a vote: ‘Is this good or bad? Press the red button to tell us your view.’ If they can whip up enough people to press the red button, the BBC has to take notice. But which paper is going to go into battle over homophobic content?”
In any case, he says, there is so much low-level homophobia in the BBC’s output that it’s hard to choose what to focus on. “The frustrating thing is, they do have explicit producer guidelines about references to sexual orientation. I just suspect there are a lot of inexperienced, poorly-paid people who work terrible hours to put these programmes together, and no-one takes responsibility until something goes badly wrong, as it did with Ross and Brand.”
Three years ago, one of Stonewall’s complaints was that there was no openly-lesbian or -gay BBC governor or senior executive. The governors have now been replaced by the independent BBC Trust. Are any of its 12 trustees openly gay? And who is the corporation’s most senior openly-lesbian or -gay executive? A press officer thinks these questions are an outrageous intrusion. I tell her nobody would think twice about saying how many executives or trustees are black or Asian. In over her head, she says she will get back to me. She does, a day later, with an 11-word statement: “We never disclose personal information about the private lives of staff.”
I try the BBC Trust’s separate press office, and I get the same initial response. I do the black-and-Asian thing again. This time, I’m allowed to know that David Liddiment, the former controller of ITV and now a BBC trustee, is gay.
For Tatchell, that’s not the point. “I don’t care whether executives and trustees are gay or straight,” he says. “I just care whether the BBC covers gay human rights issues in the same way it covers other human rights issues, and whether it has zero tolerance of homophobia similar to its zero tolerance of racism.”
He resents the time it took for Radio 1 to stop promoting musicians who advocate the murder of gay people, and he is also furious at the BBC’s failure to broadcast any coverage of the murder of 18-year-old Michael Causer in Liverpool last summer, at a time when the media was obsessed with violence against young men. “It was utterly shameful that this homophobic crime wasn’t reported other than on the Merseyside section of the BBC website,” he says. He contrasts it with the racist murder three years earlier of another 18-year-old Liverpudlian, Anthony Walker, which got media coverage for weeks.
At Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill says the BBC is worse than other broadcasters. “I’m pleased they’ve appointed David Liddiment. But the fact that there is still no-one in the senior management of the BBC who is openly gay is a horrifying indictment, and it’s worse than any other broadcaster I know in that respect,” he says.
“If you don’t have senior editorial staff who are gay, black or female, your news agenda isn’t going to be driven by an interest in those things. Yes, there are gay presenters like Evan Davis on the Today programme. But Evan is one person, and he shouldn’t have responsibility for the corporation’s entire creative output on his shoulders.”
Since the publication of Tuned Out, there has been some quiet progress. If a gay trustee had not been appointed, the government made it clear it wanted to know why. Inside sources say Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was formally instructed to stop using “gay” as an insult – although the BBC has refused to say as much in public. And there are suggestions that Andy Parfitt, the long-running controller of Radio 1, lost his expected promotion to director of audio and music last summer due to rows over homophobia.
But Summerskill – whose previous life as a journalist included stints as media specialist on three newspapers – says it’s a mystery why, in the current cut-throat environment, the BBC cares so little about cultivating the loyalty of the estimated 3.6 million lesbian or gay adults in Britain. He shies away from talk of a licence-fee boycott, not least because it would be practically difficult to organise. But at a time when the fee is up for review, he believes there is a good case for ‘top-slicing’ a portion of it to Channel 4, which has a much better record on gay coverage. “It’s very hard to sustain the argument that gay people should be funding the BBC and getting so little in return,” he says.
So what does the corporation have to say in its defence? My initial request for an interview about all this is ignored. All I get is that 11-word statement. When I say that isn’t good enough, a more senior press officer takes the matter up. She refers me to a colleague in yet another of the corporation’s apparently infinite press departments, and I explain it all over again. “I’m writing an article about how the BBC couldn’t give a toss about its three and a half million lesbian and gay licence-payers,” I say. “The fact that you have tried to fob me off with 11 words saying ‘mind your own business’ rather proves the point.”
The message finally begins to get through and – wonder of wonders – I get a statement not from a press officer or an unnamed spokesperson, but from Amanda Rice, the BBC’s new head of diversity.
Rice is not prepared to talk directly to GT. (Let’s not go diversity mad!) But she does tell me via her press officer that she is creating a working group of senior BBC executives, as well as representatives of the BBC’s Lesbian and Gay Forum, who will be “looking at portrayal, editorial and workforce issues around sexual orientation”. She adds: “We have begun a dialogue on this and would welcome any contributions and ideas from organisations such as Stonewall.”
That sounds like progress of sorts, but how senior are the senior executives? They haven’t picked them yet. When will they do so? Hopefully by early March. Is there any reason why they are setting up the working group now? “It seems as good a time as any,” says the press officer.
Summerskill confirms that Stonewall has had an approach from Rice, but he is surprised to hear it’s meant to be part of a formal dialogue. “We’re delighted that the BBC says finally it’s starting to take these problems seriously,” he says. “But I hope it will lead to sufficient action so that lesbian and gay confidence in the licence fee is not further undermined.”
The last press officer has worked hard, and there’s also a response from the News department. “Your suggestion that BBC News does not cover gay and lesbian stories is not a picture we recognise,” it says. “All news stories are chosen for coverage on editorial merit, regardless of the subject.” There then follows of list of gay items they have covered recently.
So why didn’t they broadcast anything about Michael Causer? I’m referred to press officer number five, who asks if anyone is accusing the BBC of homophobia over this. Yes, I tell him: both Peter Tatchell and Ben Summerskill, in a rare outbreak of unanimity.
He will have to get back to me. And he does. But this time he doesn’t even have a written statement.
Will any non-homophobic news editor explain why Causer’s murder mattered less than that of every other teenager killed last summer?
“They said they had nothing further to add to the statement they’ve already given you.”