British Bigotry Corporation
Peter Tatchell accuses the BBC of censorship, bias and the falsification of history.
In a recent 53-page BBC equality charter, the word "sexuality" appeared twice and "lesbian and gay" once. There was no explicit mention of equal opportunities or fair representation for lesbians and gay men in the sections on employment, positive action, training, harassment, and programme content.
These omissions from the charter, which was published by News and Current Affairs in March, are all the more scandalous given that the campaign group OutRage has, for the last nine months, been urging greater BBC sensitivity towards lesbian and gay concerns. Requests by OutRage for a meeting with John Birt, the Director-General, were turned down on the grounds that he is "fully occupied."
Symptomatic of the BBC's discreet, unofficial homophobia is the fact that there is not a single openly lesbian or gay person in any senior management position. None of the governors or heads of departments are out. All those who are homosexual, remain firmly closeted. Their secrecy says a lot about the domineering heterosexual culture and assumptions pervading the BBC.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at this upper echelon closetry. After all, the BBC never advertises its job vacancies in the lesbian and gay press; preferring instead to recruit exclusively via straight publications.
The BBC has an equal opportunities policy covering employment and programming, which is supposed to apply "regardless" of "sexuality". In practice, homosexual people and issues are frequently under-represented or misrepresented.
These failures are most glaring and damaging in BBC news, current affairs and documentaries, which play such a significant role in shaping public perceptions of homosexuality. With the exception of a handful of enlightened programmes, like Heart Of The Matter, the violations of our human rights and the campaigns for our sexual emancipation are repeatedly overlooked and distorted. Sometimes this is conscious and deliberate. More often it is unthinking and unwitting. The end result, however, is the same: invisibility and ignorance.
The BBC's flagship current affairs programmes consistently fail to treat lesbian and gay equality as a serious human rights issue. Neither Panorama nor Newsnight have done any substantial reports on the "segregationist" legal system which treats homosexuals differently from heterosexuals, relegating us to second class citizenship: we can be sacked from work, arrested for consenting behaviour, denied custody of our children, and refused the right to marry the person we love.
If this scale of discrimination was happening to black or Jewish people, BBC programmes would relentlessly expose the injustice. However, because we are only a bunch of queers, the BBC deems us unworthy of serious and sustained current affairs coverage. Panorama dropped its planned story on anti-gay discrimination in July 1992. The age of consent feature broadcast by Public Eye last year pandered to stereotypes by emphasising the irrelevant issues of cottaging and backroom sex in Amsterdam bars. Programmes like the First Sight report in April, on policing, tend to be the exception.
The BBC justifies its admitted failure to treat the lesbian and gay community the same as the black and Jewish communities by rejecting any analogy between racism and homophobia. According to Fraser Steel, Chief Assistant, Editorial Policy: "I do not think they are comparable." In a letter to OutRage last year, he stated: "Homosexuality is a matter on which society remains divided, and our output must reflect this too." Steel went on to argue: "Those who express disapproval of homosexuality still seem to be in the majority according to most surveys. These are not our only considerations of course, but they cannot be left out of account." In other words, the BBC's treatment of gay issues is not based exclusively on objective news values, as it should be. Rather, there is an element of concession to homophobic opinion, which compromises journalistic standards and the principles of fair and equal treatment.
While the BBC has produced some outstanding reports exposing racial violence, it has broadcast virtually nothing about homophobic attacks. Investigations by David Smith of Gay Times have shown that between 1986-90, at least 70 gay and bisexual men were murdered. Other research indicates that a third of all lesbians and gay men have been queer-bashed (about 1.6 million nation-wide).
It took less than 30 attacks on Jewish people in 1990 to (rightly) result in a series of BBC programmes on anti-semitic violence. Yet dozens of murders of gay men, and thousands of violent assaults, have merited hardly a mention. How many of us have to be murdered and maimed before the BBC will take homophobic violence seriously?
Likewise with police harassment. Over 2,000 gay and bisexual men are arrested every year for victimless acts. The number convicted of the consensual gay offence of "indecency" was nearly four times greater in 1989 than in 1966 (the year before the so-called legalisation of male homosexuality). Any reasonable person would think that these facts are shocking and newsworthy. Not the BBC!
What's especially infuriating is that while the BBC is so willing to neglect our issues and opinions, it sees nothing wrong in offering a platform to violent homophobes. After the ragga singer Shabba Ranks advocated the murder of lesbian and gay people, he was invited to appear on Top Of The Pops. The BBC would never allow a racist band like Screwdriver on that programme. Yet it happily gave airtime to Ranks, who had committed the criminal offence of incitement to murder. By having him on Top Of The Pops, the BBC was helping promote Rank's image and reputation, adding to his public credibility and influence. That has given a green light to other homophobic artists, who now know they will suffer no loss of standing or exposure at the hands of the BBC, irrespective of how much violence they advocate.
The BBC's differential treatment of our issues is also obvious in its insistence that when a lesbian and gay spokesperson is interviewed, their opinions have to be "balanced" by those of an anti-gay bigot. The BBC never insists that black people's views are "balanced" by those of racists.
An example of these double standards occurred in March when Radio 1 Newsbeat 93 carried an item about Shabba Ranks being dropped from the Tonight show in the USA. Lesbian and gay campaigners were duly interviewed. To "balance" their views, the programme also featured reggae producer Neil Fraser. He reiterated the anti-gay viewpoint at length. The end result was a disgracefully homophobic-slanted news item.
As well as overt homophobia, there is homophobia by omission. In some instances, the BBC seems to be operating a policy of undeclared censorship. Last June's Euro-Pride march and festival attracted nearly 100,000 people, making it one of the biggest political events in Britain for many years. Nevertheless, it was totally unreported by BBC national news. If an event of that size had been about any other issue, it would have undoubtedly received significant coverage.
This suspicion of censorship is reinforced by the BBC's regular reporting of the Chinese New Year and Notting Hill Carnival. Some communities, it appears, have a legitimate claim on news schedules and others don't. That's a political decision, not a journalistic one.
The idea that factors other than news values are influencing BBC coverage seems implicit in the remarks of Robin Britten, the deputy editor of Radio Four's The World At One: "I'm afraid you will wait in vain to hear a sympathetic piece about any campaign being conducted by OutRage".
Not surprisingly, BBC news bulletins ignored the OutRage 'March On Downing Street' in July 1992, despite it being organised around the eminently newsworthy 25th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
OutRage's dramatic confrontation with Cardinal Hume last month outside Westminster Cathedral on Palm Sunday also received zero coverage, even though it had been captured on film by a BBC crew. When they offered the footage to the newsroom, the crew were told that the Grand National fiasco had to take priority (this story had already been run for two days on four successive primetime news programmes!).
BBC exclusion is not limited to OutRage. Gay Men Fighting AIDS has fared no better. It's pioneering research revealed that while 80 per cent of AIDS cases arise from homosexual relations, only 5 per cent of AIDS education funding is targeted at gay and bisexual men. By any media standards, this outrageous official neglect merited news coverage. Not according to the BBC!
Even the highly respectable Stonewall Group gets the brush off. In April, when it launched its historic appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the age of consent laws, BBC television news couldn't spare even 20 seconds for this major human rights initiative.
Our conscious exclusion is also evident on programmes like Question Time and Any Questions, where panel members regularly include representatives from diverse special interest backgrounds: green and feminist campaigners, religious and military leaders, business people, academics and so on. However, these programmes pointedly never invite spokespersons from the lesbian and gay community. Why not?
While BBC documentaries have a reputation for excellence, their usually unrivalled standards slip dramatically when it comes to features touching on homosexuality. On occasions, this constitutes the systematic falsification of history, the erasure of lesbians and gay men from the record.
The 1992 Timewatch series, The UnAmercans, purported to be a definitive account of McCarthyism in the US during the 1950s. Yet it completely avoided any reference to one of the key elements of McCarthyism: the witch-hunts of homosexuals. Thousands were dismissed from their jobs. Some were imprisoned. Others ended up in psychiatric hospitals or were driven to suicide. In a three hour programme, there was not a even one word about any of this.
A subsequent Timewatch programme in February this year, The Secret File On J. Edgar Hoover, emphasised Hoover's savage victimisation of left-wingers, black civil rights workers, and others. However, it notably neglected to mention his equally vicious persecution of lesbians and gay men (a point of particular relevance given Hoover's own closeted homosexuality).
The BBC's portrayal of the Nazi era is another aspect of history where the truth is suppressed. The frequent failure to mention the Nazi round-ups of homosexuals and their mass murder in the camps is tantamount to blatant historical revisionism.
Curiously, the BBC has never produced any major documentary series about the Nazi extermination of homosexuals, along the lines of its repeated documentation of Nazi genocide against Jews and others.
To add insult to injury, BBC documentaries about the Third Reich often use a famous film-clip of Nazi book-burning to illustrate the intolerance of the Hitler regime. However, they never explain that the film-clip concerned is of the ransacking of the headquarters of the German homosexual rights movement, which coincided with the Nazi outlawing of homosexual campaign organisations and the banning of the advocacy of homosexual human rights. It is brazen homophobia for the BBC to use this piece of film so promiscuously, yet leave the story behind it unspoken.
Contemporary lesbian and gay perspectives are also frequently ignored by the BBC. Queer politics represents a major innovation in the way we understand sexuality and envisage sexual emancipation. It is an intellectual development which has ramifications not just for lesbians and gay men, but for heterosexuals too. Yet these new ideas are not being discussed and debated on BBC programmes.
The Late Show has made an occasional feature which includes a reference to queer politics. However, that doesn't compensate for exclusion everywhere else in the BBC. Even then, The Late Show coverage has only been in the context of the USA and cinema, ignoring UK perspectives and political ideas. Why hasn't The Late Show had a discussion about queer theory in the same way it has discussions about contemporary feminist and black theories?
When the BBC does give lesbian and gay issues airtime, the result is often timid and disappointing. A case in point was the Sunday Outing programme on Radio Four. It seemed more interested in appealing to heterosexuals and appeasing homophobic critics than in delivering a programme of interest to lesbians and gay men. Bland, superficial and boring, there was almost nothing in the programme that hadn't been written about months, or years, earlier in Gay Times. The items on South Africa and Europe were particularly dated.
There were no reports on issues of topical concern to the lesbian and gay community: the refusal of the police to monitor queer-bashing attacks nation-wide, and the Vatican offensive against homosexual human rights. How can the BBC justify making a programme with so little imagination and so little engagement with the cutting edge of lesbian and gay life
The BBC says it aims to "reflect accurately the nation we serve, in the range and diversity of people who contribute to our programmes, in the stories and issues we report." It's time BBC news, current affairs and documentaries lived up to those aims by serving and reflecting accurately the diverse concerns of the lesbian and gay community.
* Letters of protest: John Birt, BBC Director-General, Broadcasting House, London W1A 1AA.
Gay Times, May 1993.
An alternative version of this article was published as "Gay nights: as not seen on TV", Independent 12 May 1993Click here to return to the Media Index