BBC ‘worst for on-screen portrayal of gay people’

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

A Stonewall study into how gay people are portrayed in TV programmes watched by young people has found that many depictions are negative, demeaning or stereotypical.

It found that the BBC – which has been plagued by controversy over its handling of on-screen homophobia in the last two years – was the worst of the four channels surveyed.

The report, titled Unseen on Screen, looked at the top 20 programmes watched by people aged between 12 and 18.

In 126 hours of programming across BBC1, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five, only 46 minutes showed gay people in positive and realistic lights.

In 39 hours of output, the gay charity said that BBC1 showed just 44 seconds of positive and realistic depictions of gay people out of 39 hours and 30 minutes of programming.

Channel 4 transmitted 12 minutes of positive and realistic portrayal out of a total 34 hours and 14 minutes of programming and was ranked the best for showing gay and lesbian people at all.

ITV1 transmitted 34 minutes of positive and realistic portrayal out of a total 50 hours and 3 minutes of output.

The best four programmes were broadcast by Channel 4 and ITV. These were I’m a Celebrity… , Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and How to Look Good Naked.

Young people interviewed across Britain said that in most of the programmes they watched, gay people were shown as predatory, comical or promiscuous.

They also said the programmes were unrealistic, showing gay people as rejected by their families, bullied and depressed.

Where programming depicted homophobia, three fifths went unchallenged. One 16-year-old interviewed by researchers said: “TV gives the wrong view of gay people because every storyline is about them being beaten up and discriminated against. They are never accepted by their family. In real life they just want to fit in.”

Lesbians were found to be particularly underrepresented on television, as 77 per cent of depictions of gay people concerned gay men.

BBC2 and the corporation’s other channels contained no depictions of lesbian and gay people. On BBC1, researchers found that only two programmes in the viewing sample contained portrayals of gay people. These were EastEnders, which has a storyline about gay characters Christian and Syed, and The Jonathan Ross Show, which features Four Poofs and a Piano.

The report said that the EastEnders storyline focused on Syed’s fear of being outed and the turbulent relationship between the couple. Meanwhile, Four Poofs and a Piano has been repeatedly criticised as a stereotypical depiction of gay men, in addition to complaints about the band’s name.

The BBC has had a number of run-ins with Stonewall in the last two years. In 2008, one programme featured “gratuitous” remarks about Lindsay Lohan’s sexuality, Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles has been criticised for calling a ringtone “gay” and mocking gay singer Will Young, Jonathan Ross was criticised for joking that gay children should be adopted and Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson has been attacked for suggesting a car was “a bit ginger beer”.

Former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell recently appeared on Top Gear. He claimed that the two got onto the subject of homosexuality when Clarkson said: “I demand the right not to be bummed.” The alleged comments were edited out of the programme.

A BBC spokesman told “As part of ongoing work to better understand all our audiences, the BBC launched its most comprehensive research and consultation project into the portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual people – across all genres on every platform, engaging people across various viewpoints. We will publish the findings of this project in the autumn.”

ITV did not return requests for comment, while a Channel 4 spokeswoman pointed to its own research on gay and lesbian portrayals on television.

Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill said: “Of course it’s welcome that some of the most obnoxiousness unpleasantness of people such as Jeremy Clarkson is now being edited out before transmission.

“However, it’s hardly surprising that there’s still almost endemic homophobic bullying in Britain’s secondary schools when, even if gay people do appear on TV shows watched by young people, they’re depicted in a derogatory or demeaning way.

“It’s tragic that in 2010 broadcasters are still under serving young people in this way, particularly when young people themselves say they want to see real gay people’s lives on TV.”

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell added: “Congratulations to Stonewall for exposing the systemic, institutional homophobic bias of British TV. Unseen on Screen documents a shocking catalogue of negative, stereotypical and invisibilised depictions. Every television executive ought to feel shame.”

“This report is a wake up call to the TV industry. It’s time that channel chiefs ordered a dramatic change in the way LGBT people and issues are portrayed. We deserve more and fairer air-time, including more positive coverage.

“TV programmes that neglect or demean us can fuel anti-gay attitudes and lead to depression, self-harm, teasing, ostracism and violence.”

Researchers watched the 20 programmes most popular with young viewers for 16 weeks between last September and January 2010.