Comment: Biased BBC skews the debate on LGBT issues

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The BBC’s reporting on marriage equality proposals is more proof the corporation does not take LGBT issues seriously. Stupid questions, a megaphone to fanatics, fawning deference to faith and giving no time to the voices from our communities: it’s time the BBC stopped treating its LGBT licence payers with contempt.

The debate over same-sex civil marriage has put LGBT rights in the spotlight as never before. But are gay people getting a fair hearing, especially on the BBC? The very standards for measuring the Corporation’s supposed impartiality are explained in a ten-minute video presented by Evan Davis on its School of Journalism website. Impartiality, after all, still requires judgments to be made on how to report the story, which facts to report, and whose opinions to include.

Arguably the BBC breaks its own standards because of the inflated level of attention it pays to religious opinion in general. It must be noted that organised opposition to marriage equality and LGBT rights is almost entirely religiously motivated. The media, especially the BBC, has given us saturation coverage of clerical positions on gay marriage since the Coalition for Marriage launched their campaign. But why should religious opinion should be treated as significant in the first place? Less than ten per cent of the population attend church every week (and that figure is declining) and the reactionary bishops who use their authority to campaign against gay marriage are themselves out of step with their own congregations. For the majority of people who do not care for religion, the issue of whether gay people should get married or not is nowhere on the radar.

The decision to treat the debate on marriage equality as a religious affair at all takes a leap of imagination. The proposals apply solely to civil marriage and have no consequences for the arrangements, doctrine or liturgy of any church. Neither does marriage depend on religious belief. Marriage existed long before Abrahamic religion, and today, only 30 per cent of UK marriages are conducted as religious ceremonies anyway.

But despite all this, the front pages and news bulletins were saturated with clerical fulminations for the best part of a month. No outlet could match the BBC, and religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott above all, whose fawning, unquestioning deference made the broadcaster sound like the Church’s public relations department. And that obsequiousness comes at a cost to LGBT people, who so often are not getting a fair hearing.

The most blatant example of bias was evident in the reporting of the outburst from Cardinal Keith O’Brien, in which not only gay marriage, but all same-sex relationships were dismissed as “spiritually damaging”. It was bad enough that the BBC reporter gloss this over as merely “outspoken” and “powerful”; but the decision on how to present the story itself was the greater outrage. O’Brien’s attack was directed at all LGBT families, most of who neither have nor want anything to do with the Church, yet the BBC reporter merely presented the story as a difference of religious viewpoints, with airtime given to an opposing view from Changing Attitude, a progressive Christian group. There was not the slightest acknowledgement in any of the BBC’s reports that day, of the obvious distress and hurt that thousands of LGBT families, not to mention children in Catholic schools, must have felt. Amazingly, ordinary gay people, about whose rights this whole debate is focused on, weren’t given right to reply in the day’s news bulletins.

A week later, we were treated to more presumptuousness, when Catholic leaders issued a letter supporting the ban on same-sex marriage to be read out at 2,500 churches across the country. The same reporter described the Archbishop Vincent Nichol’s letter as an example of the ‘softer spoken’ and ‘moderate’ voices that ‘ministers might be listening to’. What is “moderate” and “soft” about treating a whole section of society as second-class? A huge number of people – by no means only LGBT families – are massively offended that anybody outside church circles are taking these voices seriously at all. Despite the skewed reporting, the overwhelming support for marriage equality on the BBC’s comments section shows the true balance lies.

Pigott’s bias bordered on racism when, for instance, he covered the conviction in June last year of Mohammed Hasnath, guilty of spreading homophobic hate for posting ‘gay-free zone’ stickers around Shoreditch and Whitechapel in east London. The 10 o’clock news report presented the local Asian community as one homogenous, exclusively heterosexual bloc being marginalised for their beliefs. No coverage was given to the opinions, particularly the fears, of LGBT people in an area that had seen a spate of vicious homophobic attacks. Neither was any consideration was given to other Asians who would also have felt threatened and insulted by the inflammatory stickers.

Another factor jeopardising objective reporting is the Corporation’s reluctance to investigate or question the extremist links and agenda of religious spokespeople, who are so often invited to comment on homosexuality and other social issues. For example, it could have been asked of Colin Hart, the co-founder of the Coalition for Marriage, which has masterminded the campaign to derail civil marriage proposals, why his own lobby group, the Christian Institute, still, today wants gay people to be turfed out of the armed forces and why it regards even the lowering of the age of consent from 21 to 16 as wrong. They could ask the Evangelical Alliance’s public affairs head Don Horrocks if he seriously believes that allowing gay marriage will lead to allowing marriages to horses, or if Christian Concern’s CEO Andrea Williams believes the earth really is only 5,000 years old. Why not ask all of these groups why they so willingly provide web links to dominionist, SPLC-certified hate groups like the Family Research Council – groups campaigning for implementation of Old Testament Biblical law in society – on their website? The homophobic rhetoric of these organisations is of a viciousness equivalent to that of the National Front. The public has a right to know about the true ambitions of these groups, and why senior clergy like former Archbishop George Carey are happily and publicly associating themselves with these extremists. When the discussion is homosexuality, it hard to see just what opinion is too extreme to be considered as part of a rational debate by the BBC. In December 2010 when Elton John and David Furnish’s son was born, the corporation invited Stephen Green – a fanatic who called for the death penalty for homosexuality – to offer the Christian opinion on gay parenting.

The saddest aspect of BBC news reporting is a reluctance to treat homophobia as something that should be dealt with at all. It took the brutal murder of Ian Baynham for Newsnight to even acknowledge that homophobic violence was a serious issue. In the studio debate, held just after Baynham was kicked and punched to death in Trafalgar Square, there was no interview with the Home Office minister, the Chief Commissioner, or a member of the judiciary. Instead, the presenter Kirsty Wark invited us to consider: ‘is the violence a result of Christians being marginalised because of the equality laws?’ Not only was this obvious cop-out of a question hugely insulting to the many Christians who do not see accepting gay people as an attack on their faith; it was a complete irrelevance: generally, the concerns of a bed and breakfast owner in Cornwall are not in the minds of hate-fuelled thugs in the process of smashing up their victims’ faces. While it was a pleasure to see Johann Hari rip Anne Atkins’s arguments to shreds, this polite way of asking: haven’t those uppity queers brought all this on themselves? told us all we need to know: the BBC will never hold the government to account on how it attempts to deal with homophobia. Forty years after the American Psychiatric Association decided homosexuality was not a disorder, the Corporation is stuck in a time warp in which same-sex relationships themselves are subject to moral debate. The protection or discrimination of LGBT people, it appears, is worth talking about.

This is no call to ban all offensive speech. The way to reduce irrational or prejudiced views in society is to expose them to investigation; freedom of expression is as much about the freedom to listen as it is to speak. Denying offensive speech simply denies everyone’s right to change their minds. So by all means don’t stop bringing the Christian Institute and Anglican Mainstream into the studio. But those offensive views and hardline agendas must be subject to proper scrutiny, rather than deference and respect, simply because they are religious viewpoints. To do otherwise, with a resurgent, militant religious movement influencing policies, not only on LGBT issues, but on abortion, education and end-of-life dignity too, is to undermine the democratic process itself.

The BBC isn’t all bad, of course. Last week the World Service highlighted the prejudice faced by LGBT people in Turkey; the Today Programme’s John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie showed sensitivity, perhaps because they get that it’s also about people. And a few months ago, the website has finally acknowledged what David Attenborough has never done in decades of programmes, and reported on homosexuality in the wild.

But the BBC has a lot of work to do. It must understand where the real balance lies in debate, and stop portraying debates on homosexuality and homophobia as solely a religious affairs. Pronouncements on gay marriage from the pulpit are not just about defining words; they are indictments on the lives, aspirations, relationships and even children of ordinary people who simply express love in a different way. For thousands of families, the very consideration of clerics like Keith O’Brien, sticking his fingers into the lives of people he does not know and pandering to prejudice, is grotesquely offensive. It is high time that the BBC registered the fact that we too can be offended, and we too have something to say in reply, when reactionary, unelected religious leaders say what they think about us.

Give us a fair voice please. Otherwise, just what are we paying our licence fees for?