Russian state radio interview with ‘gay cure’ therapist breached UK standards

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has ruled that an interview with Christian therapist Lesley Pilkington on Russian state radio in which the presenter referred to homosexuality as a ‘disorder’ to be ‘cured’ and decried ‘aggressive homosexual propaganda’ breached the Broadcasting Code when it aired in the UK.

Lesley Pilkington appeared on Voice of Russia’s Religion and Society programme in February this year to discuss her then-upcoming appeal to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

While her own comments about homosexuality being a choice and parents ‘grieving’ over their gay children were “at the margins of acceptability”, Ofcom said they were justified by the context and did not breach the rules on causing offence.

But “frequent” comments by the show’s Russian presenter about homosexuality being a disorder demonstrated that he was using Ms Pilkington to “advance his own offensive viewpoint on homosexuality”, Ofcom said.

At the time of the interview, Ms Pilkington was preparing to appeal a ruling from last year which found her guilty of malpractice for her conduct in offering therapy to undercover journalist Patrick Strudwick, who had approached her to see if she would try to turn him straight.

The appeal was ultimately dismissed, with the BACP confirming Ms Pilkington had been “negligent”, “dogmatic” and “unprofessional” in her behaviour. The appeal did not address gay ‘cure’ therapy itself, which is considered “profoundly unethical” by the UK Council for Psychotherapists and liable to let “prejudice and discrimination flourish” by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Voice of Russia presenter Vakhtang Kipshidzhe used phrases such as “mental disorder”, “cured” and “suffer from” throughout the twenty-minute interview, which took place in February before the appeal.

The body broadcasting the station in the UK, World Radio Network Broadcast, attributed it in part to “shortcomings” in his English.

The Voice of Russia is the government’s international radio service.

During the interview, Lesley Pilkington asserted that homosexuality was a choice and could be a result of a “lack of emotional intimacy”.

She added that parents might undergo a “grieving process” if their child was gay, statements which Ofcom said had the potential to cause offence to listeners.

She said: “The parents that I see – and I’ve seen quite a lot of parents, they’re absolutely heartbroken when … their child comes to them and says ‘Look, I think I’m homosexual or bisexual.’ They’re completely heartbroken.

“They go through a kind of grief … The hopes and the aspirations that they have for that child, that they’re going to grow and develop and have girlfriends and get married. That’s all gone. So it’s sort of like a grieving process.”

Noting that it was a religious-interest programme, Ofcom said: “While the views of Lesley Pilkington had the potential to cause offence, we considered that at different times she made various comments to contextualise her opinions and put forward a conciliatory stance towards homosexual people. These included stressing the benevolent aspects of Christian theology as she saw them. These comments would overall – in our view – have served to mitigate and soften the potential offence to some extent.”

At one point, Ms Pilkington said: “First of all let me say that if people are happy in their homosexual lifestyle that is fine. I’m not saying this is for everyone. I’m just saying it’s for those who come to us.”

At another point in the interview, the presenter had said: “I think the church says about that – that if you want to be homosexual you choose this kind of behaviour. If you don’t, you don’t. That is why you are, if I may say so, responsible for committing such kind of sin.”

Ms Pilkington replied: “We would say that it is not as clear as that. We would say that you are not born that way, but there are certain things that happen in a person’s life that would make them feel homosexual.”

She also addressed the suggestion of homosexuality as a ‘disorder’ by saying: “Yes we could call it a disorder because people feel ‘dis-ordered’. Now that’s not a term, even today, we use – but it still gives a good sense of how people feel when they come to us.”

Ofcom said Ms Pilkington had been “at the margins of acceptability” in its Code, but the potential offence resulting from her comments was justified by their context.

It did not reach the same conclusion about the presenter.

Among the comments in its ruling, Ofcom noted that Vakhtang Kipshidzhe had asked: “There are people that want to be cured from homosexuality…have you met many people who want to be cured from this mental disorder, or how we can call it?”

Ofcom was concerned that the presenter referred to homosexuality “quite frequently” as a “disease or affliction”.

It ruled: “The potential offence was exacerbated by the presenter using the answers given by Lesley Pilkington as a means of supporting his own highly critical views of issues linked to homosexuality.”

At the end of the interview he told his guest: “Thank you very much Mrs Pilkington and I wish you good luck in this fight and I hope that you will win in this case but generally, please feel support from our side because I think that many people in Russia are on your side, because nobody is happy about the things which are happening around the world in relation to this aggressive homosexual propaganda.”

Ofcom ruled that Kipshidzhe he had “used his role as presenter to advance his own offensive viewpoint on homosexuality”.

It said: “We noted the Licensee’s representation that ‘shortcomings’ in the English language skills of the presenter may have contributed to the impression that the programme sought to denigrate homosexuality. […]

“Ofcom therefore acknowledges that – to some extent – the language limitations of the Russian presenter, who was not speaking in his mother-tongue, may have contributed towards an inappropriate choice of words. We also acknowledge that attitudes towards issues such as religion and homosexuality may vary considerably between different cultures.

“However, Ofcom expects all broadcasters to: be fully aware of the impact broadcast material may have on their audiences; exercise caution when complying programmes that discuss sensitive or controversial issues; and, ensure all presenters and programme makers are capable of having – and are appropriately selected or trained to have – proper regard to the sensitivities of their audience.”

Earlier this year, St Petersburg became the latest region of Russia to ban the ‘propaganda’ of gay and trans identities, a law which it is feared could become national policy.