Exclusive: Whitehall questions why equal marriage was largely ignored by BBC, Channel 4 and other media

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Senior figures close to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have expressed surprise to PinkNews.co.uk that BBC News, Channel 4 News and other media outlets failed to give sufficient coverage of this week’s historic passing of same-sex marriage in Parliament.

A Number 10 source told PinkNews.co.uk that they were “surprised and saddened” that the end of the parliamentary story concerning equal marriage in England and Wales failed to get sufficient coverage by the BBC’s main news programmes – especially given how contentious the subject had been.

A source close to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told PinkNews.co.uk: “Obviously no politician should be telling the media what news they cover, but it is a real shame that the national media chose largely to ignore the momentous point at which we finally saw same-sex couples given equal rights to get married.”

The BBC confirmed to PinkNews.co.uk that the story was not covered in any of the BBC One bulletins this week. BBC News did cover the act passing into law on its website. On the evening that same-sex marriage became law, the BBC’s flagship News at Ten featured a lengthy report about a child asking The Queen about the royal baby but it did not have time to mention the historic bill that The Queen signed into law.

A BBC spokesperson told PinkNews.co.uk: “Over the past few months the BBC has extensively followed and reported the various stages of the same-sex marriage bill across TV and radio news bulletins and online, including the key second reading vote on 4th June, which was covered in detail on the News at Ten. This week the final Commons vote was marked on the BBC News Channel, News Online and radio bulletins – while the formal moment of Royal Assent was reported online.”

An ITN spokesperson confirmed to PinkNews.co.uk that Monday’s passing of equal marriage through the House of Lords had been covered on all three national ITV News programmes – including ITV News at Ten for fifteen seconds. And there was coverage on the ITV News website, including clips of the moment House of Commons Speaker John Bercow announced that the bill had received Royal Assent.

It was not included on Channel 4 News’ 7pm programme but it featured in a brief article on the Channel 4 News website.

The story was also covered on both Channel 5 News bulletins at 5pm and 6.30pm.

Coverage of Parliament passing equal marriage in the national newspapers was mixed. The London Evening Standard was keen to demonstrate the momentously positive nature of the event for Britain’s LGBT community with an extensive side article and editorial by Prime Minister David Cameron, which was jointly authored for PinkNews.co.uk. The Standard today published a 1,000 word column on the significance of equal marriage authored by Benjamin Cohen, the publisher of PinkNews and Out4Marriage.

The Daily Mirror published a number of stories on the bill including an extract of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s article for PinkNews.

However, The Sun could only manage 18 words with the title “Gay Hurray”. The Daily Telegraph online initially ran with the headline “Weddings now ‘meaningless’ says church as gay marriage is legalised”. A column on same-sex marriage by Culture Secretary Maria Miller was published online but did not make it into the print edition.

The Daily Mail did not run the story in print but it did publish a story about two convicted French killers having a same-sex marriage in prison.

The Daily Express, The Times, The i and The Independent ran brief stories about the Lords passing the equal marriage bill at third reading. The Guardian did not publish a news story on the law in print, although it was mentioned in a diary entry.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirmed to PinkNews.co.uk that all mainstream terrestrial broadcasters and newspapers were adequately briefed about the historic nature of same-sex marriage becoming legal, and they were given details of the final debates and Royal Assent.

One government source added that they were “flabbergasted” at the lack of coverage.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told PinkNews.co.uk: “It is outrageous that much of the media ignored one of the most significant law reforms of modern times: the historic legislation of same-sex marriage. If a law banning black or Jewish people from marrying had been repealed it would have been headlines for days. This sidelining of a major legal advance for the LGBT community suggests that an element of of de facto homophobia still infects the news agenda.”

Benjamin Cohen, the publisher of PinkNews and Out4Marriage founder, worked as a correspondent for Channel 4 News for six years. On the evening that the act passed into law, he tweeted:-

Today he said: “There are many reasons why some stories do not make the TV news, mostly editorial and occasionally logistical. However, I do think that it is a crying shame that after two years of coverage on this story, primarily of people criticising equal marriage, many media outlets chose to ignore Parliament changing the law. I think many people in the UK are completely unaware that the law has changed.”

Throughout 2012 the BBC’s flagship Sunday news programmes ran extensive interviews with prominent religious opponents of equal marriage, most notably during Christmas time with Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, he described marriage reform as a “shambles”, and also High Court judge Sir Paul Coleridge, who said that marriage equality only affected 0.1% of the population, and shouldn’t have been a priority. 

As a result many in the LGBT community felt that the corporation’s news coverage of equal marriage was not balanced over the festive period with opponents given excessive airtime.

BBC criticised for gay coverage before

In 2011, the BBC was criticised after it invited Christian preacher Stephen Green, the leader of Christian Voice, to comment about the birth of Sir Elton and David Furnish’s first surrogate child.

Mr Green, who has supported the death penalty for gay people with HIV and prison sentences for others, told BBC News: “This isn’t just a designer baby for Sir Elton John; this is a designer accessory…”

He added: “Now it seems like money can buy him anything and so he has entered into this peculiar arrangement… The baby is a product of it. A baby needs a mother and it seems an act of pure selfishness to deprive a baby of a mother.”

In response, the BBC said the decision to interview Mr Green reflected a genuine debate over the issue of surrogacy for same-sex couples.

In 2009, BBC News was widely condemned when its “Have Your Say” website asked: “Should homosexuals be executed?”

The question was in relation to Uganda’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality law.

Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone wrote to the then director general Mark Thompson to demand action on the topic.

She said: “I would be the first person to stand up for open debate and free speech, but any conversation that starts ‘should homosexuals face execution’ is completely skewed and unacceptable in this forum.

The BBC later apologised for the incident, saying the headline “was too stark”.